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Project Cybersyn

Cybersyn Chile socialism 1970s artificial intelligence technism cybernetics computers Big Data China

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Yuli Ban

Yuli Ban

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Hell, I found an analog with technism, but I'll get back to that later.

I figured I'd create a new thread for this rather than derailing the original thread.
Anyone know of or remember Project Cybersyn? I'd argue it was the first "real" technist project— that is, an attempt to supplant or greatly enhance human political & economic governance with computers and artificial intelligence. 

It only failed because of the military coup (remember Pinochet's helicopter rides?), but I argue that it was destined to fail. I've said it so many times now that it feels asinine, but it always has to be restated: computers in the 1960s & 1970s were absolutely not capable of achieving much more beyond calculations and the absolute most basic servicesRunning a national economy would've been a pathetic waste of resources— they could gradually build it up over time, yes, but the thing is that it still would've taken years before they saw any real fruits and decades before they could truly rely on it. It was still heavily human-run anyway, but I can see the cybernetic intentions. If it were ever fully implemented, I can easily see the project running into constant issues and an endresult being the Chileans trashing the entire thing well before it would be possible to do it right. 

That's what I meant by finding an analog between Marxism and technism— much like this early attempt to automate government and the economy, Marxism was envisioned as being an industrial philosophy. Marx's only misstep was claiming that 1840s Germany was industrialized enough to be a proper Marxist state, but then again you had a lot of brilliant minds claiming we could create a human-level artificial intelligence in the 1960s. When you're starting from the ground, every altitude above you looks the same. Then you learn to fly and discover that the highest you could imagine is still lower than most of the clouds in the sky and topping those clouds still leaves you very far below outer space, and the closest transition to space is still a thousand times closer than the Moon. 

"Proper" Marxism and technism might be indistinguishable because they both require industrialization on such a level that human labor is barely needed in the system due to machines doing and managing so much of the work. In fact, that might be the principle difference— in technism, the machines manage the economy (even if still overseen by humans). Thing is, this requires a very generalized artificial intelligence in order to account for shifting markets, unexpected inefficiencies, and black swan events. Project Cybersyn wasn't cheating by using humans with machines because humans are still so inefficient. The whole point of all this is to not use humans. Humans are biased, greasy, easily distracted apes who can only work for so many hours. In order for AI to truly make a difference, it would need to understand relationships, understand market & public forces, understand worker needs, understand currency, understand basic spatial maps to maximize costs-vs-gains, and much more. Otherwise, it would have been little more than an early spreadsheet program.


Fast forward about 50 years. Computers are still lacking all the necessary ingredients, but data science is infinitely closer to realizing the dreams of Project Cybersyn. 

It's possible, even probable, that China has a Neo-Cybersyn project in the works right now, and that's one reason why they're putting so much funding into artificial intelligence. They're well aware that Cybersyn's promise far surpassed its actual capability and aren't going to try something for the idealistic potential.
The main reason why China keeps baffling people as to whether it's capitalist, socialist, or even fascist is because they're not operating on purely ideological lines. They're still very much Marxists, but they aren't going to run the nation along Marxist principles until the conditions are right. Similarly, they're probably not interested in trying out a system that could so easily be hacked or fed erroneous data with no method of self-correction.



Some more articles on this!


The Planning Machine

Project Cybersyn and the origins of the Big Data nation

In June, 1972, Ángel Parra, Chile’s leading folksinger, wrote a song titled “Litany for a Computer and a Baby About to Be Born.” Computers are like children, he sang, and Chilean bureaucrats must not abandon them. The song was prompted by a visit to Santiago from a British consultant who, with his ample beard and burly physique, reminded Parra of Santa Claus—a Santa bearing a “hidden gift, cybernetics.”

The consultant, Stafford Beer, had been brought in by Chile’s top planners to help guide the country down what Salvador Allende, its democratically elected Marxist leader, was calling “the Chilean road to socialism.” Beer was a leading theorist of cybernetics—a discipline born of midcentury efforts to understand the role of communication in controlling social, biological, and technical systems. Chile’s government had a lot to control: Allende, who took office in November of 1970, had swiftly nationalized the country’s key industries, and he promised “worker participation” in the planning process. Beer’s mission was to deliver a hypermodern information system that would make this possible, and so bring socialism into the computer age. The system he devised had a gleaming, sci-fi name: Project Cybersyn.

Beer was an unlikely savior for socialism. He had served as an executive with United Steel and worked as a development director for the International Publishing Corporation (then one of the largest media companies in the world), and he ran a lucrative consulting practice. He had a lavish life style, complete with a Rolls-Royce and a grand house in Surrey, which was fitted out with a remote-controlled waterfall in the dining room and a glass mosaic with a pattern based on the Fibonacci series. To convince workers that cybernetics in the service of the command economy could offer the best of socialism, a certain amount of reassurance was in order. In addition to folk music, there were plans for cybernetic-themed murals in the factories, and for instructional cartoons and movies. Mistrust remained. “CHILE RUN BY COMPUTER,” a January, 1973, headline in the Observer announced, shaping the reception of Beer’s plan in Britain.

At the center of Project Cybersyn (for “cybernetics synergy”) was the Operations Room, where cybernetically sound decisions about the economy were to be made...


Project Cybersyn

Allende hoped to show the world that Chile’s version of socialism would be different than the communist and socialist experiments in other countries. The constitution would be preserved and the press would not be censored. Civil liberties would be protected. The government began by increasing employment and wages as well as implementing agrarian reforms.

Allende’s biggest challenge (and the challenge of all socialist revolutions generally) was to turn private business into public entities. Eventually, the government took control of around 150 enterprises, including some of the largest companies in Chile.

But this enormous takeover presented a problem: the government had to manage all of this new industry, and make sure factories in Chile were able to keep producing enough goods for Chileans to buy.

Fernando Flores, a Chilean advisor to Allende, had an idea for how to manage the Chilean economy. He wanted to use a relatively new science called Cybernetics.

And remember my friend, future events such as these will affect you in the future.



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I read about this a while back and was disappointed they never got it working. I think it may have helped run their economy if they had completed it.

Although mainly just through improved communications (i.e. telephone lines between factories and the central control centre), rather than anything else. 


Even if an AI run economy is impossible today you could create absolutely amazing improvements in central planning with relatively little effort:


E.G. Making anonymised banking data property of the state. 


So every bank currently has a list of transactions of credit/debit cards between their customers other people and businesses.  IF you got the data from all the banks (or maybe mastercard and visa and others), you would have a pretty perfect view of the economy (with the obvious exception of cash, which contactless is already reducing quite a lot) at maybe as little as a 24 hour delay. 


Couple this with a requirement for merchants to register their payment IDs along with useful data (what company is this? where is this outlet located?) etc. and you end up with a map of the economy, (which you could use as training data for an economy forecasting system using current machine learning methods). 


Of course implementing this would expose business performance to easy observation so a lot of people would hate it. "What? Everyone knows how much money we earned? Outrageous, how can we do business under these conditions?!"


EDIT: Also don't even get me started on the applications of the whole "Internet of things" technology towards this sort of thing!

Also tagged with one or more of these keywords: Cybersyn, Chile, socialism, 1970s, artificial intelligence, technism, cybernetics, computers, Big Data, China

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