Cybernetics

Tagged: Theme

In sf Terminology this is a word so often misused that its real meaning is in danger of being devalued or forgotten.

The term "cybernetics", derived from a Greek word meaning helmsman or controller, was coined by the distinguished mathematician Norbert Wiener in 1947 to describe a new science on which he and others had been working since 1942. The word first passed into general usage with the publication of his Cybernetics (1948; rev 1961), subtitled "Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine". Cybernetics was cross-disciplinary from the beginning; it developed when Wiener and others noticed that certain parallel problems persistently arose in scientific disciplines normally regarded as separate: statistical mechanics, Information Theory, electrical engineering and neurophysiology were four of the most important.

Cybernetics has much in common with the parallel study of General Systems Theory, founded by Ludwig von Bertalanffy in 1940. It is concerned with the way systems work, the way they govern themselves, the way they process information (often through a process known as "feedback") in order to govern themselves, and the way they can best be designed. The system in question can be a machine or, equally, a human body. The trouble, Wiener found, was that the terminology with which engineers discussed machines led to a very mechanistic approach when applied to human systems, and, conversely, biological terminology led to an over-anthropomorphic approach in discussion of machines (or economic or ecological systems, two other areas where cybernetics is useful). The trick was to construct a new science which would not be biased towards either the mechanical or the biological. In his An Introduction to Cybernetics (1956), W Ross Ashby remarked that "cybernetics stands to the real machine – electronic, mechanical, neural or economic – much as geometry stands to a real object in our terrestrial space"; that is, cybernetics is an abstracting, generalizing science. However, science being what it is, always tending towards specialization, the original idea of cybernetics as a cross-disciplinary study is in danger of being forgotten, and now we have specialists in, for example, engineering cybernetics and biological cybernetics. The latter is usually called "bionics", although this word, coined in 1960, is actually a contraction of "biological electronics".

If we use the broad, scientifically accepted definition of "cybernetics", it cannot be delimited as a separate theme in this encyclopedia. Most of the stories discussed under the entries Androids, Automation, Communication, Computers, Cyborgs, Intelligence and Robots will, by definition, be cybernetics stories also. For example, Kurt Vonnegut Jr's Player Piano (1952) has at its heart an image of humans incorporated in and subject to an impersonal, machine-like system (see Automation); they effectively become components or "bits" in a cybernetic system.

However, in sf the term "cybernetics" is most often used to mean something narrower – generally the creation of artificial intelligence, or AI. This is indeed a central problem in real-world cybernetics, but by no means the only one. Some cyberneticians hope that analysis of neural systems (i.e., the brain) might lead to the synthesis of simulated intelligences which begin as machines but go on to become self-programming, or even, as in Greg Bear's Queen of Angels (1990), self-aware. The first step towards AI in real life is the computer, which is why all computer stories are cybernetics stories also.

Cybernetics also enters sf in the form of the word "cyborg", a contraction of "cybernetic organism". This usage is taken from an area of cybernetics not necessarily related to AI: a person with a wooden leg is a kind of very simple cyborg, because the melding of mechanical and human parts necessitates, whether consciously or not, the use of feedback devices (i.e., it is cybernetic). The study of cybernetics is, at bottom, the study of just such devices, whether they be servo-mechanisms or the messages that travel between eye and hand when we pick up a book from a table.

Surprisingly few sf stories attack the problem of AI directly; far more commonly, the problem is sidetracked by conjuring up a magic word from the air. Isaac Asimov said his robots were Positronic, and left it at that. One of the most comprehensive (if not always comprehensible) cybernetics works in sf is Destination: Void (1966) by Frank Herbert, in which the problem is that of building not just a very complex computer but a machine that could be said to be conscious. Herbert actually spells out some of the steps through which this might conceivably be possible, and also goes on to ask those philosophical questions about autonomy and free will which must inevitably hover in the background of any cybernetics story of this kind. Much of the book's terminology is borrowed from Wiener's nonfiction God & Golem, Inc. (1964). Interestingly, the question "In what respect can a machine be said to have free will?" engenders a parallel question about humans themselves, at least for readers and writers who take the materialist view that the human mind is itself no more than a complex cybernetics system; this "anti-vitalist" view of humanity is common among cybernetics writers. The whole thrust of cybernetics as a study is to point up the resemblances between sciences superficially dissimilar, and the attempt by neurocyberneticians to analyse the mind as a system has led to impassioned attack from people who believe that humanness mystically transcends its own physical constituents.

