I’ve been preoccupied lately with thoughts of marauding broomsticks, genies in bottles, and monkey’s paws.
All are literary images the scientist Norbert Wiener used to make the point that we fool ourselves if we think we have our technologies firmly under control. That Wiener was instrumental in creating the technologies he warned about demonstrates the insistent obstinance of his peculiar genius.
The images came from, respectively, Goethe’s poem, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” the “Fisherman and the Genie” fable in One Thousand and One Nights, and W.W. Jacobs’ short story, “The Monkey’s Paw,” in which a magical talisman gives an elderly couple more magic than they bargained for. The common theme is unexpected consequences, specifically the often tragic ones that can overtake us when we seek to exploit mechanisms of superhuman power. "The world of the future will be an ever more demanding struggle against the limitations of our intelligence," Wiener wrote in 1964, "not a comfortable hammock in which we can lie down to be waited upon by our robot slaves."
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Wiener is best known as the inventor of “cybernetics,” a fertile combination of mathematics and engineering that paved the way for modern automation and inspired innovation in a host of other fields. He was also one of the first theorists to identify information as the lingua franca of organisms as well as machines, a shared language capable of crossing the boundaries between them.