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Cybernetics. History of the science.

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Cybernetics, as a scientific discipline has been named by Norbert Wiener (1894-1964). It was the title of his book with the subtitle Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine (Wiener 1948). Cybernetics was a pluralistic theory and an interdisciplinary movement of a number of leading intellectuals. The term cybernetics goes back to Plato, when he explained the principles of political self-governance.

Definition: Cybernetics is the scientific study of communication and control processes in biological, mechanical, and electronic systems. Research in cybernetics often involves the comparison of these processes in biological and artificial systems.


One of the supporting pillars of the emerging cybernetics grew up from the paper entitled Behavior, Purpose and Teleology by Arturo Rosenblueth, Norbert Wiener, and Julian Bigelow (1943). It gave the conceptual framework of goal-directed behavior both in technological and biological context.

Wiener himself emphasized the role of feedback mechanisms in the goal-oriented systems. While the physiologists already knew that the involuntary (autonomous) nervous systems control Bernard's internal milieu, he extended the concept suggesting that the voluntary nervous system may control the environment by some feedback mechanisms and searched for a theory of goal-oriented behavior. This theory promised a new framework to understand the behavior of animals, humans, and computers just under design and construction that time. Feedback control is an invisible thread in the history of technology, as studies on mechanical clocks, steam engines, aerodynamic and electronic devices show (Bernstein 2002).

The other supporting pillar of cybernetics is the brain-computer analogy suggested by the spirit of the McCulloch-Pitts Neuron (MCP neuron). An MCP (McCulloch and Pitts, 1943) neuron is a formal model, and it can be identified as a binary threshold unit. A neuron initiates an impulse if the weighted sum of their inputs exceeds a threshold, otherwise it remains in silence.

John von Neumann (1903-1958) was certainly motivated by the MCP model when worked on the logical design of electronic computers. The all-or-none character of the neurons was isomorphic with that of the elementary computing units. The logical design of computers, and the techniques of switching theory used by von Neumann grew out from the MCP model. Analogy was assumed between computers and the brain, both at the elementary hardware level, and at the level of mathematics, as well.

Two founding fathers

While there are several pioneers of cybernetics, two of them played special roles. McCulloch was the chairman of the fundamental conference series on cybernetics, while the term cybernetics appeared in the modern sense in the title of Wiener's book.

Figure 1: Warren McCulloch

Warren McCulloch (1898-1969) was one of the Founding Fathers of the movement and scientific discipline of cybernetics. His entire scientific activity was a big experiment to give a logic-based physiological theory of knowledge. McCulloch assumed that (1) the brain performs logical thinking (2) which is described by logic, therefore the implication is that the operation of the brain could and should be described by logic.

Norbert Wiener


Figure 2: Norbert Wiener

Wiener was a well-accepted mathematician, who worked on functional analysis and on stochastic processes before Kolmogorov gave its systematic formulation. Wiener studied a model of the Brownian motion, a classical model in the theory of stochastic processes, which is called now as the Wiener process. The Wiener-Khintchine relationship helps to analyze stationary stochastic processes. As a founder of cybernetics, he supported automatics, robotics and their role in improving human conditions.



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