The Human Uses of Google-Built Things

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Google’s prototype driverless (but awfully cute) car

I have been thinking this week – for two reasons – a good deal about Norbert Wiener. The first reason is simple: in the history of technology course I’m teaching, we’re talking  about the interactions between people and machines (mostly, computers) in advance of discussing the origins of the Internet. But the news that Google is planning to develop a new generation of driverless cars, ones that function without input from people (a video showing the prototype is here) also got me thinking more closely about the child prodigy turned MIT mathematician.

Intellectually, Norbert Wiener was most closely associated with the development and popularization of cybernetics. Stemming from the Greek word kybernētēs for pilot or steersman, Wiener defined cybernetics as “the science of control and communication in the animal and the machine.” in which complex systems could be treated as self-regulating entities controlled by feedback. A key to this was “negative feedback,” in which comparison of a machine’s interim state with the path to its desired state generates signals which can be used to direct its progress.1 Feedback and self-regulation sat at the heart of Wiener’s conceptualization of cybernetics.

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Wiener, called, in one biography, the “dark hero of the information age,” as featured on a recent postage stamp

During World War Two, the application of cybernetic thinking Wiener was most involved with aimed to improve the accuracy of anti-aircraft fire. To do this best meant imagining the human components of the system – pilots and gunners – as machines whose behavior could be calculated and predicted. People were seen as “information processing systems” who interacted with other mechanical parts of the overall system. Cybernetics was fundamentally about the communications and controls between the various parts of the system which was comprised of person-machine interactions.

With its focus on feedback, dynamic equilibrium, and the interplay between natural and artificial systems, cybernetics emerged out of military R&D efforts to become a “universal discipline” for the Cold War.2 Wiener, morally discomfited with military research, hoped that cybernetics might play a powerful and positive role in postwar biology, computer design, physiology, and even religion and politics. He promoted cybernetics in articles and books, including (the controversially named) The Human Use of Human Beings.

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Wiener’s 1950 book

At a series of meetings funded by the Josiah Macy Jr. Foundation between 1946 and 1953, a diverse and interdisciplinary group of researchers, that included anthropologists Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, met with mathematicians, medical experts, and physicists to discuss how machines, living organisms, and entire societies exhibited basic patterns that could be analyzed, understood, and controlled. Their intellectual program had a pronounced technocratic optimism, reflected on a 1950 cover of Time. Here, we see a (military) computer, arms projecting from it, checking its own data printout while its eye monitored and regulated the whole process.

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January 1950 cover of Time asked “Can man build a superman?”

Which brings us back to 2014 and Google’s new driverless cars. The company’s goal, as the NYT’s John Markoff reported, is “To take the driver completely out of the driving.” No steering wheel, no gas pedal…just a small electrically powered vehicle with two buttons – one for “start” and another for “panic” (actually, “e-stop”). Sensors and computer code would monitor the environment, traffic flow, and control the vehicle, imagined for an urban environment with a top speed of about 25 mph. The whole process would be governed by exactly the sort of negative feedbacks and regulation mechanisms Wiener and others theorized decades ago as algorithms monitor other algorithms which monitor…well, you get the idea.

It’s intriguing to speculate on how Wiener, had he lived long enough, might react to Google’s grand ambitions today. Perhaps he would be intrigued to see the descendants of some of his ideas hit the highway. However, Wiener, after World War Two, remained suspicious of the militarization of science and the instrumental purposes to which it was applied, so perhaps he would be less sanguine than the roboticists at work on Google’s prototype vehicles.

To be sure, Wiener, by most accounts, was not a modest man.3 So I am inclined to suspect he might have looked at this new driverless car and reminded the Googlers of his own similar invention — 

In 1950, Harvard staged a production of Karel Čapek‘s 1920 famous science-fiction play R.U.R. about a future society dominated by robots. The Harvard Crimson gave a withering critique of the acting but noted the best part of the show occurred at the start with an introduction from Wiener. The cybernetician told the audience that although “Čapek was mistaken in postulating a society based on universal robots,” we were on the whole “leaning more to specialized machines that faithfully perform specific tasks.” To prove his point, Wiener – he liked a flourish – he clapped and gestured toward the stage wings…

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Norbert Wiener, c. 1950, with stogie and his semi-autonomous cart, Palomilla.

