Once in a great while a scientific book is published that sets bells jangling wildly in a dozen different sciences. Such a book is Cybernetics (John Wiley; $3) by Professor Norbert Wiener of M.I.T. It bristles with difficult mathematics; its text is a curious mixture of charm and opacity. But for those who can penetrate it (and thousands are trying), the book is intensely exciting.
A new science, says Dr. Wiener, has suddenly appeared. It deals with control mechanisms, and Dr. Wiener has personally named it "cybernetics" from a Greek word meaning "steersman." It is growing like a parasitic fungus, drawing on techniques already developed by other sciences, from mathematics to psychology.
Control mechanisms are not new. The governor, which regulates steam engines, was invented by James Watt in 1788. The familiar thermostat has been around for decades. Both these are true control mechanisms. They accept information and directives and act upon them.
Artificial Brain. Out of such primitive beginnings has grown what Dr. Wiener considers the most startling (and ominous) development in human evolution. Engines and production machines replace human muscles; control mechanisms replace human brains. Even a thermostat thinks, after a fashion. It acts like a man who decides that the room is too cold and puts more coal in the stove.
Modern control mechanisms think much better than that. Gathering information from delicate senses (strain gauges, voltmeters, photosensitive tubes), they act upon it more quickly and accurately than human beings can. They never sleep or get sick or drunk or tired. If such mechanisms are properly designed, they make no mistakes.
When combined in tightly cooperating teams, such mechanisms can run a whole manufacturing process, doing the directing as well as the acting, and leaving almost nothing for human operatives to do. Technologically (if not politically), wholly automatic factories are just around the corner. Squads of engineers are excitedly designing mechanisms for them.
Most remarkable are the computing machines, Professor Wiener's own specialty. They are growing with fearful speed. They started by solving mathematical equations with flash-of-lightning rapidity. Now they are beginning to act like genuine mechanical brains. Dr. Wiener sees no reason why they can't learn from experience, like monstrous and precocious children racing through grammar school. One such mechanical brain, ripe with stored experience, might run a whole industry, replacing not only mechanics and clerks but many of the executives too.
If Professor Wiener were an ordinary scientist, narrowly specialized, he might have devoted the bulk of his book to detailed descriptions of control and calculating mechanisms. But the professor is anything but specialized. Short, round, bearded and kindly, he looks like a Quiz Kid grown into a Santa Clausand that's about what he is. He was graduated from Tufts at 14 and got his Ph.D. from Harvard at 18. He speaks many languages; he loves detective stories and belongs to Boston's Sherlock Holmes club, "The Speckled Band." A mathematician by trade, he knows almost as much about physiology as he does about mathematics. It was his interest in the human nervous system that led him into the most extraordinary of his researches.