Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2000, MCB UP Limited
Keywords: Automation, Cybernetics, Research, Technological developments
Who are the pioneers of cybernetics and systems?
Researchers in systems and cybernetics should take heart from the comments of the biologist and broadcaster Brian Ford who, prior to a lecture to the Cambridge Society for the Application of Research, said that amateurs are "the pioneers of science". It would appear that "amateurs" may have the initial ideas but the "professional" researchers are soon at hand to cash-in on them. This journal receives numerous contributions from people who readily admit they are not professional researchers but are enthusiasts in the fields of systems and cybernetics. With guidance from our referees and reviewers, and after a fascinating dialogue with our editorial team, many worthwhile papers are written and published in these pages. There always has been a place for the "amateur" in almost all walks of life, and science is no exception.
A report of Brian Ford's comments suggests that scientific breakthroughs tend to be made by amateurs and outsiders and not by the professionals who are generally paid to make them. He has cited relativity theory, colour photography, the discovery of Uranus and the invention of the spin inhaler for asthmatics as some benefits that came from mavericks whose ideas were not welcomed by the then scientific establishment. This, despite funding going to the established scientific laboratories because it was believed that most innovative science came from there. Mr Ford is quoted as believing:
Almost all of the key stages that carry science forward come from freewheeling individuals. Virtually everywhere I have been looking it has been the independent iconoclast who has made the major contributions.
Of the examples cited he said that William Herschel who discovered Uranus was a church organist. Charles Darwin did not complete his first degree and Einstein was a patent clerk. Photocopying, he said, was invented by a lawyer and colour photography by concert pianists.
No one would wish to argue with the examples he gave and there are many more that could be quoted, but many so-called amateurs are in fact more professional than the professional scientists. Many have
devoted their whole lives to studies of specific topics and fields. Having a degree or post-doctoral training is in itself no guarantee of professionalism, certainly not in cybernetics and systems where a broad view of science and an inter-disciplinary approach are essential if worthwhile progress is to be made in research and development.
This was followed by comments made after the lecture by Mr Ford, when many scientists and historians greeted his remarks with some scepticism. For example, Dr Rob Iliffee of the UK's Centre for the History of Science, Medicine and Technology at London University, is quoted as saying that "It is highly unusual for genuine outsiders to make breakthroughs".
The complexity of science and mathematics will certainly make it difficult for such "genuine" amateurs to make significant breakthroughs in the future but there are many other areas of cybernetics and systems where enthusiasm and study by dedicated amateurs can produce innovative and beneficial ideas.
Researchers and other computer users are now well aware that they need to take great care to avoid being infected with viruses and becoming a target for computer hackers. New dangers to the running of our systems, and threats to their integrity, seem to appear at very frequent intervals. With the millennium scares causing some major overhauls of system security, researchers and systems managers may well now become complacent. They should note the recent press reports that malicious hackers are still active. Now it would seem they are attacking Websites that they dislike. Sometimes corporations or institutions are targeted.
The project launched last year called "Search for extraterrestrial intelligence" aimed to use idle computers that were linked to the Internet to process the great mass of information received by radio telescopes in the search for signs of extraterrestial life. The project has received popular support and the organisers distributed software to perform the analysis. This was in the form of a screensaver - SETI a home software. It is now reported that some hackers are using the same distributed computing techniques to attack Websites and companies. They have been branded "denial-of-service attacks". They function simply by hackers sending thousands of packets of data in an attempt to shut down a computer. Such a stream of data can cause the targeted computer system to crash. What is worrying is that where initially the "attack" came from one machine, now there is a trend to recruit more machines for a multiple onslaught. One report says that some 1,000 machines were recruited to launch such an attack. It gave the example of the University of Washington, USA, where its connection to the Internet could not be restored for several days after it was hit. Apparently hackers use tools to find security holes that can be exploited and then use the compromised machines to launch a "denial-of-service" attack. The tools used include "trin00" and "Tribe Flood Network", we are told.
B.H. RudallNorbert Wiener Institute and University of Wales (UK)