What is cybernetics? It derives from the Greek word, “cyber”, meaning “to steer”, and references to cybernetics date as far back as Plato who used it to refer to the Greek system of government. Cybernetics may best be understood by comparing it to the more widely known concept of artificial intelligence (AI).
Cybernetics and Artificial Intelligence
As AI introduced limitations in its ability to map the human brain, cybernetics stepped in to provide a more comprehensive framework. As a term, cybernetics is not new and was coined by Norbert Wiener in 1948 in his book, Cybernetics: Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine. Wiener made the point that communication between a machine and its environment allowed for more effective machines. While cybernetics may appear to be connected with robotics, its application is widespread and its principles and philosophy can be applied to almost any systematic discipline, such as psychology, biology, computer science, engineering, sociology, and even art.
Cybernetics has increased in popularity as a replacement for the concepts of AI mainly because AI proposes a closed system of cognition or interacting with the world. This closed system does not replicate the human cognitive process which requires relationship, conversation and adaptation to stimuli. Cybernetics was designed to accommodate these variables of human experience.
Another area where cybernetics trumps AI is in its accommodation of the observer as part of the cybernetic equation. While AI sees systems as observed objects, cybernetics views systems as interacting and observing parts of its overall schema.
The Application of Cybernetics
Contemporary cybernetics focuses upon control as it can be applied to mechanical engineering and electronic control systems which used negative feedback to control amplifiers. The use of negative feedback is an example of how the concept of “conversation” and “adaptation” is used in cybernetics to control a particular system – in this case, the amplifier. The ability to construct an autonomous device that responds and adapts to messages from the environment is a hallmark of cybernetics, and its theories have been used to construct robots that allow us to study animal behavior without being observed or harmed.
A peculiarity of cybernetics is that it is more easily defined through its applications, but its overarching influence has been described as epistemological. In our post-modern world, cybernetics has had a huge impact on how we view learning and knowing. According to cybernetics, cognition has an intrinsically subjective element. Descartes’ famous quote, “I think, therefore I am”, embodies the circular, subjective thinking inherent in observation and illustrates the problem of locating a purely objective act of cognition. Since perceptions of an observed event can vary from individual to individual, it becomes a philosophical quandary to qualify any act of cognition as hard fact.
Cybernetics represents a leap forward from the closed system framework of AI and maps interactions in a goal oriented way. It is these interactions and the “conversations” that occur that form the complexity of a particular cybernetic system. The beauty of cybernetics is its adaptability by hard and soft systems. For example, a cybernetic map can be used to help overcome the dysfunctionality of a family system and it can also be used to create a robotic assembly line in a factory.
As a working philosophy representing our view of knowledge, the importance of our interaction with others and our environment, cybernetics offers hope for the future. The influence of cybernetics will surely benefit us all by enabling the construction of workable human systems and smarter and more adaptable tools that will make our lives easier.