1894: A Linguist Who Unwittingly Made Robots Possible Is Born

Norbert Wiener, a scion of Maimonides, died before computers had become commonplace, yet anticipated artificial intelligence.

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Norbert Weiner was so prescient that he not only foresaw artificial intelligence, but anticipated its dangers.Credit: Bloomberg

November 26, 1894, is the birthdate of Norbert Wiener, a pioneer in the field that studies the relationship between humans and their machines, and who coined the term used to describe that field: “cybernetics.”

Although Wiener, a mathematician by training and philosopher by temperament, died in 1964, before computers had become ubiquitous in nearly every aspect of a modern citizen’s life, he anticipated the field of artificial intelligence and the emergence of robots.

To call Wiener’s background unusual would be an understatement.

Brought up to hate Jews

His father, Leo Wiener, was born in Bialystok, Poland, to a family that traces its ancestry back to Maimonides. (Unfortunately, the only copy of the full family tree was destroyed in a fire in the family home in the late 1800s.)

Norbert Wiener: He laid the groundwork for artificial intelligence well before even the humble computer was commonplace.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

By the time Leo left for America, at the age of 19, he already knew 10 languages. English he picked up while waiting to sail to the New World, and Spanish he mastered during the voyage to Havana. When he founded the department of Slavic languages at Harvard University, in 1896 – though he himself had never earned a university degree -- the count was up to 40.

Norbert’s mother, Bertha Kahn, grew up in St. Joseph, Missouri, where her father owned a department store. As the child of German Jewish emigrants, she went her assimilationist family one better by not even revealing to her children that they were of Jewish descent, and teaching them to dislike Jews.

Norbert, who mastered the alphabet at 18 months, was largely home-schooled by his father. When he entered college at age 11, Norbert was already a celebrity, thanks to his almost super-human intellect and the many newspaper interviews his father gave about his son’s achievements.

Although Leo told one reporter that he wanted his children to experience the “blessedness of blundering,” his son recounted his education differently. In his memoir “Ex-Prodigy: My Childhood and Youth,” Wiener recalled how, when he would make a mistake in math, his father would begin to berate him, and the “gentle and loving father was replaced by the avenger of the blood.”

University grad at 14, PhD by 19

Norbert earned his bachelor’s degree, at Tufts University, at age 14, and completed his Ph.D. in math, at Harvard, five years later, although his graduate work also included studies of zoology and philosophy. During World War I, he worked on weapons development, but because of a variety of physical problems, could not convince the army to draft him until the eve of the armistice.

Wiener got his first teaching job was at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1919 (he believed that Harvard turned him down out of anti-Semitism), and he ended up spending his entire career there.

He was perceived as a great eccentric, whom colleagues and students sometimes went out of their way to avoid on campus, as he would stop people indiscriminately when he needed to share his ideas. And what might have been his most important academic collaboration, with two of his younger colleagues in artificial intelligence, came to an abrupt and premature end after his wife apparently poisoned him against them with false accusations. (Wiener’s biographers Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman claim that Wiener’s wife was not only a cruel manipulator of relationships within the family, but also an open Nazi supporter.)

But in his day, Wiener’s name was widely known, and not just among mathematicians; his professional book “Cybernetics” (1948; the word comes from the Greek meaning “steersman”) was popular among laymen too. It dealt with the similarities between humans and machines, and about the systems of feedback (a term he popularized) and control that regulate the functioning of both. But cybernetics was largely displaced by the field of artificial intelligence, and Wiener was mostly forgotten after his death.

According to Conway and Siegelman, authors of the Wiener biography “Dark Hero of the Information Age,” he deserves better: Wiener, they say was the first to sound the alarm about the potential misuse of information machines, and “spoke and wrote passionately about rising threats to human values, freedoms, and spirituality that were still decades in the offing.” He also made valuable contributions to quantum theory and randomness theory.

Wiener only learned he was Jewish as a teenager, and the news shocked him. Later in life, he happily acknowledged his Jewish heritage, although he never became a follower of any religion.

Wiener died suddenly, while traveling in Sweden, on March 18, 1964.

Twitter: @davidbeegreen