The cybernetics movements

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THE CYBERNETICS MOVEMENT (essay) THE ORIGIN OF CYBERNETICS Cybernetics as a field of scientific activity in the United States began in the years after World War II. Between 1946 and 1953 the Josiah Macy, Jr. Foundation sponsored a series of conferences in New York City on the subject of “Circular Causal and Feedback Mechanisms in Biological and Social Systems.” The chair of the conferences was Warren McCulloch of MIT. Only the last five conferences were recorded in written proceedings. These have now been republished (Pias, 2004). After Norbert Wiener published his book Cybernetics in 1948, Heinz von Foerster suggested that the name of the conferences be changed to “Cybernetics: Circular Causal and Feedback Mechanisms in Biological and Social Systems.” In this way the

meetings became known as the Macy Conferences on Cybernetics. In subsequent years cybernetics influenced many academic fields – computer science, electrical engineering, artificial intelligence, robotics, management, family therapy, political science, sociology, biology, psychology, epistemology, music, etc. Cybernetics has been defined in many ways: as control and communication in animals, machines, and social systems; as a general theory of regulation; as the art of effective organization; as the art of constructing defensible metaphors; etc. The term “cybernetics” has been associated with many stimulating conferences, yet cybernetics has not thrived as an organized scientific field within American universities. Although a few cybernetics programs were established on U.

S. campuses, these programs usually did not survive the retirement or death of their founder. Relative to other academic societies the meetings on cybernetics tended to have more than the usual controversy, probably due to the wide variety of disciplines represented by those in attendance. Indeed Margaret Mead wrote an article, “Cybernetics of Cybernetics,” in the proceedings of the first conference of the American Society for Cybernetics, in which she suggested that cyberneticians should apply their knowledge of communication to how they communicate with each other. (Mead, 1968) INTERPRETATIONS OF CYBERNETICS Not everyone originally connected with cybernetics continued to use the term: The cybernetics of Allen Turing and John von Neumann became computer science, AI, and

robotics. Turing formulated the concept of a Universal Turing Machine – a mathematical description of a computational device. He also devised the Turing test – a way of determining whether a computer program displays “artificial intelligence.” The related professional societies are the Association for Computing Machinery and the American Association for Artificial Intelligence. Norbert Wiener’s cybernetics became part of electrical engineering. This branch of cybernetics includes control mechanisms from thermostats to automated assembly lines. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, including the Systems, Man, and Cybernetics Society, is the main professional society. The principal concern is systems engineering. Warren McCulloch’s cybernetics became

“second order cybernetics.” McCulloch chaired the Macy Foundation conferences. He sought to understand the functioning of the nervous system and thereby the operation of the brain and the mind. The American Society for Cybernetics has continued this tradition. It is the only one of the three groups that seeks to promote cybernetics as a transdisciplinary field. Other, smaller groups can also be identified. For example, a control systems group within psychology was generated by the work of William Powers (1973). Biofeedback or neurofeedback is a subject of investigation by researchers in medicine and psychology. The Santa Fe Institute has developed simulation methods based on the idea of cellular automata. This paper recounts about sixty years of the history of the cybernetics