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[Comments] (3) What happened to cybernetics?: Cybernetics was pretty big in the 40s and 50s. People had all sorts of grandiose goals for it: using it to understand living and social systems, for instance. But it kind of died out; it's the one thing in Stanislaw Lem's fiction that seems dated.

I'm pretty sure cybernetics died out because it had a mechanical feel and didn't fit well with the simulation-based philosophy of the universal computer. But simulations need to be simulations of something, so why not feedback loops?


Posted by Nathaniel at Wed Jan 10 2007 03:16

I'm not sure what happened to it; it's an interesting question. The thing is, the subject matter is still a huge deal and all over the place -- as wikipedia puts it, "[Cybernetics is a] generic term for many of the subject matters that are increasingly subject to specialization under the headings of adaptive systems, artificial intelligence, complex systems, complexity theory, control systems, decision support systems, dynamical systems, information theory, learning organizations, mathematical systems theory, operations research, simulation, and systems engineering." All of which are lively research fields in their own right, all of which have and are being applied to understand living and social systems, etc. But the term itself somehow became quaint...

Posted by Ray at Wed Jan 10 2007 13:10

I'd say that in biology at least, the central ideas of cybernetics weren't all that useful in generating new hypotheses. Once you understand negative feedback loops in principle, the theory doesn't lead to many concrete predictions. At least it doesn't lead to concrete predictions that map to the things that biologists care about, can measure and couldn't have predicted without the overhead of cybernetic theory.

The powerful analytical tools of information theory or control theory are overkill when the cutting edge of technical capabilities for gathering data are straining to answer simple questions about how information is encoded. That's another way of saying that it had grandiose goals I suppose.

Posted by Nathaniel at Wed Jan 10 2007 21:23

Biology's a big field :-). Definitely there are neurobiologists, say, who use cutting edge information theory and control theory -- actually, those are the two subfields I can most easily think of examples for :-). (Check out, for instance, Pam Reinagel, Emo Todorov, Terry Sejnowski... N.B. list is entirely biased towards "people I happen to be geographically co-located with".)

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