Professionalism/Norbert Wiener and the Expert’s Responsibility for Weapons

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Introduction[edit | edit source]

Norbert Wiener was born November 26, 1894 to Leo and Bertha Wiener[1]. His father, a lecturer at Harvard, tutored Wiener privately from a young age and he graduated High School at the age of 11, considered to be a prodigy child. After graduating from Tufts college Wiener completed a PHD in mathematics at Harvard, receiving his doctorate in 1913[2]. At the start of World War I, Wiener attempted enlisting in the military but was rejected due to poor eyesight. Wiener was unable to find a teaching position at Harvard and work a variety of jobs after WW1 including teaching, writing and journalism. Eventually he found a position at MIT, where he worked until his death in 1964. While at MIT, his early research set the foundation for stochastic processes and Brownian motion[3]. During WWII Wiener worked to develop the first automatic anti-aircraft weaponry, but became critical of the relationship between scientists and the military afterwards. His later work included the foundation of cybernetics as a field, which gained popularity in the scientific community after the release of his book Cybernetics: or, Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine in 1948. Throughout his life Wiener wrote about the ethical implications of the work of scientists and advocated for researchers and intellectuals to consider the dangers that new technologies presented alongside their potential new benefits.

Ethical Views on Weaponry[edit | edit source]

Research on Weapons[edit | edit source]

Norbert Wiener was one of the first and most prominent researchers in the field of cybernetics.  Cybernetics refers to an integration of computing and a physical process.  In World War II, Wiener found himself working with a team of MIT scientists on auto-aiming anti-aircraft weaponry[4].

In order to make the guns auto-aiming, they had to not only account for where the aircraft was, but also where it was going to be at any given moment.  To do this, the team applied a “Wiener filter”, by which they performed a stationary transformation to data points collected by the system using a Fourier transform, and could then determine where the aircraft would be when the gun is fired[5].  Today, Wiener filters have been replaced by FFTs (fast Fourier transforms) as a less accurate, but quicker way of processing signals .  Given the deadly nature of anti-aircraft weaponry, Wiener swore off helping any army in the Cold War, and devoted the rest of his time working to improving his cybernetic research[6].

Books and Statements[edit | edit source]

After WWII ended, Wiener became extremely disillusioned with military research. The dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki led to a widespread moral reckoning among the scientific community. Many researchers, including Wiener, reflected on their role in the destruction from weapons of their design. This, coupled by the end of the war, caused numerous scientists to explore other fields. Wiener took it a step further, cutting ties entirely with defense contractors and becoming a critic of the military and researchers that continued to work with it[7]. After continued requests to join a weapons project for his expertise in guided missiles, Wiener replied to a military contractor in a letter which he also sent to a magazine for publication. The article, titled “A Scientist Rebels,” was soon published by The Atlantic. In it, Wiener lambasted the contractor while simultaneously challenging the preconception that knowledge should be available for all. He asserted that military actions during the war, to include the use of nuclear weapons, caused him to reconsider his role in enabling destruction, concluding that “to provide scientific information is not a necessarily innocent act, and may entail the gravest consequences.”[8] Wiener published this article not only as a form of protest, but also as a call to action and warning for other scientists to heed. He called upon the scientific community to think critically about how available their research is as well as who they choose to share it with. He again referenced his particular distrust in the military, denouncing any future work with “irresponsible militarists.” Wiener drove the point home stating that any sharing of information or ideas must “receive certain limitations when the scientist becomes an arbiter of life and death.” Wiener continued to write on this topic, later publishing “Moral Reflections of a Mathematician”[7] and other works about the role of ethics in scientific research.

Professionals and Weaponry[edit | edit source]

Oppenheimer[edit | edit source]

J. Robert Oppenheimer was famously the lead scientist of the Manhattan Project, where he was charged with creating the first nuclear weapon. After years of work, the Trinity test showed the first successful detonation of an atomic bomb. In seeing the sheer power released in the explosion, Oppenheimer stated: “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds,” a quote from a chapter of the Bhagavad Gita outlining the end of the world[9]. Oppenheimer was filled with regret for the weapon he helped create, and he is known to have faced severe remorse following the use of the atomic bombs on Japan. Like Wiener, Oppenheimer became a devout pacifist and advocate for nuclear disarmament. He believed that his creation would ultimately lead to a nuclear apocalypse, going so far as to request an audience with President Truman to help clear his conscience. In the meeting, Oppenheimer admitted that he felt that he had blood on his hands. President Truman replied that any guilt for the Japanese deaths was his own. Oppenheimer, however, was talking about the future blood of those to die in the case of total nuclear annihilation[10].

Albert Einstein[edit | edit source]

Albert Einstein never worked on the atomic bomb, however he still had a hand in its creation. After discovering that the Germans were attempting to make their own atomic bomb, Einstein endorsed the Einstein-Szilard letter, which encouraged President Roosevelt to increase funding towards nuclear research in order to beat the Germans to it. Einstein was never admitted into the Manhattan Project, as he was denied a security clearance due to his ties to socialism. Einstein after the war, Einstein stated in an interview that he regretted his early encouragement, saying “had I known that the Germans would not succeed in developing an atomic bomb, I would have done nothing.”

