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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.

WHO COINED THE MODERN TERM CYBERNETICS?

Get the answer.

About

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...

15 comments
tech-republic
tech-republic

Pull up: http://www.socialtext.net/wired- mag/index.cgi? where_did_life_come_from Do a find-on-page for 'Feb 8th, 2007'. Teaser: # # Norbert Wiener even came up with a physics-based # description of how life is formed by information.

nighthawk808
nighthawk808

"Moe's Tavern." "I'm looking for a Mr. Weiner, first name Norbert." "Hold on, I'll check. [To rest of bar] Hey everyone, listen up! I'm looking for a Norbert Weiner! Is there a Weiner here? Hey, has anyone seen a Mr. Weiner?!" [Barney says] "Ask Larry Craig!" [Moe speaks back into phone] "Listen, you little punk. If I ever catch you, I'll duct tape you to a chair and make you watch the O'Reilly Factor for twenty straight minutes, then I'll take the liquefied remains of your brain and feed them to the dog!" [Bart and Lisa laugh hysterically]

michael.collins
michael.collins

Quibble: You wrote, "So if cybernetics isn't really all about creating quasi-sentient killing machines with bad Austrian accents, what's it good for?" It's not fair to characterize Mr. Schwarzenegger's Austrian accent as "bad"; it is one of the few things the former bodybuilder came by naturally.

ajdad
ajdad

Small quibble. How can an authentic Austrian accent be a bad one. Arnold is from Austria after all.

support
support

Just wondering what was with the eye patch and Arrgh! Did a certain Ubergeek go nuts on a Pirates of the Caribbean marathon? Or are you trying out Halloween costumes? Just askin'......

stephanisat
stephanisat

I see ye'll be walking the plank soon if you don't start talking like a pirate. Tis national Talk Like a Pirate Day after all.

nighthawk808
nighthawk808

Both Merriam-Webster's and Webster's New World Dictionaries disagree with you.

support
support

I forgot all about that. Silly me. Must get head out of keyboard and take a look around once in a while. :)

nighthawk808
nighthawk808

that if he was born in Missouri, it would be pronounced Wee-nur because he used the Americanized pronunciation. Any of these people should know: http://www.genealogy.ams.org/id.php?id=25222 I just emailed Donald Tufts, who is on the list and is now a professor at the University of Rhode Island. If he responds, I'll let you know what he says. I'm sure he would know how one of his professors pronounced their own name.

tech-republic
tech-republic

# This is because if Norbert's last name did have a long-i sound, then the W would almost certainly be pronounced like a V, so the pronunciation would be "vine-ur". Why would it be pronounced like a V? Weiner was born in Missouri, not Germany Maybe CPSR can tell me, since they have an award in his name..

nighthawk808
nighthawk808

I was looking at the Random House entry and not Merriam-Webster's; my mistake. Out of the couple dozen dictionaries on my shelf, I picked a couple at random. Dictionaries pay consultants who are experts in their field to review their entries, so the pronunciation in their dictionary has been vetted by many other scientists. I'd be suspicious of anyone whose correction has such a large flaw in it. If your mathematician friend claimed that it's pronounced "wine-ur", then she's almost certainly incorrect. This is because if Norbert's last name did have a long-i sound, then the W would almost certainly be pronounced like a V, so the pronunciation would be "vine-ur".

tech-republic
tech-republic

M-W did not have an entry for Norbert Wiener. A mathemetician confirmed to me (several decades ago) that his name is pronounced 'whiner'. I also asked her whether Norbert was considered more of a physicist or mathemetician, and she said physicist.

support
support

Arrgh was correct. I was in pain for forgetting the obvious!

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