chapter  8
CYBERNETICS
BySØREN BRIER
Pages 11

In Stanislaw Lem’s Cyberiad, the cybernetic super-engineer Trurl, robotic inventor and robot builder, constructs a robot-computer that can produce poetry in all its forms. He realizes that in order to produce the first-ever specimen of such a machine, he needs to model the whole of human mythological, social, and cultural history. So, he creates a cybernetic model of the Muse, a Cyberbard that can produce an infinite amount of heart-touching poems. Writing day and night, this immense poetic force ends up disturbing social as well as galactic order. The verse above – the first in a mathematical love poem with cybernetic feeling made by Trurl’s electronic bard – is a fitting place to start a discussion of cybernetics and literature. The mathematician Norbert Wiener, who coined the term, described

“cybernetics” as the science of control and communication in the animal and the machine (Wiener 1948), a definition taken as foundational by one of cybernetics’ major developers, Ross Ashby (1956). The etymology of cybernetics goes to the art of steersmanship. In Greek, kybernetes means pilot, steersman, and cybernetics is a theory of control of the behavior of machines, organisms, and organizations by the way of feedback circuits. Most of all, cybernetics studied machines with built-in devices, such as regulators and thermostats, for seeking and maintaining set goals. Thus, fundamentally, the science of cybernetics focuses not on being but on behavior: it does not ask, “what is this thing?” but instead, “what does it do?” Or, “how can we make a thing that does this?” Especially in its initial or first-order form, cybernetics is a transdisciplinary engineering thinking. It is not about subjective individuals or any form of individual consciousness, because one of the basic requirements for being an autonomous individual is to be autopoietic. As developed in secondorder cybernetics, autopoiesis refers to systems, such as living cells, that are selfreferential in that they are self-maintaining: they are themselves the product of their own operation (see Clarke 2008, and his article on Systems Theory,

Chapter 19, this volume). In contrast, the machines studied in the first cybernetics are allopoietic, that is, created and made by something else, some other system. The combination of a cybernetic machine and an organism, human or other-

wise, is called a cyborg, from which term derives the fantastic cybernetic vision of the Borg in Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG). When Captain Jean-Luc Picard is captured by the Borg, he is transformed into a cyborg. The indeterminate status and behavior of this combination of machine and organism may be why in all the movies and TV episodes of TNG, Data, an android constructed by the chief cybernetician Dr. Noonien Soong, is such a mystery. Nobody knows exactly what it/he is or how to construct another. The Borg manifests as a juggernaut of cybernetically enhanced humanoid drones of multiple species, an interconnected collective communicatively linked through a subspace domain and integrated into a hive or group mind/ego, a single consciousness occupying many bodies. A type of organization inspired by bees and ants, as in a perfect dictatorship, the individual is sacrificed to the social whole. The Borg captures the uneasy social affect in many of the fantastic narratives cybernetics has inspired. The cyborg fantasy of the Borg combines the autopoietic and sign-producing

abilities of living systems with machines’ powers of memory and computation, making all members of Borg far stronger than humans. Furthermore, as a massive cybernetic and homeostatic system, the Borg is always adapting and consuming new technology and information, making organic agencies into cyborgs with implants, and integrating those cyborgs and their spaceship into a sentient autopoietic system. The Borg travels through space assimilating those races and their technologies that can improve its efficiency and survival into its system: “We are the Borg. You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile!” In “The Best of Both Worlds,” it captures and renders Captain Picard into the collective by surgically altering him, creating Locutus of Borg to use as a weapon in the battle against the Enterprise. One wonders if his recapture by the Enterprise crew and the operative restoration of his former individual self is as realistic as his submission to the Borg system! Lem’s genius in the Cyberiad is that, while he sees the immense possibilities of

cybernetics, at the same time, with tongue-in-cheek irony, his exquisite sciencefiction fables explore its dubious relations to human consciousness. In a fable on the problem of will, “Trurl’s Machine,” a stupid and stubborn robot refuses to learn anything beyond its original program. Unfortunately, that program had some elementary flaws, such as thinking that two and two equals seven, and Trurl’s stupid machine prefers to kill the messenger of its faults rather than to correct them. A fundamentalist robot! Isaac Asimov has a comparable story where robots on a space ship will not accept that they are created by the humans, pointing out how much more perfect they are. The movie I Robot uses the same kind of irony when the machines realize how irrational human beings can be, and so interpret Asimov’s laws for robots about protecting their

creators by trying to take power, thus bringing themselves and the whole globe into danger. As too often happens in these science fictions, the robots are given self-conscious minds, without due consideration of the flaws in cybernetic thinking – its blind spots when it comes to matters of will, emotion, the qualia and agency of first-person consciousness. Cybernetics started by being closely associated with physics, in particular,

thermodynamics and statistical mechanics. But it depends in no essential way on the laws of physics or on the properties of matter. It gets its transdisciplinary scope by viewing the materiality of a given system as irrelevant to its organizational properties. Rather, it works with those circulating differences and relations that we have come to call information. What cybernetics is concerned with is the scientific investigation of all varieties of goal-oriented systemic processes, including such phenomena as regulation, information processing, information storage, adaptation, self-organization, self-reproduction, and strategic behavior. Cybernetics deals with all forms of behavior insofar as they are regular, determinate, or reproducible. Thus, at its origin cybernetics lays down its own foundations as a science of

self-regulating and goal-seeking systems. Lem underscores this special independence in his Cyberiad again and again by showing how Trurl and his friend and competitor, Klapaucius, are at the same time both inventors and problem solvers for the problems their inventions create. For instance, they invent a prey robot for King Krool so perfect that not even his predator Saint Cybernards and Cyberman pinchers, nor even the king’s high-fidelity cybersteed, could follow it! In essence, Trurl and Klapaucius introduced self-organizing principles into their invention and, as such, attempted to move the behavior of robots up to the next step in cybernetic development, namely Heinz von Foerster’s second-order cybernetics, for which the goal is not only to observe the behavior of systems but also to observe the way that observing systems observe. Thus the construction recurs on the constructor itself. Lem’s refined ironic tales, then, play on how cybernetic devices – from ther-

mostats, physiological mechanism for the regulation of body temperature, and automatic steering devices, to economic and political processes – are goal-seeking systems studied under a general mathematical model of deviation-counteracting feedback networks. Cybernetics is transdisciplinary and requires some knowledge of neurophysiology, mathematics, philosophy, psychology, but proposes on this basis a general theory of information processing and decision making based on a computational framework. Laying the foundation for what we now call cognitive science, cybernetics’ algebraic information thinking permeated even its attempts to model linguistics as well as emotions and consciousness. This algebraic-computational orientation makes it clear why, in The Cyberiad,

Klapaucius attempts to test Trurl’s Cyberbard by asking for “a love poem, lyrical, pastoral, and expressed in the language of pure mathematics. Tensor algebra mainly, with a little topology and higher calculus, if need be. But with

feeling, you understand, in the cybernetic spirit” (Lem 1985: 51-52). As cybernetics, especially in Wiener’s hand, was also the development of a special interdisciplinary mathematical apparatus, the love poem given by Trurl’s electronic bard, in Michael Kandel’s astonishing translation, provides such a unique ode to mathematical beauty that I have to cite a few more lines.