Cybernetics and Artificial Intelligence: A Historical Parallel at Tomsk State University

Cybernetics and Artificial Intelligence: A Historical Parallel at Tomsk State University

In this issue, Eduard Galazhinskiy, Rector of Tomsk State University, examines the parallels between the emergence of cybernetics at our University and the current rise of artificial intelligence (AI).

— Professor Galazhinskiy, we all observe how artificial intelligence (AI), as a "cross-cutting" technology, has become a prevalent theme in almost every discourse – social, technological, scientific, and educational. This blog is no exception. Four months ago, you discussed the advantages and risks of AI entering our society and higher education system. Which aspect of AI would you like to emphasize today?

— Indeed, artificial intelligence is developing everywhere and more rapidly than any other innovative technology, which in itself can become a separate topic for conversation. News about artificial intelligence appears in global and domestic media weekly, if not daily. These are messages not only about the next GPT chat, but also about how AI is being introduced into specific scientific research and educational activities of universities. There are many events related to artificial intelligence taking place at Tomsk State University. But today I want to focus not on individual facts under the auspices of AI, but on a historical analogy that may be of interest to anyone whose work at TSU is currently in one way or another connected with artificial intelligence.

Let me start with the fact that TSU has always been a genuine research university, and a research university always meets all challenges and everything new that is just emerging. This was the case at one time, for example, with cybernetics. It must be said that its institutionalization as a scientific discipline and the basis for new methods of research and teaching took place in the extremely unfavorable administrative, logistical, and ideological conditions of the early 1950s. Cybernetics, like genetics, was declared “a pseudoscience in the service of American imperialism.” It is curious that many scientists and politicians then saw it only as a sphere of “bourgeois” knowledge, designed to robotize a number of labor processes and “oppress the rights of workers,” turning them into an “appendage of the machine.” And even the very possibility of comparison fr om the perspective of cybernetics of the human brain and a machine was considered as unjustified reductionism.

— This reminds me very much of something. Is history repeating itself?

— Absolutely right. This is very similar to what is happening now with artificial intelligence, in which technophobes see only a threat to people and nothing more. This attitude towards new technologies is always present on the part of some part of society. However, the current situation is different in that the government has given scientists and practitioners the full green light to study, develop, and implement technologies with artificial intelligence. At the very least, they can save their strength and energy by not having to prove the need for such developments. It is already obvious to everyone. Those who stood at the origins of cybernetics, including Tomsk scientists, had to make incredible efforts to ensure that the leaders of our country saw in it not only opportunities in solving the problems of delivering and managing modern weapons, but also the science of the future with the widest range of applications in all spheres of society. Therefore, they tried their best to conduct their research in such a way as not to arouse undue attention fr om orthodox materialist philosophers, who were then guardians of communist ideology and did not accept anything that seemed scholastic and idealistic.

Professor Felix Tarasenko recalled in an interview how TSU cybernetics initially had to figure it out: "... We had to go out for a discussion and do the same thing as the authorities: we lied. For example, I spoke and said: “Of course, cybernetics is a pseudoscience, but computer technology and computers are valuable tools for boosting our economy. And then, “Information theory - yes, of course, this may seem like nonsense, what kind of information can be on a phone? It only exists in a person’s head, you are absolutely right! But the theory of message transmission IS very important.” But, as you know, the theory of message transmission is the theory of information" (Interview with FelixTarasenko. 2020. March // Archive of Siberia: Historical tradition and modernity journal)

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With time passing, we can confidently state that the successful implementation of the cybernetic direction at TSU primarily occurred due to the personal factor - the efforts of academician Vladimir Kuznetsov and Professor Vladimir Kessenich, Head of the Department of Radiophysics at TSU. They were supported by a younger generation of researchers who became the founders of the cybernetic school at Tomsk State University. Among them were Petr Biryulin, an associate professor and radio waves specialist; future TSU professors Felix and Vladimir Tarasenko; Arkady Zakrevsky, and Gennady Medvedev. Their work was subsequently carried on by professors Alexander Gortsev, Boris Gladkikh, and several other researchers.

— How was cybernetics established at TSU? How long did the process of its development as a new field take?

— The process took more than twenty years. In the mid-1950s, a student circle focusing on the study and creation of analog computing devices was formed at TSU. Many of the members of this circle went on to become notable scientists, leaders of scientific schools, and organizers of departments and laboratories. Subsequently, a problem laboratory for computers and solving devices was established, and the Department of Radiophysics began offering training in the new specialty of "Electronic computer technology and automation," which included computer-related skills.

