Dr. Dean Taciuch
George Mason University

Fall 2020

Honors 360: 002
Cybernetics and AI

Those of us who have contributed to the new science of cybernetics thus stand in a moral position which is, to say the least, not very comfortable. We have contributed to the initiation of a science which, as I have said, embraces technical developments with great possibilities for good and for evil. We can only hand it over to the world that exists about us, and this is the world of Belsen and Hiroshima. We do not even have the choice of suppressing these new technical developments. They belong to the age, and the most any of us can do by suppression is to put the development of the subject into the hands of the most irresponsible and the most venal of our engineers.

The best we can do is to see that a large public understands the trend and the bearing of the present work, and to confine our personal efforts to those fields, such as physiology and psychology, most remote from war and exploitation. As we have seen, there are those who hope that the good of a better understanding of man and society which is offered by this new field of work may anticipate and outweigh the incidental contribution we are making to the concentration of power (which is always concentrated, by its very conditions of existence, in the hands of the most unscrupulous). I write in 1947, and I am compelled to say that it is a very slight hope.

Norbert Wiener, Introduction to Cybernetics (39)

Course Description

The course will begin with the concept of Cybernetics, popularized by Norbert Wiener's Human Use of Human Beings, a book he wrote (in 1950) specifically to explain cybernetics to the interested non-expert. Cybernetics, as Wiener and the first generation of computer engineers defined it, is the science of control and communication in machines, animals, and human beings. Cybernetics gave us the concepts of cyberspace and the cybernetic organism — the cyborg.

Throughout this course, we will address technology, in particular the idea of cybernetics and AI, from the perspectives of of a wide range of disciplines including engineering, statistical mechanics, mathematics, linguistics, sociology, psychology, neuroscience, biology, and philosophy. The field of cybernetics (the topic of our first text) is inherently interdisciplinary, born as it was from the fields of engineering and mathematics combined with biology, neuroscience, and sociology to form what today would be called information theory.

Course Goals

Honors 360 is a Mason Core Synthesis course.

The purpose of the synthesis course is to provide students with the opportunity to synthesize the knowledge, skills and values gained from the Mason Core curriculum. Synthesis courses strive to expand students' ability to master new content, think critically, and develop life-long learning skills across the disciplines. . . .

A Mason Core synthesis course must address outcomes 1 and 2, and at least one outcome under 3. Upon completing a synthesis course, students will be able to

  1. Communicate effectively in both oral and written forms, applying appropriate rhetorical standards (e.g., audience adaptation, language, argument, organization, evidence, etc.)
  2. Using perspectives from two or more disciplines, connect issues in a given field to wider intellectual, community or societal concerns
  3. Apply critical thinking skills to
    1. Evaluate the quality, credibility and limitations of an argument or a solution using appropriate evidence or resources, OR,
    2. Judge the quality or value of an idea, work, or principle based on appropriate analytics and standards.


The essays and discussions in this course are designed to meet these goals. You will be required to read, evaluate, analyze, and synthesize material from several disciplines and present your analysis in essays, in class, and in online discussions.


Norbert Wiener. The Human Use of Human Beings.
John Brockman, ed. Possible Minds: Twenty-Five Ways of Looking at AI
Both texts are available as e-books as well

Warren Weaver "Recent Contributions to the Mathematical Theory of Communication"
Vernor Vinge, "Technological Singularity"
Ray Kurzweil, The Ray Kurzweil Reader
Nick Bostrom "The Superintelligent Will"
Future of Life Institute
David Chalmers "Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness"
Brockman, Chalmers, Dennett BookTV: Possible minds discussion


The assignments in this course consist of two essays, a research proposal, a class discussion prompt,an article summary, and weekly reading responses. The first essay will be an analysis of some complex system in light of Norbert Wiener's concept of cybernetics. The system may be biological, social, mechanical, digital, or any combination of these. The research proposal will explain your research questions and goals, as well as the stakes and stakeholders of the issue you wish to explore. The second essay will present your research on a specific issue related to technology.

There are 25 essays in the Brockman text; each student will be responsible for one essay, preparing a short summary (1-2 paragraphs) and leading the class discussion of that essay. For the class discussions, you should present the key ideas in the essay, and prepare 2 or 3 questions to begin the class discussion.

The weekly responses will be posted to Blackboard. The weekly responses will be on a specific question which I will post, and they will be due before class most weeks (if there is an essay due that week, there will no weekly response). You may add to your posts after class, of course. I will also ask you to comment on the posts of other students. To earn full credit for the responses, you must post 10 weekly responses, and comment on at least five of your fellow students' posts.

