Computer & Brain
The milestone for the concept of cybernetics started with a series of legendary meetings in New York, known as “the Macy Conference”. These meetings – and especially the first one, in 1946 – were extraordinary, stimulating and joined an exceptional group of highly creative people who collided against each other during intensive interdisciplinary dialogues about new ideas and ways of thinking. The participants divided themselves into two main groups. The first one was formed around the original cybernetics and included mathematicians, engineers and neuroscientists. The second group was formed around human scientists who were led by Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead.
As from the first meeting the cybernetics put a lot of effort into flattening the major differences with the human scientists. Norbert Wiener was the leading person during these conferences who marked these with his enthusiasm for science and with his mind blasting and brilliant ideas. According to some participating witnesses, he had the bad habit of falling asleep during these heavy discussions – including snoring – but without losing anything of the conversation. Once awake, he was able to produce detailed comments or show inconsistencies on what had been discussed.
Wiener was not just a brilliant mathematic, but he also was an eloquent philosopher (he got a Harvard degree in philosophy). He was deeply interested in biology and appreciated the richness of natural and living organisms. He looked beyond the mechanics of communication and control till the very core of organisation and related his ideas with a wide spectrum of social and cultural aspects.
John von Neumann was the second centre of attention in the Macy Conferences. Mathematic genius, author of articles about quantum theory he was the initiator of the game theory and attained worldwide fame for his invention of the digital computer. He had a fabulous memory and his mind functioned at an incredible speed. He was told to be able to immediately understand the essence of a mathematic problem and that he could analyse any problem – mathematic or practical – with such clarity that any further discussion about it became obsolete.
In the Macy conferences, von Neumann was fascinated by the human brain processes and saw the description of its functioning in terms of formal logics as the ultimate challenge for science.
Von Neumann and Wiener had much in common. Both were admired as mathematic geniuses and their influence on society was a lot higher than from other mathematicians of their generation. Both also trusted on their subconscious minds. Like many poets and artists, they had the custom to sleep with paper and pen close to them and write down the metaphoric of their dreams. However, both pioneers of the cybernetic age were substantially different in their focus on science. Whilst von Neumann looked out for control and program, Wiener appreciated the richness of the natural patterns and looked out for a common conceptual synthesis.
With these personal characteristics, Wiener kept himself away from politics whilst von Neumann felt well with them. During the Macy Conferences Wiener’s attitude against power – especially military power – became the cause for increasing frictions which ended in a total break. Whilst von Neumann continued to be a military advisor during his entire career, specialising in the use of computers for armoury, Wiener stopped his military work shortly after the first Macy Conference. He wrote in 1946 “I don’t think to publish any new work that could cause damage in the hands of irresponsible military men.”
When the cybernetics were exploring patterns of communication and control, the difficulty was to understand the “logic of the mind” and to express this in a mathematical form. In this way, during a decade, the key ideas of cybernetics were developed through a fascinating exchange between biology, mathematics, and engineering. Detailed studies about the human nervous system led to represent the human brain as a logic circuit, with the neurons as the basic element. This vision was fundamental to the invention of digital computers and where the technological advances in this field laid the basis for a new focus on the scientific study of the mind. The invention of the computer by John von Neumann and its analogy with the human brain are so much linked to each other that it becomes difficult to decide which one came first.
The computer model of the mental activity became the predominant vision of the cognitive science and dominated the entire investigation on brain functioning for the coming 30 years. The basic idea was that the human intelligence was similar to that of a computer till a point that cognition – the process of knowledge – could be explained by processing of data; in other words like manipulation of symbols in a context of rules.
This prediction was so absurd then – 38 years ago – as now, but nevertheless still continues to be widely accepted. Given that von Neumann and the first cybernetics thought that the human brain also processed alike information, it was natural to them to use the computer as a metaphor for the brain, inclusive of the spirit….