Then, a large conference on computer problems was held at TSU. Tomsk researchers were entrusted with important government tasks related to state defense.

New departments were opened, including electronic computer technology and automation, which was headed by Felix Tarasenko. In 1970, The Faculty of Applied Mathematics was established, which later became known as the Faculty of Applied Mathematics and Cybernetics.

It is important to note that everything that happened seventy years ago with cybernetics at TSU was not a duplication of someone else’s experience, but rather its path to establishing a new scientific discipline. Cybernetics at our University initially evolved from radiophysics, not from applied mathematics as in other universities. There were reasons for this. The first reason was the extraordinary initiative of TSU physicists who closely followed all world discoveries and organized public discussions on various scientific problems continuously.

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Another reason for the unique physical genesis of cybernetics at TSU was the necessity for radar and communications in developing mathematical statistics methods and solving theoretical computer technology problems. The training of radiophysicists at that time did not include the study of statistical approaches for practical applications. There were no specialized courses or departments focusing on this area. The initial training programs were developed on the go by individuals who were also learning these concepts through internships or self-study from books and articles. Despite the challenges, relevant educational courses and disciplines were launched and eventually expanded beyond the Faculty of Applied Mathematics and Cybernetics, enhancing the programs of other faculties.

— Can we draw parallels between the current situation at TSU and the historical development of cybernetics?

— I believe it is feasible. The development stages of cybernetics outlined earlier illustrate the general progression of any science at the university, including the domain of artificial intelligence. Presently, the initial stages of these developments are becoming apparent. For instance, since 2016, a research laboratory for applied big data analysis has been active at TSU. This laboratory conducts both fundamental and applied research within the social and economic spheres, studying aspects such as the value orientations and opinions of student youth, the quality of life in Russian regions, and the labor market. Furthermore, a University Consortium of Big Data Researchers has been established. As we know, Big Data is indispensable for the existence of artificial intelligence. These entities bring together talented and resourceful young individuals. Vyacheslav Goiko, a TSU graduate, leads them. Collaboratively, the Laboratory and Consortium organize various events addressing Big Data and artificial intelligence challenges, including on a federal level. Founded on the initiative of our graduate Daria Matsepuro, the Siberian (Tomsk) Center for the Study of Artificial Intelligence and Digital Technologies operates at TSU in partnership with Sberbank. This center was recognized at the International Forum of Ethics in the Field of AI as one of the pioneering establishments in the country for examining AI ethics-related issues, receiving a corresponding award at the end of last year. Daria Matsepuro serves as the director of this center and is also a member of the Coordination Council for Youth Affairs in the Scientific and Educational Spheres of the Council under the President of the Russian Federation for Science and Education.

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Young scientists and analysts at TSU are starting to receive significant assignments from government and business organizations. Simultaneously, they are focusing on training new personnel, periodically organizing free research internships for TSU students and undergraduates. In September 2024, the Laboratory of Applied Big Data Analysis, in collaboration with the TSU Institute of Distance Education, the Skillfactory School of Online Professions, and the Data-Diving Academy, will launch a new online master's degree.

A stable trend is gradually emerging at the University — the integration of AI as a crucial element in most scientific research. This generally implies the development of a unified program for artificial intelligence at our University in the near future. We will delve into this topic further in this blog, but for now, let's focus on another important trend related to AI — education. Essentially, this signifies the TSU teaching community entering a "new era" wh ere artificial intelligence becomes a full participant in the teaching and educational process.

Just over a year ago, not all of us were familiar with ChatGPT. As always, young people were the first to experiment with new technology. It quickly became apparent that for this innovation to be integrated into the teaching and educational process seamlessly, teachers need to take control of it to the fullest extent possible. To minimize risks and fully leverage ChatGPT, teachers must urgently acquire training in technologies utilizing artificial intelligence. Experts believe that the introduction of AI in the educational sector in the near future will have a profound impact, leading to radical changes in teaching methodologies and knowledge accessibility.

— What key trends in the process of AI entering higher education would you highlight at the moment?

