Cybernetics Valuable to the Commons and for Understanding AI

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Jan Krikke:

Cybernetics has been overshadowed by artificial intelligence in recent years, but the value of its core method remains valuable for nearly every conceivable domain - including the Commons and other fields that define our era. A brief history of cybernetics can also shed light on what AI can and cannot do and remove some of the many misunderstandings about AI.

In 1948, American scientist Norbert Wiener published his landmark book 'Cybernetics, or the control and communication in the animal and the machine.' The word Cybernetics is derived from the Greek cybernḗtēs, meaning steersman. ‘Control and communications in the animal and the machine’ refers to the discovery by neurophysiology that minuscule electrical impulses, alternating between ‘on’ and ‘off’, control neurophysiological bodies. It was the primary reason why Wiener and his team opted for binary rather than analog computing.

At the start of the Second World War, the US government tasked Wiener to develop computers with unrivaled speed and accuracy. The US military required high-speed calculations for breaking the enemy code, calculating ballistic tables, and for anti-aircraft gun sight predictor mechanisms.


Cybernetics was transdisciplinary by birth. In the introduction of his book, Wiener described his collaboration with Dr. Arturo Rosenblueth, a neurophysiologist at Harvard Medical School. ‘For many years Dr. Rosenblueth and I had shared the conviction that the most fruitful areas for the growth of the sciences were those which had been neglected as a no-man’s land between the various established fields. Since [binary code inventor Gottfried] Leibniz there has perhaps been no man who has had a full command of all the intellectual activity of his days. Since that time, science has been increasingly the task of specialists, in fields which show a tendency to grow progressively narrower.’

Mathematics, statistics, electrical engineering, neurophysiology, systems theory - the list of scientific disciplines that stood at the cradle of cybernetics is a long one. But the basic principle is simple. Cybernetics is the control and self-regulation of a given electrical system and relies on the concept of feedback. The word ‘feedback’ was coined by James Clerk Maxwell, the father of electromagnetic theory. Feedback involves the dual principle of ‘pre-set state’ and ‘actual state’. The pre-set state is the state set by the user; the actual state refers to the deviation of the preset state.

A textbook example of feedback and its use in cybernetics is the auto-pilot used in today's aircraft, is one of the many products of cybernetics. Prior to the flight, the navigator programs the autopilot the fly the aircraft from A to B. The onboard computer takes into account the payload, the fuel, the expected weather conditions and many other variables. Together they constitute the preset state. Once in flight, the auto-pilot constantly checks the actual state (position) of the aircraft and compares it to the preset state programmed by the navigator.

The onboard computer operates with Boolean IF/THEN logic to assure that the actual state of the aircraft returns to the preset state. IF the computer is pushed off-course by strong side-winds, THEN the ailerons (rectangular flaps at the back of the wing) will move to initiate a course correction. IF it encounters strong headwinds, THEN the engines will increase its thrust to keep the aircraft on schedule. IF the aircraft is low on fuel, THEN the onboard computer will maintain current speed to preserve fuel.


The automatic pilot illustrates that the cybernetic method is based on a three-step model: Plan, Quantify, and Steer. Plan defined the aim, purpose of course; Quantify defined the resources involved or required to execute the plan; and Steer is the operating principle to reach the target within the defined parameters. This three-step approach of cybernetics is used in many things we take for granted today, from the thermostat in our homes to automobile navigation systems. It can also be applied to any other domain, from city planning to climate change and poverty reduction. The key is reliable data so we can accurately define the second step - Quantify.

But the greatest value of the cybernetic method arguably is the first step: Plan. It requires us to formulate our aims within realistic parameters. It requires us to set priority and, most importantly, define our intent. What is it that we are trying to achieve? This, in turn, touches on ethics, morality and, as some may say, spirituality.

Artificial Intelligence has obscured this key lesson of cybernetics - a plan based on intent. AI differs from cybernetics only in that it was expanded to include the concept of self-learning. The concept of self-learning could have been incorporated in cybernetics, and the field could have been called second-generation cybernetics. It would have avoided much confusion about the notion of intelligence. If intelligence is defined as an ability to solve logical problems, AI is not much more than a sophisticated Boolean algorithm. And if social and emotional intelligence are included, AI must take cultural differences into account. Cybernetics never faced this dilemma because it had a clear three-step method.