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Out of Control

Of all the mathematicians assigned during World War I to the human calculating lab in charge of churning out more accurate firing tables at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds, few were as overqualified as Private Norbert Wiener, a former math prodigy whose genius had an unorthodox pedigree.

The ancients recognized genius as something given rather than created. But America at the turn of the century was a place where the wisdom of the past was often successfully challenged. Norbert's father, Leo Wiener, had come to America to launch a vegetarian commune. Instead, he was distracted with other untraditional challenges, such as bettering the gods. In 1895, as a Harvard professor of Slavic languages, Leo Wiener decided that his firstborn son was going to be a genius. A genius deliberately made, not born.

Norbert Wiener was thus born into high expectations. By the age of three he was reading. At 18 he earned his Ph.D. from Harvard. By 19 he was studying metamathematics with Bertrand Russell. Come 30 he was a professor of mathematics at MIT and a thoroughly odd goose. Short, stout, splay-footed, sporting a goatee and a cigar, Wiener waddled around like a smart duck. He had a legendary ability to learn while slumbering. Numerous eyewitnesses tell of Wiener sleeping during a meeting, suddenly awakening at the mention of his name, and then commenting on the conversation that passed while he dozed, usually adding some penetrating insight that dumbfounded everyone else.

In 1948 he published a book for nonspecialists on the feasibility and philosophy of machines that learn. The book was initially published by a French publisher (for roundabout reasons) and went through four printings in the United States in its first six months, selling 21,000 copies in the first decade of its influence -- a best seller then. It rivaled the success of the Kinsey Report on sexual behavior, issued the same year. As a Business Week reporter observed in 1949, "In one respect Wiener's book resembles the Kinsey Report: the public response to it is as significant as the content of the book itself."

Wiener's startling ideas sailed into the public mind, even though few could comprehend his book, by means of the wonderfully colorful name he coined for both his perspective and the book: Cybernetics. As has been noted by many writers, cybernetics derives from the Greek for "steersman" -- a pilot that steers a ship. Wiener, who worked with servomechanisms during World War II, was struck by their uncanny ability to aid steering of all types. What is usually not mentioned is that cybernetics was also used in ancient Greece to denote a governor of a country. Plato attributes Socrates as saying, "Cybernetics saves the souls, bodies, and material possessions from the gravest dangers," a statement that encompasses both shades of the word. Government (and that meant self-government to these Greeks) brought order by fending off chaos. Also, one had to actively steer to avoid sinking the ship. The Latin corruption of kubernetes is the derivation of governor, which Watt picked up for his cybernetic flyball.

The managerial nature of the word has further antecedent to French speakers. Unbeknownst to Wiener, he was not the first modern scientist to reactivate this word. Around 1830 the French physicist Ampere (whence we get the electrical term amperes, and its shorthand "amp") followed the traditional manner of French grand scientists and devised an elaborate classification system of human knowledge. Ampere designated one branch the realm of "Noological Sciences," with the subrealm of Politics. Within political science, immediately following the sub-subcategory of Diplomacy, Ampere listed the science of Cybernetics, that is, the science of governance.

Wiener had in mind a more explicit definition, which he stated boldly in the full title of his book, Cybernetics: or control and communication in the animal and the machine. As Wiener's sketchy ideas were embodied by later computers and fleshed out by other theorists, cybernetics gradually acquired more of the flavor of Ampere's governance, but without the politics.

The result of Wiener's book was that the notion of feedback penetrated almost every aspect of technical culture. Though the central concept was both old and commonplace in specialized circumstances, Wiener gave the idea legs by generalizing the effect into a universal principle: lifelike self-control was a simple engineering job. When the notion of feedback control was packaged with the flexibility of electronic circuits, they married into a tool anyone could use. Within a year or two of Cybernetics's publication, electronic control circuits revolutionized industry.

