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For other uses, see Cybernetics (disambiguation).

Image:Science-symbol-13a.png Cybernetics is the study of the communication and control of regulatory feedback, both in living beings and machines, and in combinations of the two.

The term cybernetics stems from the Greek Κυβερνήτης (kybernetes - meaning steersman, governor, pilot, or rudder; the same root as government). It became a powerful vogue idea from 1948 to the 1960s; but since the 1970s use of the term has faded. A current near-synonym is systems theory.

A more philosophical definition, suggested in 1958 by Louis Couffignal, one of the pioneers of cybernetics in the 1930s, considers cybernetics as "the art of assuring efficiency of action" (see external links for reference).



The modern study of cybernetics began at the intersection of neurology, electronic network theory and logic modelling around the time of WWII. The name 'cybernetics' was coined by Norbert Wiener to denote the study of "teleological mechanisms" and was popularized through his book Cybernetics, or control and communication in the animal and machine, (1948)

The word cybernetics ('cybernétique') had, unbeknownst to Wiener, also been used in 1834 by the physicist André-Marie Ampère (1775-1836) to denote the sciences of government in his classification system of human knowledge. It was also used by Plato in The Republic to signify the governance of people. The word governor and govern is also derived from the same Greek root.

The study of "teleological mechanisms" in machinery (i.e. machines with corrective feedback) dates back at least to the late 1700s when James Watt's steam engine was equipped with a governor. In 1868 James Clerk Maxwell published a theoretical article on governors. In 1938 the Romanian scientist Stefan Odobleja published in Paris Psychologie consonantiste describing many cybernetic principles. In the 1940s 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 William Ross Ashby and Grey Walter. Together with the US and UK, an important geographical locus of early cybernetics was France where Wiener's book was first published.

In the spring of 1947, Wiener was invited to a congress on harmonic analysis, held in Nancy, France and organized by the bourbakist mathematician, Szolem Mandelbrojt (1899-1983), uncle of the world famous mathematician Benoit 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.

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).

John Nash and Reinhard Selten won the Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel (also known as the Nobel Prize in Economics) in 1994 for their work on game theory, along with John Harsanyi who developed the analysis of games of incomplete information. In 2005 the game theorists Thomas Schelling and Robert Aumann won the Nobel Prize in Economics.


In scholarly terms, cybernetics is the study of systems and control in an abstracted sense — that is, it is not grounded in any one empirical field.

The emphasis is on the functional relations that hold between the different parts of a system, rather than the parts themselves. These relations include the transfer of information, and circular relations (feedback) that result in emergent phenomena such as self-organization, and autopoiesis. The main innovation brought about by cybernetics is an understanding of goal-directedness or purpose as resulting from a negative feedback loop which minimizes the deviation between the perceived situation and the desired situation (goal).

Cybernetics is somewhat erroneously associated in many people's minds with robotics, due to uses such as Douglas Adams' Sirius Cybernetics Corporation and the concept of a cyborg, a term first popularized by Clynes and Kline in 1960.

Ampère's earlier use of the term echoes in the development of second-order cybernetics, which includes observers as part of whatever system is being studied.

Major fields

See also


  • Norbert Wiener, Cybernetics or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine, (Hermann Editions in Paris; Cambridge: MIT Press,Wiley & Sons in NY 1948),
  • Ashby, W. R. (1956) Introduction to Cybernetics. Methuen, London. (electronically republished at [1]).
  • Heylighen F. & Joslyn C. (2001): "Cybernetics and Second Order Cybernetics", in: R.A. Meyers (ed.), Encyclopedia of Physical Science & Technology (3rd ed.), Vol. 4, (Academic Press, New York), p. 155-170.
  • Pangaro, Paul (1990): "Cybernetics--A Definition", available at [2]
  • Manfred E. Clynes, and Nathan S. Kline, (1960) "Cyborgs and Space", Astronautics, September, pp. 26-27 and 74-75; reprinted in Gray, Mentor, and Figueroa-Sarriera, eds., The Cyborg Handbook, New York: Routledge, 1995, pp. 29-34.

External links

Look up [[wiktionary:{{{1|Special:Search/Cybernetics}}}|{{{1|Cybernetics}}}]] in Wiktionary, the free dictionary
(more related pdf documents)
Edit General subfields and scientists in Cybernetics
K1 Polycontexturality, Second-order cybernetics
K2 Catastrophe theory, Connectionism, Control theory, Decision theory, Information theory, Semiotics, Synergetics, Sociosynergetics, Systems theory
K3 Biological cybernetics, Biomedical cybernetics, Biorobotics, Computational neuroscience, Homeostasis, Medical cybernetics, Neuro cybernetics, Sociocybernetics
Cyberneticians William Ross Ashby, Claude Bernard, Valentin Braitenberg, Ludwig von Bertalanffy, George S. Chandy, Joseph J. DiStefano III, Heinz von Foerster, Charles François, Jay Forrester, Ernst von Glasersfeld, Francis Heylighen, Erich von Holst, Stuart Kauffman, Sergei P. Kurdyumov, Niklas Luhmann, Warren McCulloch, Humberto Maturana, Horst Mittelstaedt, Talcott Parsons, Walter Pitts, Alfred Radcliffe-Brown, Robert Trappl, Valentin Turchin, Francisco Varela, Frederic Vester, John N. Warfield, Kevin Warwick, Norbert Wiener

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