Cybernetics: John von Neumann

History of Cybernetics

Roots of cybernetic theory

The word cybernetics was first used in the context of “the study of self-governance” by Plato in The Alcibiades to signify the governance of people. The word ‘cybernétique’ was also used in 1834 by the physicist André-Marie Ampère (1775–1836) to denote the sciences of government in his classification system of human knowledge.

The first artificial automatic regulatory system, a water clock, was invented by the mechanician Ktesibios. In his water clocks, water flowed from a source such as a holding tank into a reservoir, then from the reservoir to the mechanisms of the clock. Ktesibios’s device used a cone-shaped float to monitor the level of the water in its reservoir and adjust the rate of flow of the water accordingly to maintain a constant level of water in the reservoir, so that it neither overflowed nor was allowed to run dry. This was the first artificial truly automatic self-regulatory device that required no outside intervention between the feedback and the controls of the mechanism. Although they did not refer to this concept by the name of Cybernetics (they considered it a field of engineering), Ktesibios and others such as Heron and Su Song are considered to be some of the first to study cybernetic principles.

The study of teleological mechanisms (from the Greek τέλος or telos for endgoal, or purpose) in machines with corrective feedback dates from as far back as the late 18th century when James Watt’s steam engine was equipped with a governor (1775-1800), a centrifugal feedback valve for controlling the speed of the engine. Alfred Russel Wallace identified this as the principle of evolution in his famous 1858 paper. In 1868James Clerk Maxwell published a theoretical article on governors, one of the first to discuss and refine the principles of self-regulating devices. Jakob von Uexküll applied the feedback mechanism via his model of functional cycle (Funktionskreis) in order to explain animal behaviour and the origins of meaning in general.

Early 20th century

Contemporary cybernetics began as an interdisciplinary study connecting the fields of control systems, electrical network theory, mechanical engineering, logic modeling, evolutionary biology and neuroscience in the 1940s. Electronic control systems originated with the 1927 work of Bell Telephone Laboratories engineer Harold S. Black on using negative feedback to control amplifiers. The ideas are also related to the biological work of Ludwig von Bertalanffy in General Systems Theory.

Early applications of negative feedback in electronic circuits included the control of gun mounts and radar antenna during World War II. Jay Forrester, a graduate student at the Servomechanisms Laboratory at MIT during WWII working with Gordon S. Brown to develop electronic control systems for the U.S. Navy, later applied these ideas to social organizations such as corporations and cities as an original organizer of the MIT School of Industrial Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management. Forrester is known as the founder of System Dynamics.

W. Edwards Deming, the Total Quality Management guru for whom Japan named its top post-WWII industrial prize, was an intern at Bell Telephone Labs in 1927 and may have been influenced by network theory. Deming made “Understanding Systems” one of the four pillars of what he described as “Profound Knowledge” in his book “The New Economics.”

Numerous papers spearheaded the coalescing of the field. In 1935 Russian physiologist P.K. Anokhin published a book in which the concept of feedback (“back afferentation”) was studied. 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.

In 1936, Odobleja publishes “Phonoscopy and the clinical semiotics”. In 1937, he participates in the IXth International Congress of Military Medicine with a paper entitled “Demonstration de phonoscopie”, where he disseminates a prospectus in French, announcing the appearance of his future work “The Consonantist Psychology”.

The most important of his writings is Psychologie consonantiste, in which Odobleja lays the theoretical foundations of the generalized cybernetics. The book, published in Paris by “Librairie Maloine” (vol. I in 1938 and vol. II in 1939), contains almost 900 pages and includes 300 figures in the text. The author wrote at the time that “this book is… a table of contents, an index or a dictionary of psychology, [for] a … great Treatise of Psychology that should contain 20–30 volumes”.

Due to the beginning of World War II, the publication went unnoticed. The first Romanian edition of this work did not appear until 1982 (the first edition was published in French). Cybernetics as a discipline was firmly established by Norbert Wiener,McCulloch and others, such as W. Ross Ashby, mathematician Alan Turing, and W. Grey Walter. Walter was one of the first to build autonomous robots as an aid to the study of animal behaviour. Together with the US and UK, an important geographical locus of early cybernetics was France.