The informatics surely have contributed to establishing the dogma of the information process by using words like “intelligence”, “memory” and “language” to describe the computers and which has led to many people – including to the same scientists – the understanding that these terms refer to the equivalent and well-known human phenomena. This is, without doubt, a major misunderstanding that has helped to deepen and strengthen the Cartesian image of humans as being machines.
Recent progress in cognitive science has made clear that human intelligence is totally different to the intelligence of machines or to “artificial” intelligence. The human nervous system does not process any information – in the sense of discreet prefabricated elements from the outside world, ready to be caught by the cognitive system – but interacts with its environment by constantly modulating its structure. The more the neuroscientists have found evidence that intelligence, memory and the human decisions never are entirely rational but always are influenced by emotions, as we all know by experience. Our thoughts always are accompanied with sensations and body processes, and although we sometimes should suppress it, we also think with our body. The fact that computers don’t have a body, the real human problems always will be alien to their “intelligence”.
These considerations imply that we never should delegate certain tasks to computers…
Due to its links to mechanical engineering and its strong connection to the military, computer science enjoys a huge prestige in the scientific world since the beginning. During the years, this prestige increased even more to such a level that they proliferated in any level of the industry and implemented significant changes in our daily life. Norbert Wiener has predicted these changes are to be compared to a second industrial revolution. Moreover, he clearly perceived the back side of the new technology that he helped to create:
“Those that have been contributing to this new science of cybernetics (…) we are putting ourselves in a moral situation that is, gently said, not comfortable at all. We have contributed to a new science that … combine technical developments with major possibilities for the good or for the bad.”
We shouldn’t forget that the automatic machines (…) are the exact equivalent of slavery. All jobs that will have to compete with this slavery will have to accept the economic conditions of these. It is perfectly clear that this will create such a level of unemployment that the actual recession and the depression of the 30’s will look like jokes. (Statement of Wiener in 1950).
It becomes clear from this statement and similar ones from Wiener that he showed a lot more wisdom and vision about his valuation of the social impact of computers than his successors. Today, 40 years later the computers and other “information technology” rapidly are evolving into autonomous and totalitarian systems which are redefining our basic concepts and that are eliminating alternative points of views. Every time more, all forms of culture are subordinated to technology and technological innovation and these are – more than human wellbeing – being converted into synonym of progress.
The spiritual poverty and the loss of cultural diversity due to the excess use of computers are especially critical in education.
The use of computers in education is like a revolution that virtually will transform all facets of education. This vision is strongly promoted by the computer industry who advises the teachers to use computers as educative tools at all levels – including nursery schools and pre-schools. And this without mentioning any possible negative side effects this might have.
The use of computers in schools is based on the already wrong vision that humans act like information processors, and thus reinforces the erroneous mechanical concepts about thinking, knowledge and communication. Information is being presented as the basis of thoughts although, in reality, the human mind thinks with ideas, not with information.
It might also be important to highlight the fact that the computer language used by scientists and engineers is full with military metaphors: “command”, “escape”, “control”, “pilot”, “objective”, etc which introduces cultural modifications, reinforces stereotypes.
Another cause for concern is the intrinsic violence and military nature of most of the computer games.
Through investigation of the brain and the cognitive science for the last 30-40 years and through the creation at present of a paradigm about technology, the dogma of information processing sees itself seriously questioned. Already during the pioneer period of cybernetics there were critical arguments like that in real brains there are no rules, there is no central logical processor and that the information is not stored locally. The brain seems to operate through massive connectivity, distributive information storage and auto-organisation capabilities that cannot be found in computers. However, these alternative ideas were ruled out by the dominating vision as mentioned before till they surfaced again in the seventies via a new phenomenon with a suggestive name: auto-organisation.
(Résumé from the book “The Thread of Life” by Fritjof Capra 1996)
We are not against computers, but we cannot forget that we are not machines and that we cannot heal ourselves with spare parts. We are much more complex and mysterious. No machine can ever reach our wisdom.