…and out rolled Palomilla, a “buzzing four-wheeled cart which doggedly trailed a flashlight held by Wiener’s assistant.” Wiener went on to imagine what some of Palomilla’s “more modern descendants” might be like. More to the point, the time had come to start “worrying about the moral value” of these and future machines.

But, how to accomplish this? The engineer,” Wiener said, “must become more and more a poet.”

So — is Google hiring poets?


  1. Consider a simple furnace connected to a thermostat. When it gets cold, the thermostat “communicates” this fact to the furnace which then turns on. While the room is heated, the thermostat monitors temperature, “telling” the furnace to shut off at a pre-selected temperature. []
  2. Geof Bowker, “How to Be Universal: Some Cybernetic Strategies, 1943-1970,” Social Studies of Science, 1993, 23, 1: 107-27. []
  3. His autobiography, after all, was titled Ex-Prodigy. []

Why is the Future So Boring?

Last week I asked a group of undergraduate students in my history of technology course to express some thoughts about the technological future – what sorts of changes related to technology did they expect to see coming over the horizon? Their comments really surprised me. I’ll come back to those in just a minute…

My curiosity was raised by a recent flurry of interest around a recently released report jointly sponsored by the Pew Research Center and the Smithsonian. A snapshot of the title page is below; some readers may wonder about the odd conflation of science with technology here, a distinction that pollsters didn’t seem to plumb. Although this would doubtless set Paul Forman’s head spinning wildly, let’s set aside how this elides about 30 years of scholarship in science and technology studies.

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The Pew-Smithsonian report was based on a phone survey of about 1,000 Americans (the question set and response data are here) with the goal of trying to gauge “public attitudes about a variety of scientific and technological changes” over the next half century. Besides asking respondents whether they believed technology would change things for the better or worse, Pew pollsters also asked about more specific things such as whether computers would be able to create “important works of art” (while important is a relative concept, computers actually can already do this) and if humans will be able to “control the weather” (substitute “modify” for control and, again – ditto).

Overall, Americans – based on Pew’s data – appear positive about the future. 59% of people thought the future would be “mostly better” because of technology. A closer look at the numbers shows some interesting bias for gender and education – well-educated and well-paid men are most likely to take a positive view; women tend to trend more negative Where concern about particular technologies was voiced, it was often around technologies that are in the news now – driverless cars, drones, wearable computers, and so on. When asked what “futuristic invention they would most like to own,” Americans seem to desire a technological future based on practicality9% would like to see improved health and longevity – as well as implausibility9% would also like a time machine. (These top two responses were tied…not surprisingly, the ubiquitous and always over the horizon flying car pulled up 2nd.)

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Coming to a show room near you…unlikely.

For some reason, younger Americans seem especially interested in time travel. The data don’t explain why although a cynic might suggest millennials wish to travel to the future to see how badly their parents have screwed things up. However, I should note that none of my students mentioned anything to do with time machines or faster than light travel. Ours is a serious class, I suppose.
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The appearance of the Pew-Smithsonian report was met with a colorful graphic/article in The New York Times titled “A Vision of the Future form Those Most Likely to Invent It.” The respondents were a line-up of the usual suspects -mostly men, all from or with ties to Silicon Valley.

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As one might expect, their viewpoints were consistent and commensurate with people who spend a lot of the professional lives traveling to, from, and around Sand Hill Road and Stanford – drones, implantable chips, virtual reality (again?), and so on. The focus seemed to be on ease and availability of services in the future. As one of Twitter’s co-founders said, “The march of technology is the incessant march of convenience.” Apparently he hasn’t had to deal with a credit bureau recently.

My favorite commentary on both the Pew report and the NYT response came from Matt Novak who writes amusing, provoking and sometimes biting blog posts for Gizmodo at Paleofuture. As Novak notes, what is striking about many of these visions of future tomorrows aren’t new at all – they are “the dreams of yesterday’s tomorrows as well.” His excellent blog post does a fantastic job of taking the professionals’ prognostications and showing that these ideas have been circulating for years if not decades already.

