The Complete Guide to Cybernetics

Futuristic Cybernetics system

The Complete Guide to Cybernetics

Key Points:
  • Cybernetics focuses on the role of feedback mechanisms in the circular causality of complex systems that have closed signaling loops.
  • The term “cybernetics” came about in 1948 courtesy of the American mathematician Norbert Wiener to describe what he called the “field of control and communication theory, whether in the machine or in the animal.”
  • Making a system cybernetic involves giving it 1) a way to represent its current state 2) a way to represent its goal state 3) a way to get to the goal state from the current state.

What Is Cybernetics? – Complete Explanation

Cybernetics is the study of purposive systems, both animate and inanimate, and the way they regulate themselves. It focuses mainly on the role of feedback mechanisms in the circular causality of complex systems that have closed signaling loops.

In these kinds of closed systems, self-generated actions trigger transformations to the system’s environment, which then trigger changes to the system itself. Both the action and its reactions happen inside the system.

Cybernetics is particularly interested in the flow of information through a system and how the system uses the information to help control itself. We might describe it as the science of organization, especially emphasizing the dynamic characteristics of the systems that are being organized.

In its modern English form, the word “cybernetics” was first used in 1948 by an American mathematician named Norbert Wiener to describe what he called the “field of control and communication theory, whether in the machine or in the animal.” It grew alongside and built on Claude Shannon’s information theory, which was developed to improve the transmission of information and employed the concept of feedback in the engineering of digital automatic control systems.

Cybernetics comes from the Greek word “Kubernetes,” which means steersman. The word “governor” comes from the Latin translation of that same Greek word.

In ancient Greece, the Kubernetes were in charge of controlling the Grecian longships. The ships had to be steered through all kinds of unpredictable forces, including wind, waves, storms, currents, and tides. The Greeks found that they could ignore all of these and control the ship via a small tiller connected to the ship’s larger rudder just by pointing the tiller toward a fixed object in the distance, such as a lighthouse, and making adjustments in real-time.

As a science, cybernetics is antidisciplinary or transdisciplinary. It investigates all kinds of strategic behavior springing from systemic processes, including information processing and storage, adaptation, self-reproduction, and regulatory systems of self-organization. The cybernetic way of looking at the world has served as a trampoline for many other theoretical fields, such as:

  • Systems theory
  • Game theory
  • Communication theory
  • Systemic psychology
  • Decision theory
Norbert Wiener in his office
Norbert Wiener sitting in his office. The word “cybernetics” was first used by Norbert Wiener to describe what he called the “field of control and communication theory, whether in the machine or in the animal.”

©Konrad Jacobs, CC BY-SA 2.0 DE, via Wikimedia Commons – License

Cybernetics: An Exact Definition

Cybernetics is an antidisciplinary science that deals with processes of control in animate and inanimate systems, machines, and organisms, focused on self-regulation achieved via the circular causality of feedback.

How Does Cybernetics Work?

In simplified terms, the objective of any cybernetic system is to organize the system so that its actions correlate with its chosen control signal, known as the reference. It does this with the help of a feedback-based automatic control system that determines which actions need monitoring, which behaviors need adjusting, how to compare the actions with the reference and how to best adjust the relevant behaviors.

Natural cybernetic systems evolve or self-organize this regulatory system. Artificial cybernetic systems respond to automatic control systems put into place by humans.

Cybernetic systems grow out of two essential parts, the controller and the object it controls. Both natural and artificial cybernetic systems tend to start with the controlled object, containing all the capabilities necessary for its functions, and then develop the controller once the object can be accurately modeled.

Once these two parts are linked, the system begins to exhibit goal-oriented behavior. The goal is to keep all relevant characteristics of the system in line with the reference input regardless of any disturbances to the system. To achieve this goal, the controller needs to be able to incite the system into performing relevant actions that will manipulate the relevant variables.

When its regulatory system detects an aberration in the system’s behavior, it tries to correct things by examining the differences between its hypothetical goal and the aberrant behavior and adjusting the system to compensate for that difference. This process of error detection and correction repeats as the now purposive system starts to take baby steps toward its goal.

The information flowing back and forth between the controlled object and its controller quickly loses any semblance of hierarchy. Each link in this closed-loop plays a part in controlling the system as a whole. Every part has some kind of controlling effect over every other part. As the system progresses, the distinction between controlled and controller begins to disappear, and a circular causality begins to emerge.