The avalanche effects of employing automatic control in the production of goods were not all obvious. Down on the factory floor, automatic control had the expected virtue of moderating high-powered energy sources as mentioned earlier. There was also an overall speeding up of things because of the continuous nature of automatic control. But those were relatively minor compared to a completely unexpected miracle of self-control circuits: their ability to extract precision from grossness.

As an illustration of how the elemental loop generates precision of out imprecise parts, I follow the example suggested by the French writer Pierre de Latil in his 1956 book Thinking by Machine. Generations of technicians working in the steel industry pre-1948 had tried unsuccessfully to produce a roll of sheet metal in a uniform thickness. They discovered about a half-dozen factors that affected the thickness of the steel grinding out the rolling-mill -- such as speed of the rollers, temperature of the steel, and traction on the sheet -- and spent years strenuously perfecting the regulation of each of them, and more years attempting their synchronization. To no avail. The control of one factor would unintentionally disrupt the other factors. Slowing the speed would raise the temperature; lowering the temperature would raise the traction; increasing traction lowers the speed, and so on. Everything was influencing everything else. The control was wrapped up in some interdependent web. When the steel rolled out too thick or too thin, chasing down the culprit out of six interrelated suspects was inevitably a washout. There things stalled until Wiener's brilliant generalization published in Cybernetics. Engineers around the world immediately grasped the crucial idea and installed electronic feedback devices in their mills within the following year or two.

In implementation, a feeler gauge measures the thickness of the just-made sheet metal (the output) and sends this signal back to a servo-motor controlling the single variable of traction, the variable to affect the steel last, just before the rollers. By this meager, solo loop, the whole caboodle is regulated. Since all the factors are interrelated, if you can keep just one of them directly linked to the finished thickness, then you can indirectly control them all. Whether the deviation tendency comes from uneven raw metal, worn rollers, or mistakenly high temperatures doesn't matter much. What matters is that the automatic loop regulates that last variable to compensate for the other variables. If there is enough leeway (and there was) to vary the traction to make up for an overly thick source metal, or insufficiently tempered stock, or rollers contaminated with slag, then out would come consistently even sheets. Even though each factor is upsetting the others, the contiguous and near instantaneous nature of the loop steers the unfathomable network of relationships between them toward the steady goal of a steady thickness.

The cybernetic principle the engineers discovered is a general one: if all the variables are tightly coupled, and if you can truly manipulate one of them in all its freedoms, then you can indirectly control all of them. This principle plays on the holistic nature of systems. As Latil writes, "The regulator is unconcerned with causes; it will detect the deviation and correct it. The error may even arise from a factor whose influence has never been properly determined hitherto, or even from a factor whose very existence is unsuspected." How the system finds agreement at any one moment is beyond human knowing, and more importantly, not worth knowing.

The irony of this breakthrough, Latil claims, is that technologically this feedback loop was quite simple and "it could have been introduced some fifteen or twenty years earlier, if the problem had been approached with a more open mind..." Greater is the irony that twenty years earlier the open mind for this view was well established in economic circles. Frederick Hayek and the influential Austrian school of economics had dissected the attempts to trace out the routes of feedback in complex networks and called the effort futile. Their argument became known as the "calculation argument." In a command economy, such as the then embryonic top-down economy installed by Lenin in Russia, resources were allotted by calculation, tradeoffs, and controlled lines of communication. Calculating, even less controlling, the multiple feedback factors among distributed nodes in an economy was as unsuccessful as the engineer's failure in chasing down the fleeing interlinked factors in a steel mill. In a vacillating economy it is impossible to calculate resource allotment. Instead, Hayek and other Austrian economists of the 1920s argued that a single variable -- the price -- is used to regulate all the other variables of resource allotment. That way, one doesn't care how many bars of soap are needed per person, or whether trees should be cut for houses or for books. These calculations are done in parallel, on the fly, from the bottom up, out of human control, by the interconnected network itself. Spontaneous order.