— First of all, I would like to note that, unlike business, education has its own characteristics in the integration of AI technologies. Here, the main goal is not economic benefit, but improving the quality of education, which is difficult to assess using objective criteria. AI is already being used today in leading universities in Russia to analyze student performance, personalize learning, monitor exam fairness (proctoring), test knowledge, and perform other tasks. As of January this year, 16 Russian universities had developed 90 programs to train specialists in the field of AI within the framework of the federal project “Artificial Intelligence.” However, compared to other developed countries, the process of introducing artificial intelligence technologies into the education sector in Russia is just beginning. Currently, our educational sector lags behind the leading sectors of the economy in terms of opportunities for investing in AI and attracting specialists. At the same time, educational institutions have a special need for the use of AI technologies as their activities are directly related to processing information. Nevertheless, it can be said that trends in the use of artificial intelligence in Russian education generally align with the global experience of modern technological modernization and are aimed at improving the quality of educational services and enhancing the controllability of educational processes.

If we discuss today's key trends, there are several notable ones. Firstly, one trend is the organization of adaptive learning, which involves considering the individual characteristics of students, including their existing skills and interests, and making necessary adjustments to the educational process. Secondly, there is AI-based gamification, which aims to create personalized games to accelerate learning and make it more engaging and enjoyable. Another trend is the integration of intelligent robotics into education, which helps develop a wide range of skills in students such as creativity, problem-solving, and teamwork. Robots can also serve as student mentors and teaching assistants. Micro- and nanolearning using AI is emerging as a noticeable trend. This approach is particularly popular in distance education, wh ere information is presented to students through short lectures, video lessons, and exercises. With AI breaking down complex topics into more manageable subtopics. Additionally, utilizing AI capabilities to monitor students' emotional reactions and assess their psychological states is a growing trend. At TSU, we have a goal of creating a tool to diagnose depressive and pre-suicidal states among students for timely identification and appropriate psychological support. Furthermore, the integration of generative artificial intelligence into the educational process is a prominent trend, enabling the generation of text, visual images, and videos. Neural networks assist teachers in developing curriculum programs, planning classes, and handling administrative tasks. They also help students overcome the fear of a "blank sheet" by providing starting points for specific texts that students can then improve on their own.

— Have these trends already impacted TSU in any way?

— Undoubtedly, these trends have impacted TSU significantly. A significant portion of these trends is evident in the educational processes at our University, particularly within the Institute of Distance Education at TSU. Under the guidance of its Director Mikhail Shepel, a dedicated team of specialists continuously stays abreast of innovations in higher education and vocational training, consistently developing new programs for diverse target audiences. One objective measure of the team's high-quality work is TSU's role as one of three operators of the Employment Promotion federal project under the national project "Demography" for several years, with the Institute of Distance Education playing a crucial role. The team effectively manages this complex and extensive work while simultaneously running numerous other programs to address various challenges in distance education, particularly in the realm of artificial intelligence. As AI emerges as a transformative technology impacting not only science but also education, it is imperative for us as a university to stay ahead. Therefore, Institute of Distance Education has launched the program "Generative Artificial Intelligence for Educators: Strategies, Tools, Ethics." If our educators embrace these concepts en masse and utilize them to enhance their professional and research endeavors, it will undoubtedly provide significant advantages for our university.

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Competition is growing, and those who master the most modern technologies quickly and systematically receive new opportunities in terms of access to resources and partners who require it. Therefore, I warmly encourage all our educators to study in this area. I believe that this is another opportunity for us to compensate for our geographical distance. We always struggle a bit due to our distance from the center — information flows, various resources, and the likes. Initiatives such as the integration of AI into the educational process enable us to make significant strides forward. This is evident in the development of the cloud information system within the framework of the national project “Demography”, which incorporates elements of adaptive learning. We emerged as leaders in the country in this area. Initially, we pursued these advancements for our benefit, but it transpired that we were the most advanced, propelling TSU to be selected as the federal operator of the Employment Promotion project. As a result, we are now entrusted with coordinating initiatives to teach migrants the Russian language and assist them in passing exams across the nation.

Dear colleagues, Tomsk State University has consistently faced the most challenging operational hurdles. I am confident that we will rise to the occasion once again. Strive to learn new technologies and impart this knowledge to our students. Let the drive, resilience, and professionalism demonstrated by our senior colleagues in establishing new scientific directions serve as a model for us and inspire exceptional professional accomplishments!

Eduard Galazhinskiy, Rector of TSU

The conversation recorded by Irina Kuzheleva-Sagan

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