In the spring of 1947, Wiener was invited to a congress on harmonic analysis, held in Nancy, France. The event was organized by the Bourbaki, a French scientific society, and mathematician Szolem Mandelbrojt (1899–1983), uncle of the world-famous mathematician Benoît 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. The name cybernetics was coined to denote the study of “teleological mechanisms” and was popularized through his book Cybernetics, or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine (MIT Press/John Wiley and Sons, NY, 1948). In the UK this became the focus for theRatio Club.

Cybernetics: John von Neumann

John von Neumann

In the early 1940s John von Neumann, although better known for his work in mathematics and computer science, did contribute a unique and unusual addition to the world of cybernetics: von Neumann cellular automata, and their logical follow up the von Neumann Universal Constructor. The result of these deceptively simple thought-experiments was the concept of self replication which cybernetics adopted as a core concept. The concept that the same properties of genetic reproduction applied to social memes, living cells, and even computer viruses is further proof of the somewhat surprising universality of cybernetic study.

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).

While not the only instance of a research organization focused on cybernetics, the Biological Computer Lab at the University of Illinois, Urbana/Champaign, under the direction of Heinz von Foerster, was a major center of cybernetic research for almost 20 years, beginning in 1958.

Split from artificial intelligence

Artificial intelligence (AI) was founded as a distinct discipline at a 1956 conference. After some uneasy coexistence, AI gained funding and prominence. Consequently, cybernetic sciences such as the study of neural networks were downplayed; the discipline shifted into the world of social sciences and therapy.

Prominent cyberneticians during this period include:

  • Gregory Bateson
  • Aksel Berg

New cybernetics

In the 1970s, new cyberneticians emerged in multiple fields, but especially in biology. The ideas of Maturana, Varela and Atlan, according to Jean-Pierre Dupuy (1986) “realized that the cybernetic metaphors of the program upon which molecular biology had been based rendered a conception of the autonomy of the living being impossible. Consequently, these thinkers were led to invent a new cybernetics, one more suited to the organizations which mankind discovers in nature – organizations he has not himself invented”. However, during the 1980s the question of whether the features of this new cybernetics could be applied to social forms of organization remained open to debate.

In political science, Project Cybersyn attempted to introduce a cybernetically controlled economy during the early 1970s. In the 1980s, according to Harries-Jones (1988) “unlike its predecessor, the new cybernetics concerns itself with the interaction of autonomous political actors and subgroups, and the practical and reflexive consciousness of the subjects who produce and reproduce the structure of a political community. A dominant consideration is that of recursiveness, or self-reference of political action both with regards to the expression of political consciousness and with the ways in which systems build upon themselves”.

One characteristic of the emerging new cybernetics considered in that time by Felix Geyer and Hans van der Zouwen, according to Bailey (1994), was “that it views information as constructed and reconstructed by an individual interacting with the environment. This provides an epistemological foundation of science, by viewing it as observer-dependent. Another characteristic of the new cybernetics is its contribution towards bridging the micro-macro gap. That is, it links the individual with the society”. Another characteristic noted was the “transition from classical cybernetics to the new cybernetics [that] involves a transition from classical problems to new problems. These shifts in thinking involve, among others, (a) a change from emphasis on the system being steered to the system doing the steering, and the factor which guides the steering decisions.; and (b) new emphasis on communication between several systems which are trying to steer each other”.

Recent endeavors into the true focus of cybernetics, systems of control and emergent behavior, by such related fields as game theory (the analysis of group interaction), systems of feedback in evolution, and metamaterials (the study of materials with properties beyond the Newtonian properties of their constituent atoms), have led to a revived interest in this increasingly relevant field.

Cybernetics and economic systems

The design of self-regulating control systems for a real-time planned economy was explored by Viktor Glushkov in the former Soviet Union during the 1960s. By the time information technology was developed enough to enable feasible economic planning based on computers, the Soviet Union and eastern bloc countries began moving away from planning and eventually collapsed.

More recent proposals for socialism involve “New Socialism”, outlined by the computer scientists Paul Cockshott and Allin Cottrell, where computers determine and manage the flows and allocation of resources among socially-owned enterprises.

 

Leave a Reply