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Some people have suggested that technology . . .
. . . is advancing so rapidly it . . .
. . . is outpacing our ability to control it.
Three Mile Island | 美國三哩島核能電廠
Clearly, it is no longer possible for one person to keep up with developments in
all fields, let alone be a leader in many of them, as Leonardo Da Vinci was.
Specialization has become a necessity. How then, do we live and work
effectively in a technically advanced society?
Is there a way that you, the modern man or woman, can sort through the
complexity, formulate a set of principles underlying all systems and thereby
enhance your ability to regulate the world in which you live?
Cybernetics = Regulation of Systems
模控學 = 系統的調節
This question was of interest to a handful of people in the 1940s who were the
pioneers in a field that has become known as Cybernetics, the science of the
regulation of systems.
Cybernetics is an interdisciplinary
science that looks at any and all
systems from molecules . . .
. . . to galaxies, with special attention to
machines, animals and societies.
Cybernetics is derived from the
Greek word for steersman or
helmsman, who provides the
control system for a boat or ship.
This word was coined in 1948 and defined as a science by Norbert
Wiener, who was born in 1894 and died in 1964. He became known
as the Father of Cybernetics.
Wiener was an applied mathematician, biologist, and electrical engineer. He
worked during World War II on the radar-guided anti-aircraft gun.
He connected a special
radar to the gun so that it
was aimed automatically
at the enemy aircraft.
After the gun was fired,
the radar quickly
determined the changing
location of the plane and
re-aimed the gun until the
plane was shot down.
The system imitated human functions and performed them more effectively.
Feedback | 回饋
The anti-aircraft gun demonstrates the cybernetic principle of feedback.
Feedback is information about the results of a process which is used to change
the process. The radar provided information about the changes in location of the
enemy airplane and this information was used to correct the aiming of the gun.
A more familiar example of the use of feedback to regulate a system is the
common thermostat for heating a room.
Room Temperature Rises to 700
If the heating system is
adjusted, as is common, to
allow a maximum of 2
degrees variation, when the
thermostat is set at 68
degrees the temperature will
rise to 70 degrees . . .
. . . before a temperature
sensor in the thermostat
triggers the furnace to turn off.
The furnace will remain off until
the temperature of the room has
fallen to 66 degrees . . .
. . . then the sensor in
the thermostat triggers
the furnace to turn on
Self Regulating System
The sensor provides a feedback loop of information that allows the system to
detect a difference from the desired temperature of 68 degrees and to make a
change to correct the error. As with the anti-aircraft gun and the airplane, this
system – consisting of the thermostat, the heater and the room – is said to
regulate itself through feedback and is a self-regulating system.
The human body is one of the richest
sources of examples of feedback that
leads to the regulation of a system.
For example, when your stomach is
empty, information is passed to your
When you have taken corrective action, by eating, your brain is similarly notified
that your stomach is satisfied.
In a few hours, the process starts all over again. This feedback loop continues
throughout our lives.
The human body is such a marvel
of self-regulation that early
cyberneticians studied its
processes and used it as a model
to design machines that were self-
regulating. One famous machine
called the homeostat was
constructed in the 1940s by a
British scientist, Ross Ashby.
Ross Ashby 製作的 homeostat。
Just as the human body maintains
a 98.6 degree temperature the
homeostat could maintain the
same electrical current, despite
changes from the outside.
Homeostasis | 自體恆定
The homeostat, the human being, and the thermostat all are said to maintain
homeostasis or equilibrium, through feedback loops of various kinds. It does
not matter how the information is carried – just that the regulator is informed of
some change which calls for some kind of adaptive behavior.
Another scientist, Grey Walter, also
pursued the concept of imitating the
self-regulating features of man and
Grey Walter 也模擬了動物與人身上的
His favorite project was building mechanical 'tortoises' that would, like this live
tortoise, move about freely and have certain attributes of an independent life.
Walter is pictured here with his wife Vivian,
their son Timothy, and Elsie the tortoise.
Elsie has much in common with Timothy.
Just as Timothy seeks out food, which is
stored in his body in the form of fat, Elsie
seeks out light which she 'feeds' on and
transforms into electrical energy which
charges an accumulator inside her. Then
she's ready for a nap, just like Timothy after
a meal, in an area of soft light.
Although Elsie's behavior imitates that of
a human, her anatomy is very different.
This is what Elsie looks like underneath
She looks a lot more like the inside of a transistor radio than . . .
. . . the inside of a human body.
But as a cybernetician, Walter
was not interested in imitating the
physical form of a human being,
but in simulating a human's
Cybernetics does not ask . . .
“What Is This Thing?”
“What Does it Do?”
Grey Walter did not attempt to simulate
the physical form of a human, as does
a sculptor, but to simulate human
Grey Walter 並不想要模擬人類的外型，
In other words, he viewed humans . . .
Not as Objects,
For centuries, people have designed
machines to help with human tasks
and not just tasks requiring muscle
Automata, such as the little
moving figures of people or
animals that emerge from cuckoo
clocks and music boxes, were
popular in the 1700's and
machines capable of thinking
were a subject for speculation
long before the electronic
computer was invented.
Macy Foundation Meetings
1946 - 1953
From 1946 to 1953 there was a series of meetings to discuss feedback loops and
circular causality in self-regulating systems.