Essay 1 Sept 27 20%
Research Proposal Oct 18 15%
Class Discussion Prompt &
Article Summary
varies 15%
Research paper Dec 5 30%
Weekly reading responses Thursdays 20%

Method of Instruction

I thoroughly enjoy the classroom experience. In person classroom discussions are my favorite part of teaching. But for now, due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, this course will meet virtually.

Synchronous Sessions
We will have weekly synchronous sessions on Thursdays from 10:30 – 11:45, using BlackBoard Collaborate Ultra. Everyone should try to attend these sessions, during which we will discuss the readings and the assignments. If you cannot virtually attend, the sessions will be recorded and made available on BlackBoard.

Asynchronous Sessions
The course will also have an asynchronous component: each week, readings and discussion questions will be posted to BlackBoard, which should be completed on Tuesdays (or at least before Thursday's synchronous session). I will also be available via Zoom for virtual office hours on Wednesdays from 10:30 – noon.

Course Structure
For the first part of the course, I will lead a discussion of Norbert Wiener's The Human Use of Human Beings. Although I will lead this discussion, I don't plan to simply lecture on it. I expect active participation from the students who are able to join in remotely.

For the second part of the course, students will lead discussions of the essays in the Possible Minds book. As with the earlier discussions, materials (essay summaries and discussion questions) should be posted by Tuesdays, in time for the virtual session on Thursdays.

Near midterm, students will form peer groups to help develop the Research Proposals. The Research Proposal and the Research Paper are not group projects; the groups are intended to facilitate feedback. I will set up the groups in BlackBoard, and there will be one required discussion post in the BlackBoard forum. Group members may meet virtually via BlackBoard or any medium (including face-to-face if all group members are on campus).

Questions or Concerns
I have taught online classes for over a decade, mostly asynchronously. The synchronous component is a bit trickier to manage, but I find it far more engaging than fully asynchronous classes. I also think the synchronous component is more appropriate for an Honors class; having everyone together at once sparks more the cross-disciplinary conversations.

I know that virtual meetings are a lesser substitute for face-to-face classes, but when GMU went online last Spring, I moved this class online with a similar set-up. It was, as far as I can tell, mostly successful. I hope I can make this semester's class a bit more organized, and I am open to any suggestions for making the class more participatory and enjoyable

Course Policies

Grading: Grades on the essays will be based primarily on the quality of the writing. I value clear, focused writing with plenty of examples. Grades on the research essay will be based on the quality of the research as well: I expect you to use the GMU Library databases as well as the Internet.

Late Assignments: Late papers will lose 5% per day unless you make prior arrangements with me.

Revision Policy: The essays may be revised for a higher grade, but they must be substantially revised. You cannot lose a grade by revising, but a higher grade is not guaranteed. I have found that B papers (or higher) are often more difficult to revise, since serious revision requires thoroughly changing the essay's structure, and B papers usually have a fairly good structure. C papers (or lower) often respond more dramatically to revision, since the major changes they require are often more straightforward. I recommend revising C papers or lower only. If you plan to revise a B paper, please see me beforehand so we can discuss a revision strategy.
All revisions must be turned in by Nov 29

Plagiarism: Plagiarism means using the exact words, opinions, or factual information from another source without giving that source credit. Writers give credit through the use of accepted documentation styles, such as parenthetical citation, footnotes, or end notes; a simple listing of books, articles, and websites is not sufficient.

Writers must include a Works Cited or References list at the end of their essay, providing full bibliographic information for every source cited in their essay, including the course textbooks.

Instructors at George Mason University are bound to uphold the George Mason Honor Code, which requires us to report any suspected instances of plagiarism to the Honor Committee. All judgments about plagiarism are made after careful review by the Honor Committee, which may issue penalties ranging from grade-deductions to course failure to expulsion from GMU.

Technology Policy: This is an online course, with one synchronous section per week. Students will need regular, reliable access to a computer with an updated operating system (recommended: Windows 10 or Mac OSX 10.13 or higher) and a stable broadband Internet connection (cable modem, DSL, satellite broadband, etc., with a consistent 1.5 Mbps [megabits per second] download speed or higher.

Important dates

First day of classes Aug 24
Last day to add classes– all individualized section forms due Aug 31
Labor Day (University closed) Sept 7
Last day to drop with no tuition penalty Sept 8
Midterm progress reporting Sept 21 –
Oct 16
Fall Break (Monday classes meet Tuesday; Tuesday classes do not meet) Oct 12 – 13
Thanksgiving Break Nov 25 – 29
Last Day of classes Dec 5
Reading Days
Reading days provide students with additional study time for final examinations. Faculty may schedule optional study sessions, but regular classes or exams may not be held.
Dec 7 – 8
Exam Period Dec 9 – 16


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