How Do You Create a Cybernetic System?

To make any system cybernetic, you need to endow it with three essential conceptual components:

  • A way to represent its current state
  • A way to represent its goal state
  • A way to strategize about how to get to the goal state from the current state

The current state can be ascertained and represented using any kind of sensory mechanism. Optical sensors like cameras, echolocation sensors like sonar, or position sensors like GPS can be useful in the education of the system about its own current state.

The goal state can come from inside or outside the system. Natural cybernetic systems come up with their own goals, usually optimized for survival and homeostasis. In artificial cybernetic systems, goal states can be inputted from outside. The dial on your thermostat and the destination input on your GPS are both ways of inputting a goal state from outside the system.

Now that your system has a way to understand where it is and where it wants to be, it becomes a purposive system. It’s able to compare the two states and check if they match. If they don’t match, the system needs its final component, a strategy of actions that will get it to where it wants to be.

In a 2D cybernetic system, like a thermostat, the strategy of action is binary and simple. One of the best examples to help you picture this is the regulatory system James Watt came up with, in the 1700s to control the output of the newfangled steam engine.

Watt turned the steam engine into a cybernetic system by designing a centrifugal governor that allowed any user to set the engine’s output within a certain range and then step back and let the machine keep itself inside that range. He did this by connecting the steam output to a control valve and the control valve to a sensory mechanism based on centrifugal force. The sensor was made of a spinning pole attached at the top to two leaden balls, like a heavyweight tetherball set. The more steam came out, the faster the pole would rotate and the higher the balls would spin. If the balls spun too high, the attached linkages would begin to close the control valve until a happy equilibrium around the user-defined range of speed was achieved.

In a system with multiple degrees of freedom, like a GPS-based navigation app, the action strategy is a bit more complex, but the general idea stays the same. The system must try various actions and evaluate its new current state after each action to discover the changes its actions produce. The more it repeats this cycle, the better it will understand which actions will get it closer to its goal state.

Where Did Cybernetics Originate From?

Cybernetics took its first coherent step into the modern world in 1948, when mathematician Norbert Wiener published his first book on the subject, “Cybernetics: Or the Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine.”

Norbert Wiener’s book on Cybernetics

As a child, Wiener was a mathematical prodigy. His father, who worked as a professor of literature at Harvard University, pushed little Norbert to invest in his education from an early age. At only 14 years old, Norbert Wiener completed a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Tufts University. Four years later, he received his doctoral degree from Harvard. After Harvard, he went on to the University of Cambridge to study mathematical logic under Bertrand Russell and then to Germany’s University of Göttingen, where he studied under mathematician David Hilbert.

When World War II started, Wiener began to work on the difficult mathematical task of aiming weapons at targets in motion. He helped create electronic targeting systems that could identify a missile’s location with respect to its target in real-time and guide the missile to change direction in mid-flight if necessary. His work on the physics of ballistics and guided missile technology ignited the spark that later grew into his passion for studying feedback-controlled systems, which we now call cybernetics.

It was while working on these ballistic targeting systems that it first occurred to Wiener how important the transdisciplinary principle of feedback was to every purposive system that existed, both living and purely mechanistic. In his 1948 book, “Cybernetics,” Wiener took this idea from the narrow electronic applications he’d been using it for and extrapolated it to a broader universal principle that could be found in biology, economics, political science, psychology, and more.

Cybernetics systems - air to air missile
Air to air missile mounted on an airplane wing. The first branch of cybernetics focuses on systems of machine control. Cybernetic systems made possible new technology and improvements in spacecraft navigation, computers, guided missiles, and radar.

©Nedelcu Paul Petru/Shutterstock.com

What Are the Applications of Cybernetics?

Cybernetics takes a step back and looks at systems not as nouns but as verbs. Instead of trying to define exactly where a thing’s boundaries lie, it defines a thing by what it does and what it’s capable of doing.

Looking at the world from an action potential perspective gives cybernetics interesting applications across many different traditional disciplines. There are systems in the biological, technological, social, and many other worlds that can be defined according to their actions. This is why we think of cybernetics as a transdisciplinary language that helps us understand and modify processes across a variety of sciences. There are applications for cybernetics in the natural and political sciences, in education, business management, and more.