In real life, attempts to simulate Intelligence in machines have mainly taken the route of the heuristic programming of computers. This is a way of showing a computer how to solve a problem not by painstakingly going through every possible combination that might lead to a solution – this would take a computer billions of years in an ordinary chess game – but by programming short-cuts into the machine, so that it can gauge the most likely or fruitful directions for analysis. Humans do it automatically; machines have to be taught, but this teaching is the first step towards training a machine how to make choices, a vital step towards consciousness.

The first important sf work to use the terminology of cybernetics was Bernard Wolfe's Limbo (1952; vt Limbo '90 1953); he used its basic ideas (sometimes with hostility) in the wide sense, as they relate to computers, war-games, industrial management and the workings of the brain. Cybernetics terminology is used very loosely by Raymond F Jones in The Cybernetic Brains (September 1950 Startling; 1962), which tells of human brains integrated with computers. Although Jones probably used the term more because it was fine-sounding than for any other reason, this is nonetheless a legitimate cybernetics subject, and is also deployed notably in Wolfbane (October-November Galaxy; 1959) by Frederik Pohl and C M Kornbluth, Catchworld (1975) by Chris Boyce and many other stories.

A number of stories about the development of consciousness in computers carry cybernetic implications, though few as far-ranging as those in Destination: Void. Some early examples can be found in Science Fiction Thinking Machines (anth 1954) edited by Groff Conklin; also relevant are The God Machine (1968) by Martin Caidin, Vulcan's Hammer (1960) by Philip K Dick, Sagan om den stora datamaskin (1966 Sweden; trans as The Tale of the Big Computer 1966; vt The Great Computer, A Vision 1968; vt The End of Man?) by Olof Johannesson, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (December 1965-April 1966 If; 1966) by Robert A Heinlein, When Harlie Was One (fixup 1972; rev vt When H.A.R.L.I.E. was One (Release 2.0) 1988) by David Gerrold and "Synth" (in New Writings in SF 8, anth 1966, ed John Carnell) by Keith Roberts. The reverse progression, of human into machine, occurs in the vignettes of Moderan (coll of linked stories 1971) by David R Bunch.

Already-developed machine consciousnesses appear in Roger Zelazny's story "For a Breath I Tarry" (March 1966 New Worlds), Cyberiada (coll of linked stories 1965 Poland; trans as The Cyberiad: Fables for the Cybernetic Age 1974) by Stanisław Lem, all the Berserker stories by Fred Saberhagen (see Berserkers), The Siren Stars (1971) by Richard and Nancy Carrigan and The Cybernetic Samurai (1985) by Victor Milán. Of these – and they are only a tiny proportion of the total – Lem's fables are the ones that most directly confront the various philosophical paradoxes that machine intelligence involves. A particularly vast, Galaxy-spanning machine consciousness, literally a deus ex machina, features in Dan Simmons's Hyperion (1989) and its sequel.

The Steel Crocodile (1970; vt The Electric Crocodile 1970) by D G Compton is interesting from a cybernetics viewpoint; it is about computer systems, but also analyses the nature of human social systems and examines how the two kinds intermesh. Gray Matters (1971) by William Hjortsberg examines disembodied human brain systems linked up in a network. Spacetime Donuts (Summer 1978-Winter 1979 Unearth, 2 of 3 parts only; full text 1981) by Rudy Rucker is one of many variants on the theme of a human society controlled repressively by a benevolent computer. The Black Cloud (1957) by Fred Hoyle dramatizes communication between a human mind and an inorganic intelligence in space; it also raises a number of cybernetic issues. The Jonah Kit (1975) by Ian Watson asks cybernetic questions in that part of the story dealing with the imprinting of a human consciousness onto the mind of a whale.

Various compound words have been formed, with dubious etymological exactness, from "cybernetics" – we have already met "cyborg". There are the "Cybermen" and "Cybernauts" – two varieties of dangerous semi-Robots – in the television series Doctor Who and The Avengers, respectively; here the "cyber" component is merely a buzzword synonym for cyborgization. Two terms where the "cyber" component has considerably more force, Cyberpunk and Cyberspace, warrant their own entries.

The only book that analyses cybernetics issues from an sf perspective is The Cybernetic Imagination in Science Fiction (1980) by Patricia S Warrick, interesting when talking about cybernetic ideas as they are used in sf – often inaccurately in her view – but on less sure ground when discussing the literary quality of the results. "Cyborgs and Cybernetic Intertexts: On Postmodern Phantasms of Body and Mind" by Gabriele Schwab in Intertextuality and Contemporary American Fiction (anth 1989), edited by Patrick O'Donnell, is an academic essay on the subject. [PN]

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