What Is Cybernetics?

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cyberneticsCybernetics was defined by Norbert Wiener, in his book of that title, as the study of control and communication in the animal and the machine. Stafford Beer called it the science of effective organization and Gordon Pask extended it to include information flows “in all media” from stars to brains. It includes the study of feedback, black boxes and derived concepts such as communication and control in living organisms, machines and organisations including self-organization. Its focus is how anything (digital, mechanical or biological) processes information, reacts to information, and changes or can be changed to better accomplish the first two tasks. A more philosophical definition, suggested in 1956 by Louis Couffignal, one of the pioneers of cybernetics, characterizes cybernetics as “the art of ensuring the efficacy of action”.


The term cybernetics stems from the Greek ?????????? (kybernetes, steersman, governor, pilot, or rudder — the same root as government). Cybernetics is a broad field of study, but the essential goal of cybernetics is to understand and define the functions and processes of systems. Studies of this field are all ultimately means of examining different forms of systems and applying what is known to make artificial systems, such as business management, more efficient and effective.

cybernetics concept

Concepts studied by cyberneticists include, but are not limited to: learning, cognition, adaption, social control, emergence, communication, efficiency, efficacy and interconnectivity. These concepts are studied by other subjects such as engineering and biology, but in cybernetics these are removed from the context of the individual organism or device.Other fields of study which have influenced or been influnced by cybernetics include game theory; system theory (a mathematical counterpart to cybernetics); psychology, especially neuropsychology, behavioral psychology and cognitive psychology; and philosophy.


The Roots of Cybernetic theory

The word cybernetics was first used in the context of “the study of self-governance” by Plato in The Laws to signify the governance of people. The words govern and governor are related to the same Greek root through the Latin cognates gubernare and gubernator. The word (‘cybernétique’) was also used in 1834 by the physicist André-Marie Ampère (1775–1836) to denote the sciences of government in his classification system of human knowledge.

The first artificial automatic regulatory system, a water clock, was invented by the mechanician Ktesibios. In his water clocks, water flowed from a source such as a holding tank in to a reservoir, then from the reservoir to the mechanisms of the clock. Ktesibios’s device used a cone-shaped float to monitor the level of the water in its reservoir and adjust the rate of flow of the water accordingly to maintain a constant level of water in the reservoir, so that it neither overflowed nor was allowed to run dry. This is the first artificial truly automatic self-regulatory device that required no outside intervention between the feedback and the controls of the mechanism. Although they did not refer to this concept by the name of Cybernetics (they considered it a field of engineering) Ktesibios and others such as Heron and Su Song are considered to be some of the first to study cybernetic principles.

The study of teleological mechanisms (from the Greek ????? or telos for end, goal, or purpose) in machines with corrective feedback dates from as far back as the late 1700s when James Watt’s steam engine was equipped with a governor, a centripetal feedback valve for controlling the speed of the engine. Alfred Russel Wallace identified this as the principle of evolution in his famous 1858 paper. In 1868 James Clerk Maxwell published a theoretical article on governors, one of the first to discuss and refine the principals of self-regulating devices.

The Early 20th century

Contemporary cybernetics began as an interdisciplinary study connecting the fields of control systems, electrical network theory, mechanical engineering, logic modeling, evolutionary biology and neuroscience in the 1940s.

Numerous papers spearheaded the coalesing of the field. In 1935 Russian physiologist P.K. Anokhin published a book in which the concept of feedback (“back afferentation”) was studied. The Romanian scientist ?tefan Odobleja published Psychologie consonantiste (Paris, 1938), describing many cybernetic principles. The study and mathematical modelling of regulatory processes became a continuing research effort and two key articles were published in 1943. These papers were “Behavior, Purpose and Teleology” by Arturo Rosenblueth, Norbert Wiener, and Julian Bigelow; and the paper “A Logical Calculus of the Ideas Immanent in Nervous Activity” by Warren McCulloch and Walter Pitts.

Cybernetics as a discipline was firmly established by Wiener, McCulloch and others, such as W. Ross Ashby and W. Grey Walter.

Walter was one of the first to build autonomous robots as an aid to the study of animal behaviour. Together with the US and UK, an important geographical locus of early cybernetics was France.

In the spring of 1947, Wiener was invited to a congress on harmonic analysis, held in Nancy, France. The event was organized by the Bourbaki, a French scientific society, and mathematician Szolem Mandelbrojt (1899-1983), uncle of the world-famous mathematician Benoît Mandelbrot.

During this stay in France, Wiener received the offer to write a manuscript on the unifying character of this part of applied mathematics, which is found in the study of Brownian motion and in telecommunication engineering. The following summer, back in the United States, Wiener decided to introduce the neologism cybernetics into his scientific theory. The name cybernetics was coined to denote the study of “teleological mechanisms” and was popularized through his book Cybernetics, or Control and Communication in the Animal and Machine (1948). In the UK this became the focus for the Ratio Club.

In the early 1940’s John von Neumann, although better known for his work in mathematics and computer science, did contribute a unique and unusual addition to the world of cybernetics: Von Neumann cellular automata, and their logical follow up the Von Neumann Universal Constructor. The result of these deceptively simple thought-experiments was the concept of self replication which cybernetics adopted as a core concept. The concept that the same properties of genetic reproduction applied to social memes, living cells, and even computer viruses is further proof of the somewhat surprising universality of cybernetic study.

Wiener popularized the social implications of cybernetics, drawing analogies between automatic systems (such as a regulated steam engine) and human institutions in his best-selling The Human Use of Human Beings : Cybernetics and Society (Houghton-Mifflin, 1950).

While not the only instance of a research organization focused on cybernetics, the Biological Computer Lab at the University of Illinois, Urbana/Champaign, under the direction of Heinz von Foerster, was a major center of cybernetic research for almost 20 years, beginning in 1958.

The Fall and Rebirth of Cybernetics

For a time during the past 20 years, the field of cybernetics followed a boom-bust cycle of becoming more and more dominated by the subfields of artificial intelligence and machine-biological interfaces (ie. cyborgs) and when this research fell out of favor, the field as a whole fell from grace. Recent endeavors into the true focus of cybernetics, systems of control and emergent behavior, by such related fields as Game Theory (the analysis of group interaction), systems of feedback in evolution, and Metamaterials (the study of materials with properties beyond the newtonian properties of their constituent atoms), have lead to a revived interest in this increasingly relevant field.


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