After Hours

Geek Trivia: Thinking outside the 'bots

Who coined the modern term cybernetics, and to what does it actually refer? (Hint: It ain't all about killer cyborgs.)

Contrary to what the Terminator movie franchise may have led you to believe, the science of cybernetics is not explicitly and entirely about developing superhuman cyborgs bent on waging a war for human destiny. (That would be political science.) In truth, cybernetics is one of the broadest and most esoteric fields of study ever conceived — it is the science of applied information.

Sounds a little vague, doesn't it? Let's turn to Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary for a more specific definition of cybernetics:

"The science of communication and control theory that is concerned especially with the comparative study of automatic control systems (as the nervous system and brain and mechanical-electrical communication systems)."

Put another way, cybernetics studies how automatic systems — from living brains to computer networks to chemical reactions — process and react to information to perform tasks. If you understand how living organisms deal with information (say, with nerve cells and brain lobes) and how mechanical or computerized systems deal with information (say, with circuit boards or analog difference engines), you could conceivably find a way to mesh the two, thus creating a multimedia cybernetic organism (say, a Six Million Dollar Man). This, however, is but one very specific and limited application of cybernetic theory, and it really belongs more to the subfields of robotics and bionics.

So if cybernetics isn't really all about creating quasi-sentient killing machines with bad Austrian accents, what's it good for? How about creating better governments?

The term cybernetics comes from the Greek root kybernetes, roughly meaning pilot. It's the same root for the word governor.

None other than the philosopher Plato first used a word roughly equivalent to cybernetics in his dialogue "The Laws," in which he described principles of political self-governance. Cybernetics theory concerns itself with feedback and self-correction mechanisms, which in a governmental context refer to checks and balances. (Once again, cyborgs = political science.)

Modern cybernetics, rather than Plato's cybernetics, is more about math than philosophy, and its tenets can help improve everything from search engine algorithms to trendy demographically optimized marketing campaigns to self-replicating space probes. A famous 20th-century mathematician christened this modern, seemingly all-encompassing field of cybernetics.


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Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger — amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...

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