Alan Turing[edit | edit source]

Alan Turing, a British mathematician, invented the computer, at that point called a Bombe Machine.  The machine was invented to crack German codes played over radios so the Allied troops could stay ahead of them.  For his work, Turing was granted the OBE by the British government[11].

However, after this, Turing was arrested by the British government for homosexuality and charged with “gross indecency”.  Turing agreed to take medication, otherwise known as “chemical castration”, in order to avoid jail time.  Turing was found dead in his home 2 years later from cyanide poisoning, assumed to be suicide[12].

Turing’s story helps us question what an engineer’s role is in war.  If his wartime inventions stayed connected to him, it would be unlikely the British government would drive him to suicide after awarding him a high honor.  Therefore, this can lead us to believe that, unlike Oppenheimer’s disdain of his connection to a device of death and destruction, Turing was separated from his invention that saved countless Allied forces’ lives.

In 2013, Alan Turing received a posthumous pardon for his crime of gross indecency, and in 2017, Britain passed “Alan Turing’s Law”, a law deeming that other deceased individuals charged with similar crimes will be pardoned[13].

Other Work and Ethical Advocacy[edit | edit source]

With the publishing of his book Cybernetics: or, Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine, Wiener introduced the field of Cybernetics to the world[14]. Cybernetics is the “the science of communication and control theory that is concerned especially with the comparative study of automatic control systems.[15]” At the recommendation of friends and colleagues, Wiener published a follow up book in 1950 titled :The Human Use of Human Beings, which was aimed towards non-scientists and described both the field of Cybernetics and the possible effects of such systems in the future. In this book Wiener questioned the role of the scientist in society, claiming that the creators of new systems and technology must also be aware of the damage they can do to society. In regards to Cybernetics, Wiener predicted that the incentives of profit and political motives could skew this new field from opening new pathways for people to communicate and spread information, to controlling information and exasperate issues that are already plaguing the world. Wiener also saw similarities in the feedback loops and logical workings between machines and animal brains, writing “it is my thesis that the operation of the living individuals and the operation of some of the newer communication machines are precisely parallel.[16]” Wiener’s thoughts gave rise to the field of Artificial Intelligence, and his concerns mirror debates that computer scientists are still having today.

Future Work on this Page[edit | edit source]

Further work on this chapter can include more of Wiener's work on wartime research, as well as other research he has performed.  In addition to this, including philosophical ideas as to the engineer’s role in war could be explored as well, exploring questions such as whether or not the engineer is responsible for his inventions.  Since history often repeats itself, reviewing more current scientists, rather than just World War II scientists, and their ideas about this issue could provide a modern application.

  1. "Norbert Wiener | American mathematician | Britannica". Retrieved 2023-05-07.
  2. Basu, Lex (2021-01-04). "Norbert Wiener - Complete Biography, History and Inventions". History-Computer. Retrieved 2023-05-07.
  3. "Norbert Wiener - Biography". Maths History. Retrieved 2023-05-07.
  4. Galison, Sina Najafi and Peter. "The Ontology of the Enemy: An Interview with Peter Galison | Sina Najafi and Peter Galison". Retrieved 2023-05-09.
  5. "The Wiener filter". Retrieved 2023-05-09.
  6. Sack, Harald. "Norbert Wiener and the Science of Cybernetics | SciHi Blog". Retrieved 2023-05-09.
  7. a b Wiener, Norbert (1956). "Moral Reflections of a Mathematician". Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. 12 (2): 53–56 – via Google Books.
  8. Wiener, Norbert (1947-01-01). "A Scientist Rebels". The Atlantic. Retrieved 2023-05-09.
  9. Nast, Condé. "'Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds'. The story of Oppenheimer's infamous quote" (in en-GB). Wired UK. ISSN 1357-0978. 
  10. Ham, Paul (2015-08-05). "As Hiroshima Smouldered, Our Atom Bomb Scientists Suffered Remorse". Newsweek. Retrieved 2023-05-09.
  11. Speed, Richard; McCarthy, Kieren. "Alan Turing's OBE medal, PhD cert, other missing items found in super-fan's Colorado home by agents, says US govt". Retrieved 2023-05-09.
  12. "Alan Turing: Why was the codebreaker convicted and pardoned for his sexuality?". The Independent. 2019-07-15. Retrieved 2023-05-09.
  13. "Alan Turing's Law | Royal Society". Retrieved 2023-05-09.
  14. Wiener, Norbert (1948). Cybernetics: Or, Control and Communication In the Animal and the Machine. Technology Press.
  15. "Definition of CYBERNETICS". Retrieved 2023-05-07.
  16. Weiner, Norbert (1988). The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society. DA CAPO PRESS. ISBN 9780306803208.