Often I think we equate certain technologies and certain fields of study with modern times only. We look at what we believe to be the future and begin with the premise the concept is under active theoretical development and never existed prior to this current moment in history.

Often, I think we could be proven wrong.This week's Thursday Thinker is yet another example of someone who saw relationships, connections and correlations long before others of his time.

One such topic seems to grow only more popular with each passing day. Artificial intelligence and the concept of machine learning has sky-rocketed into public view in recent years with a glut of startups focused on this area.In my personal opinion I believe we saw a bit of the peak in last year or two. During this time some jokingly suggested you merely needed to include this catch-phrase in your "pitch" to secure venture capitalist funding.

But the reality of the history of artificial intelligence is far more interesting. You see, long before the startups of today were proclaiming the superiority of machine learning and artificial intelligence, (yes, those are two very different yet slightly related topics) individuals like Norbert Wiener were theorizing on what artificial intelligence meant and how it would revolutionize computing.

Norbert Wiener (1894-1964)

As with many other great minds and as I would proudly like to point out, Norbert spent a significant amount of his most profitable years in the Boston, MA area. He was a brilliant individual who graduated from Tufts College with a BA in mathematics at the age of 14. He was awarded a Ph.D. from Harvard only three years later for a dissertation on mathematical logic.(In case you're curious, as I was, in this paper he was the first to publicly state that ordered pairs can be defined in terms of elementary set theory).

Norbert's Legacy

I think it would be safe to say Norbert meets the criteria to be considered of above-average intelligence (tongue-in-cheek, he truly is labeled as child prodigy). He continued his studies across Europe spending time at Cambridge University, and the University of Göttingen. Eventually he returned to Boston where he lectured on philosophy at Harvard, became an engineer for General Electric, and wrote for multiple publications including the Boston Herald, and Encyclopedia Americana. It might be easy in moments of biographical review to ignore the global cultural climate and affairs, but this would neglect to properly emphasize the true impact and significance of Norbert's life. World War I pulled him away from academic life and thrust him into a military mindset. This affected him greatly and weighed heavily on his emotions. He felt his intellect was neglected and his abilities in the theoretical largely ignored (if not retarded by these altercations).

After the war Norbert returned to Massachusetts where he secured a position at MIT and continued his teaching tenure. But this would also be short-lived as World War II would once again cause a halt in his career.

But not one to allow his situation to completely stop his progress, Norbert used his time in WWII to work on automatic aiming and firing of anti-aircraft guns and eventually leading him to invent the Wiener filter. (I'll spare you the math, save to say this theory is still in active use today across a wide variety of applications related to information modeling.) Continuing his work in the field of information theory resulted in his formulation and creation of cybernetics.

Simply to sum a few of his more notable accomplishments, Norbert is known for being an early researcher in stochastic and mathematical noise processes (as highlighted above), electronic engineering, electronic communication, and control systems.

Artificial Intelligence

Perhaps one of his greatest theoretical works (again, in this case I refer to a part of his career which was not fully realized within his time) was his theory and concept regarding artificial intelligence. Norbert made some bold claims in this space and some predictions that have lead to the basis for how we view artificial intelligence today. He was one of the first to suggest that any and all intelligent behaviors were the result of specific feedback mechanisms. These mechanisms could then hold the potential to be simulated by machines.

“The world of the future will be an even more demanding struggle against the limitations of our intelligence, not a comfortable hammock in which we can lie down to be waited upon by our robot slaves.”  ― Norbert Wiener

He joined forces briefly with a few others in a research team he recruited at MIT to study this theory and to delve into the many aspects of cognitive science. Together, this team made significant contributions to what we now consider the basis for computer science and ultimately artificial intelligence.

Norbert's contributions to the field of artificial intelligence are simply one aspect of his incredible and powerful process of thought. His humility, willingness to share the spotlight with others, and desire to see a field of study pushed forward without thought for a personal agenda leads me to consider him one of our great historical minds and truly worthy of being named a thinker.

The simple faith in progress is not a conviction belonging to strength, but one belonging to acquiescence and hence to weakness.
Norbert Wiener