Fifty years ago, New York City hosted the 1964 World’s Fair. Much of the fair was about the future. And much of the future that corporate America teased Americans with is the same sort of future that Americans (and the NYT’s experts) are still waiting for. In 1964, sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov made his own predictions as to what the future would be like in 1964. What did he predict? Robots, driverless cars, a global village of communication, smarter computers…pretty much the same sort of stuff that average Americans and Silicon Valley experts are imagining now. Has the future become static? Or are the experts just as likely to be right or wrong as anyone else?

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Are our futures borrowed from the museum of the past? Source.

This brings me back to my students’ imaginings of the future. They’re a typical group of 19-21 year old, mostly from California, and ethnically diverse. There was nary a “time machine” among them. Nor any driverless cars (although they were gobsmacked yet resolutely skeptical when I showed them a short video of the flying car you can buy soon…maybe). What did they imagine? Sure, there were some who posited better smart phones and such. But most of their responses skewed toward technologies for more sustainable living – green buildings was a popular choice as were more energy efficient technologies – or that would promote some sort of social change. (The only sort of thing the NYT’s experts noted was a projected increase in philanthropy from the “bow wave of uncounted billions” sloshing around Silicon Valley now…none had much to say about environmentally oriented technologies or the ecological effects of billions of more smart phones, drones, etc.).

This led me to wonder: Are the predictions for the future that we have with us now – many of which have been stinkin’ up the joint, so to speak, for five decades or more – stale and spoiled because they lack an explicit social dimension?  If so, maybe this suggests the need to focus less on the devices and doo-dads and the driverless cars and instead engage more with what sorts of social changes we might want to see in the future.

Blazing Arizona

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The last time I saw Roger Angel, he wasn’t talking much about giant telescopes. Instead, the focus of the British-born astronomer was about how the telescope technologies he had spent a career perfecting might serve as a high-tech remedy for climate change and as a tool for power production.

Angel’s plan follows two paths. The first is ground-based. A large mirror tracks the sun directs the sun’s light into a “power conversion unit” – a small box containing a sphere of glass which in turn focuses it even more. The concentrated sunlight, now more than a thousand times intense, hits a series of small high-efficiency photovoltaic cells. If scaled up, a square meter of solar cells could produce, Angel suggests, a kilowatt of usable power.

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A prototype power conversion unit; light from the mirror is directed upward to the fused silica ball.

According to the web page of Angel’s Tucson-based start-up called REhnu, the advantage of this design is that the large solar-collecting part of the system sends light to many cells contained in a small package, leading to greater efficiency. (This 2011 paper gives a more detailed description.) Build LOTS of these solar collectors/converters – maybe a square kilometer, maybe 20 times this – and you start getting power generation to rival that of a coal-fired plant.

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The second part of Angel’s vision unfolds in space. A recent article by Lee Billings in Aeon offered an evocative view. A network of electromagnetic launchers – perhaps comparable to existing rail guns – would, using power from the ground-based solar mirror arrays, shoot a steady stream of packages out to one of the gravitationally stable points between the sun and earth. Each package would disperse some 800,000 ultra-thin glass disks, each about a half-meter in diameter. All together, these disks – trillions of them – would create a 100,000 kilometer wide sunlight diverting cloud. All together, this would divert enough energy – about 2% – from our planet so as to help regulate and lower the overall global temperature. It’s a bold plan, to say the least. More on this shortly…

Roger Angel has a track record of thinking ambitiously and building big. Year ago, I interviewed him for several hours while doing research for my book Giant Telescopes.  From an early age he tinkered with electronics, fixed radios, and built gadgets like a primitive acoustical radar. Degrees from Oxford followed. Starting in the late 1970s, Angel, working with a few colleagues at the University of Arizona, began to reconceptualize the manufacture of really big mirrors for ground-based telescopes. Recall that at this time, the largest telescope mirror was the 200-inch disk in the Hale Telescope on Palomar Mountain. Some in the science community thought this was the size limit of traditional telescope mirrors.

