The Exhausting Science of Cybernetics

People have been talking about cybernetics for a long time. You may be seeing the word here for the first time. But scientists have been using the word quite a lot. The physicist Ampere used it over a hundred years ago; some people think that he meant it to be applicable only to methods of government, while others believe that he meant by cybernetics the governors of the then newly invented steam engines. Even Plato spoke of cybernetics, meaning the skill one needs to steer a ship. In fact, cybernetics is derived from the Greek word kybernan meaning "to steer," which is also the source of our word "governor," through the Latin gubernator, a steersman.

So for centuries cybernetics meant something quite different from what it does today. Today it is a "synthesis of several scientific disciplines between technology and biology, treating of controlling and regulating," but no one yet knows where the frontiers of cybernetics are to be fixed. What cybernetics actually means and what it does not mean are still debatable. It is just this doubt that makes cybernetics so exhausting.

One thing is certain, however: cybernetics is a science that belongs to the world of electronic computers. The first man to think out and clearly formulate this was the American mathematician, Norbert Wiener, of M.I.T., who ever since 1945 has been regarded as the intellectual father of cybernetics and theorist-in-chief of the computers. It was mainly his ideas which gave the impetus towards a new view of the electronic calculating machines - already working efficiently at that time - and a recognition that they were more than adding or multiplying machines, that they could be thought of as "thinking machines."

Where does cybernetics stand today and what do recognized scientists mean by the word? We asked Professor Karl Steinbuch, the director of the Institute for Information Processing and Communication Theory at Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany. Professor Steinbuch is cautious too. He does not venture to define the frontiers of cybernetics, but only makes a list of the subjects which the science roughly embraces:

"Among the elements of cybernetics are:
(a) Control-system theory,
(b) The technique of information transmission and the theory of information, and
(c) The technique of information processing. The equipment used for information processing - particularly the program-controlled computers-makes it possible for information of varied origin to be combined logically and for information itself to be stored, just as the results are stored, in the form of signals.

Even if the knowledge gained by researchers in cybernetics first originated in technology and only concerned technology, it has acquired such a wide range of use in consequence of the results achieved, that new insights - for biologists, physiologists and psychologists, among others - have been given into organic systems; and in the same way the sociologists and economists of the future will find these new branches of research very useful indeed."

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Kybernetik - Was ist das?

First printed in Germany: 1963

 

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