The peculiar history of computers in the Soviet Union

tags: computers, Soviet Union

In 1948, MIT mathematician Norbert Wiener published Cybernetics, a book that heralded the coming information age. Cybernetics, according to Wiener, is “the science of control and communication in the animal and the machine.” Just as the human body sweats or shakes to regulate its temperature, the “Roomba” vacuum-cleaning robot rotates and continues in a different direction after hitting a wall. In either case, both the animal and the machine use information, feedback, and control to interact with their environments and achieve goals.

By considering animals’ methods of control and communication similar to that of machines, Wiener and other scientists were able to design bigger and more powerful machines. A few years before Wiener’s book, British mathematician Alan Turing used cybernetic principles to create his Turing machine, which pioneered the design of the modern computer and deciphered Enigma, the ‘unbreakable’ World War Two-era cypher used by the German military.

In the wake of Turing’s invention and Wiener’s research, a tremendous enthusiasm for cybernetics swept world of American academia. The possibilities of cybernetics, it seemed, were endless. By simply posing the problem or asking the question in a way comprehensible to a logic machine, the machine could churn its gears and produce the correct, logical answer.

In current times, the term cybernetics has become outdated, replaced by more specific terminology in the ever-growing field of information technology. But even in the 1950s, its limitations were evident. ...

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