Angel’s innovation was recognizing that molten glass, when spun rapidly, forms a parabola. And a parabola is the optimal starting shape for a telescope mirror. Experiments with a homemade furnace and Pyrex custard cups led to the eventual creation of giant rotating furnace built underneath the university’s football stadium.

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As the temperature slowly rose, the furnace would begin to rotate. The glass inside would gradually soften and flow through the carefully-spaced gaps around the solid ceramic cores while a smooth surface of glass formed on top of them. After cooling and washing, what was left would be a glass mirror blank with a roughly parabolic surface and mostly hollow honeycombed interior – large AND lightweight, in other words. Giant mirrors manufactured using processes Angel and his colleagues pioneered now sit at the heart of telescopes on mountaintops in New Mexico, Arizona, and Chile.

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Staff at the Steward Observatory Mirror Lab posing with the 8.4 meter mirror that will be used in the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope

Fast forward to 2014 and Angel’s plans to turn telescope technology to solar power. There is a fantastic precedent running parallel to Angel’s visionary plan that fascinates me. Roger Angel is not the only Arizona-based scientist and instrument builder to imagine that astronomical technology could also be applied to energy production.

In the early 1970s, Aden Meinel proposed something similar.Meinel was an optical engineer and the first director of the Kitt Peak National Observatory. During the Cold War, he also contributed optical designs to classified U.S. reconnaissance platforms. But, as anxiety about U.S. energy dependence as well as fuel prices spiked, Meinel and his wife Marjorie – also an astronomer – turned their attention to solar power.

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From 1971 article in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

In papers published in journals like Physics Today, the Meinels proposed a massive power-generating system akin to the dams of the Tennessee Valley Authority.

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Proposed “National Solar Energy Reserve,” from a 1971 article in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

The Meinels described a future “National Solar Energy Reserve” on the border between California and Arizona. These “prime lands for solar harvest” would cover 5000 square miles. Vast fields of solar collectors would generate electricity that could then be distributed throughout the Southwest. Cars once powered by gasoline would be converted to electricity, alleviating air pollution. Cities would bloom in the desert. The Meinels’ vision was far, far beyond anything readers of The Whole Earth Catalog or E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful might have imagined.

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The industry-scale approach to solar power differed from what Schumacher and other thought-leaders for the counterculture proposed.

To any of the countercultures’ communalists who encountered the Meinels’ ideas, the reaction must have been schizophrenic. On one hand, here was an ostensibly environmentally friendly soft technology. It used solar power to address smog and resource depletion. On the other hand, the manner in which it would be carried out could only be top-down, centralized, and run as a massive mega-project. Instead of encouraging a back-to-the-land ethos, it would instead encourage more urban development and concentration of power in the hands of the Establishment.

The Meinels’ scheme was not out of line with other technocratic visions of the Apollo era. If you see similarities between their tech-heavy approach and physicist Gerard O’Neill’s ideas for space settlements as a way of reducing human impact on the planet, you’re right. The parallels between O’Neill and Roger Angel are also quite striking – high-flying physicist does a career shift to consider how the technologies he has helped develop might be used in futuristic schemes. O’Neill, like Angel now, also envisioned an electromagnetic launcher as a key component in a much grander system. Finally, the reaction of environmentalists to grand geoengineering ideas like Angel’s are much the same as 1970s era counterculturalists’ response to O’Neill’s visioneering for space colonies.

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Two opposing views from the counterculture of space settlements, c. 1977

The Meinels described their vision as “a great goal that reaches to the limits of creative imagination.” This statement reflects the essence of the visioneering ethos that I describe in my recent book. The Meinels’ ideas – like those of Roger Angel’s today – push at the boundaries of what might be technically possible. They propose a radically different future in which massive resource intensive technological solutions – Angel estimates his space-based solar shield might cost $5 trillion – are presented as escapes from what are fundamentally social, political, and economic problems. More than anything, visioneering ideas can help foster dialogue about the future.

Do I think Angel’s vision of the (solar-powered) technological future will come to pass. Not really. But can it prompt debate about the limits of technology as a means to address climate change and other pressing planetary problems? Yes.  Is this a good thing? Yes – so long as his and other visioneering schemes serve as a catalyst, not distraction.