In the simplest of terms, Cybernetics is the study of the behaviour of things – both living and non-living, in order to apply it to establish control, and communicate effectively towards an intended objective.
In any linear system, the input is processed to create the output. However, cybernetics deviates from this simple theory in that it creates a system of loops, or a kind of reciprocal system. Here, the input is not only processed into the output, but also feedback is used by the output to communicate back to the input, thus creating a closed loop.
Cybernetics uses the concept of Homeostasis – that is, it endeavours to maintain the system in a stable internal state, irrespective of the external forces acting on it. Thus, whenever there is a particular external input, the system creates an equivalent negative feedback to counter it.
A good example of a negative feedback system would be that of the cooling fan in the engine compartment of your car. Whenever the temperature inside the compartment rises to a certain point, the thermostat automatically switches on the fan to cool the compartment.
Cybernetics helps define an entity in terms of its behaviour, rather than its identity. Rather than focusing on what an entity is, cybernetics seeks to explain the role it plays in the system. In this way, cybernetics helps to bridge the gap between diverse fields of study pertaining to a related subject and integrates the functions of various professionals such as engineers, physicians, mathematicians, etc., thus bringing them onto a common platform.
The term cybernetics was first used by mathematician Norbert Wiener in his 1948 book of the same name. He described how the individual entity was connected with and communicated with the environment. It was Wiener who first asserted that both living and non-living systems used the principals of cybernetics in their functioning.
The theory of cybernetics applies to every system that is at work, both within and around us. Broadly classified, cybernetics applies to the following types of systems:
- Physical systems – A physical system is the environment around an entity, along with the various constituents that make up the system. e.g. a cyclone is made up of wind and water droplets and sunlight is made up of rays of light.
- Biological systems – All things living, including humans comprise of numerous biological systems. They include the digestive system, respiratory system, circulatory system, reproductive system, nervous system, etc. Cybernetics is at work in our genes and your hormones.
- Social systems – A social system can be an individual, an institution or a group. A social system includes various social constitutions like, for example, a pluralistic society, a democratic government, patriarchy/ matriarchy, etc.
- Mechanical systems – Machines that are created to perform certain tasks, e.g. power plants, engines, etc., form part of a mechanical system. The constituents of a mechanical system work on the principle of mechanics. A good example would be that of an assembly line at an automobile factory – the vehicle being assembled moves through various locations like the body shop, paint shop, engine assembly, etc. before rolling out as a finished product.
- Cognitive systems – Cognitive systems are systems that deal with intelligence as a whole – whether it is natural or artificial intelligence. Cognitive systems usually deal with machines that have embedded logic, such as computers and controllers, sensors, etc. These machines have capabilities to execute complex algorithms analogous to human thought and logic.