Simple Self-Controlled Machines

The first branch of cybernetics focuses on systems of machine control. Learning how to set an acceptable range and then take our hands off the controls started by giving us new technology and improvements in spacecraft navigation, computers, guided missiles, and radar. Inventors in World War II applied the feedback principle by using information from radar devices to improve the accuracy of their new smart weapons.

After the war, cybernetics ideas were applied to radio and telephone technology. Communications engineers were able to use the feedback principle to create noise filters and improve the sound quality of many communications devices. Today, principles from the first branch of cybernetics underlie the field of machine learning, as we continue to learn to set acceptable ranges for our machines and then take our hands off more and more controls.

Complex Self-Organizing Systems

The second branch of cybernetics focuses on learning about the ways self-organizing systems end up with the complex processes that allow them to regulate themselves and survive by adapting to their environments.

In economics, for instance, the nebulous system of supply and demand correlates with the amorphous system of pricing. It’s not certain which controls which at any given time, but if there’s more supply than demand, prices begin to fall, as well as the reverse. Our economic system reaches a comfortable equilibrium when supply is just about equal to demand.

Niche goods with not much supply or demand tend to come with a higher profit margin. Mass-marketed goods don’t need high-profit margins because there’s always plenty of supply and demand for toothpaste, noodles, shoes, etc. The pricing system helps us think about and affect larger and more abstract economic sub-systems without getting too deep into the weeds.

Prices allow manufacturers and sellers to communicate to customers in simple terms, and consumers’ willingness or not to pay those prices allows end-users to communicate back. This complex dance influences characteristics of the entire economic system in a circle of trade that gets the whole planet gossiping with feedback.

Examples of Cybernetics in the Real World

In Your Head

We can find one of the best examples of cybernetics right inside of us, specifically, in our nervous system.

In this case, the automatic control system that regulates the organism of you might be your brain. It receives signals from its optical sensors, your eyes, estimating the distance between an object you want and your hand.

The information your sensors send to your controller is the feedback we’ve been talking about. Your controller takes this information into account when issuing behavioral instructions to your reaching hand to get it to successfully pick up the object.

Your GPS App

Another simple example is when you use your smartphone for directions. When you open your GPS app, it triangulates your current position using its satellite-based sensors. When you type in your destination, the system now has a current state and a goal state, so it can calculate the best action strategy using its route and traffic algorithms. As you progress to the destination, it keeps checking its feedback and updates the action strategy accordingly.

Up Next…

The Complete Guide to Cybernetics FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

What is the difference between cybernetics and general systems theory?

We can describe cybernetics as a sub-class of general systems theory. It thinks about certain systems with special classes, specifically, systems that are controlled by feedback and circular causality.

A general approach to systems theory focuses mainly on exchanges of matter and energy. Cybernetics introduces an informational angle to systems theory, focusing on the flow of information through a system.

What is cybernetics?

Cybernetics comes from the Greek word for steering. The field of cybernetics thinks about the rich interaction of information in a complex system and how feedback and response can produce predictions, goals, and actions.

What is cybernetics theory?

Also known as control theory, cybernetics theory is the antidisciplinary study of the principles governing purposive systems that are able to use feedback to self-regulate.

What is a cybernetic system example?

A straightforward example of a cybernetic system is the temperature regulatory system in your house. It has a sensory mechanism in the form of a thermometer that tells it the current state of the temperature. When you set your desired temperature, you give it a goal state to work toward. As long as the current and goal temperatures are different, the thermostat will keep implementing cooling or warming actions until the goal is achieved.

Is cybernetics still relevant?

Cybernetics and the transdisciplinary study of automatic control systems are relevant every time we want to study any of the uncountable throngs of feedback-regulated systems inside and outside of us. It’s particularly relevant to the field of AI as we learn to create ever more autonomous machines.

Who created cybernetics?

Cybernetics as a concept was first described comprehensively in a book published in 1948 by Norbert Wiener.

When was cybernetics invented?

Cybernetics, as a broad theory of self-governance, dates back to the ancient Greeks. In 1834, the word was applied to human systems of governance by the physicist André-Marie Ampère. In 1947, the mathematician Norbert Wiener formalized and popularized cybernetics as the study of teleological mechanisms. In 1950, Wiener extended the discipline to include its implications on society and psychology, comparing natural self-regulated systems to human institutions.

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