What is Cybernetics?

A quick introduction

Early in the 20th century, researchers realized that complex systems – and most systems in nature and technology are complex – are almost invariably dynamic, constantly adjusting to disturbances to keep on track. For instance: If you were to plot their performance, it would more closely resemble a zigzag than a straight line. Take a plane flying from point A to point B. As it travels through the air, winds and turbulence keep pushing it off course. This means that the pilot – or these days, the autopilot – needs to repeatedly correct the direction to keep on course.

The principle was named cybernetics, from the Greek kybernétes, meaning 'helmsman.' But it can also be observed in many areas that have nothing to do with navigation. One of the pioneers of the field, Norbert Wiener, described it as involving ‘control and communication in the animal and the machine’. The way that blood sugar levels are regulated in the body is subject to cybernetic control, for example, as do many aspects of the economy – such as when a central bank adjusts interest rates to control growth.

This made cybernetics a popular topic of study in many domains in the mid-20th century. However, there are two areas into which cybernetics became particularly embedded.

Engineering or technical cybernetics explores feedback and control processes within technical systems such as heating and cooling units, automobile navigation, or factory operations.

Biological cybernetics focuses on control mechanisms in organisms and ecosystems – everything from the complex chemical and interspecies relationships that keep ecosystems balanced to the neuronal impulses in the brain that underpin human thought and action. In 1968, the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics was founded to study such topics.

The term 'cybernetics' itself became closely associated with another field, also new at the time: computer science. This was partly because cybernetics offered formal methods for understanding how complex systems could and should operate, and computer science was engaged in building what rapidly became some of the most complex artificial systems. It was also because cybernetics richly exploited computer systems for analysis and control. Over time, cybernetics became popularized as a prefix – with terms such as cyberspace and cybercrime.

Biological and technical cybernetics have remained closely associated over decades. This is perhaps clearest in the fields of natural and artificial intelligence. In Tübingen, this proximity is literally reflected in the co-location of the Max Planck Institutes for Biological Cybernetics and (one campus of) Intelligent Systems, with the latter formally growing out of the former.


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