The consequence of this automatic control (or human uncontrol) is that the engineers could relax their ceaseless straining for perfectly uniform raw materials, perfectly regulated processes. Now they could begin with imperfect materials, imprecise processes. Let the self-correcting nature of automation strain to find the optima which let only the premium through. Or, starting with the same quality of materials, the feedback loop could be set for a much higher quality setting, delivering increased precision for the next in line. The identical idea could be exported upstream to the suppliers of raw materials, who could likewise employ the automatic loop to extract higher quality products. Cascading further out in both directions in the manufacturing stream, the automatic self became an overnight quality machine, ever refining the precision humans can routinely squeeze from matter.

Radical transformations to the means of production had been introduced by Eli Whitney's interchangeable parts and Ford's idea of an assembly line. But these improvements demanded massive retooling and capital expenditures, and were not universally applicable. The homely auto-circuit, on the other hand -- a suspiciously cheap accessory -- could be implanted into almost any machine that already had a job. An ugly duckling, like a printing press, was transformed into a well-behaved goose laying golden eggs.

But not every automatic circuit yields the ironclad instantaneity that Bill Power's gun barrel enjoyed. Every unit added onto a string of connected loops increases the likelihood that the message traveling around the greater loop will arrive back at its origin to find that everything has substantially changed during its journey. In particularly vast networks in fast moving environments, the split second it takes to traverse the circuit is greater than the time it takes for the situation to change. In reaction, the last node tends to compensate by ordering a large correction. But this also is delayed by the long journey across many nodes, so that it arrives missing its moving mark, birthing yet another gratuitous correction. The same effect causes student drivers to zigzag down the road, as each late large correction of the steering wheel overreacts to the last late overcorrection. Until the student driver learns to tighten the feedback loop to smaller, quicker corrections, he cannot help but swerve down the highway hunting (in vain) for the center. This then is the bane of the simple auto-circuit. It is liable to "flutter" or "chatter," that is, to nervously oscillate from one overreaction to another, hunting for its rest. There are a thousand tricks to defeat this tendency of overcompensation, one trick each for the thousand advance circuits that have been invented. For the last 40 years, engineers with degrees in control theory have written shelffuls of treatises communicating their latest solution to the latest problem of oscillating feedback. Fortunately, feedback loops can be combined into useful configurations.

Let's take our toilet, that prototypical cybernetic example. We install a knob which allows us to adjust the water level of the tank. The self-regulating mechanism inside would then seek whatever level we set. Turn it down and it satisfies itself with a low level; turn it up and it hones in on a high level of water. (Modern toilets do have such a knob.) Now let's go further and add a self-regulating loop to turn the knob, so that we can let go of that, too. This second loop's job is to seek the goal for the first loop. Let's say the second mechanism senses the water pressure in the feed pipe and then moves the knob so that it assigns a high level to the toilet when there is high water pressure and a lower level when the pressure is low.

The second circuit is controlling the range of the first circuit which is controlling the water. In an abstract sense the second loop brings forth a second order of control -- the control of control -- or a metacontrol. Our newfangled second-order toilet now behaves "purposefully." It adapts to a shifting goal. Even though the second circuit setting the goal for the first is likewise mechanical, the fact that the whole is choosing its own goal gives the metacircuit a mildly biological flavor.

As simple as a feedback loop is, it can be stitched together in endless combinations and forever stacked up until it forms a tower of the most unimaginable complexity and intricacy of subgoals. These towers of loops never cease to amuse us because inevitably the messages circulating along them cross their own paths. A triggers B, and B triggers C, and C triggers A. In outright paradox, A is both cause and effect. Cybernetician Heinz von Foerster called this elusive cycle "circular causality." Warren McCulloch, an early artificial intelligence guru called it "intransitive preference," meaning that the rank of preferences would cross itself in the same self-referential way the children's game of Paper-Scissors-Stone endlessly intersects itself: Paper covers stone; stone breaks scissors; scissors cuts paper; and round again. Hackers know it as a recursive circuit. Whatever the riddle is called, it flies in the face of 3,000 years of logical philosophy. It undermines classical everything. If something can be both its own cause and effect, then rationality is up for grabs.