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Cybernetics is the study of communication and control, typically involving regulatory feedback, in living beings and machines, and in combinations of the two.

The term cybernetics stems from the Greek "kybernetes" - meaning steersman, governor, pilot, or rudder. It became a powerful vogue idea from 1948 to the 1960s; but since the 1970s use of the term has decreased for a number of reasons, in part because it went out of fashion among devotees of artificial intelligence, with which it differs philosophically.

A more philosophical definition, suggested in 1958 by Louis Couffignal, one of the pioneers of cybernetics in the 1930s, considers cybernetics as "the art of assuring efficiency of action."

The modern study of cybernetics began at the intersection of neurology, electronic network theory and logic modelling around the time of WWII. The name 'cybernetics' was coined by Norbert Wiener to denote the study of "teleological mechanisms" and was popularized through his book Cybernetics, or Control And Communication In The Animal And Machine, (1948).

The word cybernetics (' cybernétique') had, unknown to Wiener, also been used in 1834 by the physicist André-Marie Ampère (1775-1836) to denote the sciences of government in his classification system of human knowledge. It was also used by Plato in The Republic to signify the governance of people. The word governor and govern is also derived from the same Greek root.

The study of "teleological mechanisms" ("teleos" is Greek for "end" in the sense of "purpose for") in machinery (i.e. machines with corrective feedback) dates back at least to the late 1700s when James Watt's steam engine was equipped with a governor. In 1868 James Clerk Maxwell published a theoretical article on governors. In 1938 the Romanian scientist Stefan Odobleja published in Paris Psychologie Consonantiste describing many cybernetic principles. In the 1940s 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.

Cybernetics as a discipline was firmly established by Wiener, McCulloch and others, such as W. Ross Ashby and W. Grey Walter. Together with the US and UK, an important geographical locus of early cybernetics was France where Wiener's book was first published.

In the spring of 1947, Wiener was invited to a congress on harmonic analysis, held in Nancy, France and organized by the bourbakist mathematician, Szolem Mandelbrojt (1899-1983), uncle of the world famous mathematician Benoit 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.

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).

In scholarly terms, cybernetics is the study of systems and control in an abstracted sense — that is, it is not grounded in any one empirical field.

The emphasis is on the functional relations that hold between the different parts of a system, rather than the parts themselves. These relations include the transfer of information, and circular relations (feedback) that result in emergent phenomena such as self-organization, and, (expressed as a term coined much later by Humberto Maturana, Francisco Varela and Ricardo Uribe), autopoiesis. The main innovation of cybernetics was the creation of a scientific discipline focused on goals: an understanding of goal-directedness or purpose, resulting from a negative feedback loop which minimizes the deviation between the perceived situation and the desired situation (goal). As mechanistic as that sounds, cybernetics has the scope and rigor to encompass the human social interactions of agreement and collaboration that, after all, require goals and feedback to attain.

Cybernetics is somewhat erroneously associated in many people's minds with robotics, due to uses such as Douglas Adams' Sirius Cybernetics Corporation and the concept of a cyborg, a term first popularized by Clynes and Kline in 1960. Additional confusion arose when terms such as 'cyberspace', 'cybercrime', and many others arose.

Ampère's earlier use of the term echoes in the development of second-order cybernetics, which includes observers as part of whatever system is being studied. A primary force behind second-order-cybernetics was Heinz von Foerster, an Austrian trained in physics and magic, who was appointed by Warren McCulloch as the editor of the Macy Meetings, a series of meetings held between 1946 and 1955, involving Gregory Bateson, Margaret Mead, F.S.C. Northrop, John von Neumann, Claude Shannon, Conrad Lorenz, Warren McCulloch, W. Grey Walter, and Norbert Wiener. (Wiener is usually considered the “father of cybernetics” because of his authorship of the book Cybernetics, published in 1948, but this is an oversimplification that Wiener would be the first to point out.) These meetings were originally called “Circular Causal and Feedback Mechanisms in Biological and Social Systems”. From this original title, as well as the breadth of fields represented by the attendees, the scope and depth of second-order cybernetics is dramatically apparent.

See also:

Artificial Intelligence
Artificial Life
Systems Biology
Brain Implant
Complex Systems
Machine Augmented Intelligence
Project Cybersyn - a Chilean attempt to implement a planned economy using the principles of cybernetics.


Norbert Wiener, Cybernetics or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine, (Hermann Editions in Paris; Cambridge: MIT Press,Wiley & Sons in NY 1948),

Ashby, W. R. (1956) Introduction to Cybernetics. Methuen, London. (electronically republished at [1]).

Heylighen F. & Joslyn C. (2001): "Cybernetics and Second Order Cybernetics", in: R.A. Meyers (ed.), Encyclopedia of Physical Science & Technology (3rd ed.), Vol. 4, (Academic Press, New York), p. 155-170.

Pangaro, Paul (1990): "Cybernetics—A Definition", available at [2]

von Foerster, Heinz (1995): Ethics and Second-Order Cybernetics, available at [3]

Manfred E. Clynes, and Nathan S. Kline, (1960) "Cyborgs and Space", Astronautics, September, pp. 26-27 and 74-75; reprinted in Gray, Mentor, and Figueroa-Sarriera, eds., The Cyborg Handbook, New York: Routledge, 1995, pp. 29-34.

Heims, Steve J.: John von Neumann and Norbert Wiener: From Mathematics to the Technologies of Life and Death, 3. Aufl., Cambridge 1980.

Heims, Steve J.: Constructing a Social Science for Postwar America. The Cybernetics Group, 1946-1953, Cambridge/London 1993.

Ilgauds, Hans Joachim: Norbert Wiener, Leipzig 1980.

Masani, P. Rustom: Norbert Wiener 1894-1964, Basel 1990.

Bluma, Lars: Norbert Wiener und die Entstehung der Kybernetik im Zweiten Weltkrieg, Münster 2005.

B.C.Patten and E.P.Odum (1981) 'The Cybernetic Nature of Ecosystems', The American Naturalist, Vol. 118. pp. 886-895.

Cybernetics Related Resources

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