Cool Course: History of Cybernetics

February 17, 2024

“While some concerns about AI are overblown, we undoubtedly live in a world where the penetration of technologies into processes historically reserved for humans—work, political order, and even thinking—demands our attention,” explains Weatherby. Weatherby’s work centers on cybernetics, which is the study of communication and control in living beings and the machines invented, created, and built by humans—such as Sean Young’s fictionalized “Rachael” character, a bioengineered humanoid, in Blade Runner. To help navigate what AI has become and to give his students a firm grounding in its origins, Weatherby teaches “Communication and Control: A Long History of Cybernetics,” a College of Arts and Science core curriculum course that is primarily an intellectual history and considers the fiction and nonfiction works of a range of thinkers as philosophical and literary lenses through which to view AI. Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan offers commentary on control, for example, Plato’s Phaedrus on the relationship between the body and the soul, and Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness on the future. On the syllabus, Hannah Arendt and Thomas Malthus appear alongside Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove.

Before the advent of artificial intelligence as we know it today, films ranging from Yul Brynner’s Westworld in the 1970s to Harrison Ford’s Blade Runner in the 1980s to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day in the 1990s explored the future of human-machine interactions and tended to imagine the worst.

Now that AI tools can be used for everything from learning a language to spotting counterfeit goods, many fear life is now indeed imitating art, with these technologies eluding the control of their creators or deployed in ways that may deceive users.

Many of these same worries surfaced nearly a decade ago, notes Leif Weatherby, director of Digital Humanities at NYU, when Stephen Hawking, NYU’s Yann LeCun, and other scientists and entrepreneurs released an open letter that stressed the importance of “avoiding potential pitfalls” of AI, while also recognizing the “huge” benefits it could offer.

“While some concerns about AI are overblown, we undoubtedly live in a world where the penetration of technologies into processes historically reserved for humans—work, political order, and even thinking—demands our attention,” explains Weatherby.

Weatherby’s work centers on cybernetics, which is the study of communication and control in living beings and the machines invented, created, and built by humans—such as Sean Young’s fictionalized “Rachael” character, a bioengineered humanoid, in Blade Runner.

“The discipline was established in the late 1940s and had an ambitious goal—to recast the full range of scientific and philosophical knowledge with the aim of studying and guiding organized systems: animals, machines, and social bodies,” explains Weatherby, an associate professor in NYU’s Department of German.

To help navigate what AI has become and to give his students a firm grounding in its origins, Weatherby teaches “Communication and Control: A Long History of Cybernetics,” a College of Arts and Science core curriculum course that is primarily an intellectual history and considers the fiction and nonfiction works of a range of thinkers as philosophical and literary lenses through which to view AI. Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan offers commentary on control, for example, Plato’s Phaedrus on the relationship between the body and the soul, and Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness on the future. On the syllabus, Hannah Arendt and Thomas Malthus appear alongside Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove.

The source of this news is from New York University

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