The meetings, sponsored by the Josiah Macy, Jr. Foundation, were
interdisciplinary, attended by engineers, mathematicians, neurophysiologists, and
The chairman of these meetings, Warren McCulloch, wrote that these scientists
had great difficulty understanding each other, because each had his or her own
會議的主席 Warren McCulloch，回憶說當時這些科學家彼此間有很大的溝通障
There were heated arguments that were so exciting that Margaret Mead, who
was in attendance, once did not even notice that she had broken a tooth until
after the meeting.
激烈到使得與會的人類學家 Margaret Mead 到會議結束後，才發現把自己把牙
The later meetings went somewhat more calmly as the members developed a
common set of experiences.
These meetings, along with the
1948 publication of Norbert
Wiener's book titled 'Cybernetics,'
served to lay the groundwork for
the development of cybernetics as
we know it today.
這些會議，隨著 1984 Norbert
Here is a photograph taken in the 1950s of the four prominent early
cyberneticians that you have already met. From left to right they are: Ross
Ashby of homeostat fame; Warren McCulloch, organizer of the Macy
Foundation meetings; Grey Walter, creator of Elsie, the tortoise; and Norbert
Wiener, who suggested that the field be called ‘Cybernetics.'
Ashby (homeostat)，McCulloch (主席)，Walter (龜)，Wiener (之父)
Neurophysiology | 神經生理學
Mathematics | 數學
Philosophy | 哲學
Warren McCulloch was a key figure in enlarging the scope of cybernetics.
Although a psychiatrist by training, McCulloch combined his knowledge of
neurophysiology, mathematics, and philosophy to better understand a very
complex system . . .
. . . the human nervous system.
He believed that the functioning of the nervous system could be described in the
precise language of mathematics.
For example, he developed an equation which explained the fact that when a
cold object such as an ice cube touches the skin for a brief instant, paradoxically
it gives the sensation of heat rather than cold.
McCulloch used not only mathematics and neurophysiology to understand the
nervous system but also philosophy – a rare combination. Scientists and
philosophers are often considered miles apart in their interests – scientists study
real, concrete, . . .
除了數學，McCulloch 也研究了哲學。科學家往往與哲學家兩不相干… 科學家研
and minerals, while philosophers, . . .
. . . study abstract things like ideas,
thoughts, and concepts.
Epistemology = Study of Knowledge
認識論 = 知識的研究
McCulloch could see that there is a connection between the science of
neurophysiology and a branch of philosophy called epistemology, which is the
study of knowledge.
While knowledge is usually considered invisible and abstract, McCulloch
realized that knowledge is formed in a physical organ of the body, the brain.
Brain Mind Knowledge
腦 心智 知識
The mind is, in fact, the meeting place between the brain and an idea, between
the physical and the abstract, between science and philosophy.
McCulloch founded a new field of study based on this intersection of the
physical and the philosophical. This field of study he called 'experimental
epistemology,' the study of knowledge through neurophysiology. The goal was to
explain how the activity of a nerve network results in what we experience as
feelings and ideas.
Cybernetics = Regulation of Systems
模控學 = 系統的協調
Why is McCulloch's work so important to cyberneticians? Remember,
cybernetics is the science of the regulation of systems.
The human brain is perhaps the most
remarkable regulator of all, regulating
the human body as well as many other
systems in its environment. A theory of
how the brain operates is a theory of
how all of human knowledge is
Whereas an anti-aircraft gun and a thermostat are devices constructed by
people to regulate certain systems, the mind is a system that constructs itself
and regulates itself. We shall say more about this phenomenon in a few
Other Concepts in Cybernetics
Now that we have touched on some of the key people, their interests, and their
contributions, we shall look at a few additional concepts in cybernetics.
Law of Requisite Variety
One important concept is the law of requisite variety. This law states that as a
system becomes more complex, the controller of that system must also become
more complex, because there are more functions to regulate. In other words,
the more complex the system that is being regulated, the more complex the
regulator of the system must be.
Let's return to our example of a
If a house has only a furnace, the
thermostat can be quite simple –
since it controls only the furnace.
However, if the house has both a
furnace and an air conditioner, the
thermostat must be more complex
– it will have more switches,
knobs, or buttons – since it must
control two processes – both
heating and cooling.
The same principle applies to living
organisms. Human beings have the
most complex nervous system and
brain of any of the animals. This allows
them to engage in many different
activities and to have complex bodies.
In contrast, some animals such as the starfish, . . .
. . . and sea anemone have no centralized brain, but only a simple nerve
network, which is all that is required to regulate the simpler bodies and functions
of these sea animals. In summary, the more complex the animal, the more
complex the brain needs to be.
The law of requisite variety not only applies to controlling machines and human
bodies, but to social systems as well. For example, in order to control crime, it is
not necessary or feasible to have one policeman for each citizen, because not
all activities of citizens need regulation . . .
. . . just illegal ones. Therefore, one or two police for every thousand people
generally provides the necessary capability for regulating illegal activities.
In this case a match between the
variety in the regulator and the variety
in the system being regulated is
achieved not by increasing the
complexity of the regulator, but by
reducing the variety in the system
being regulated. That is, rather than
hiring many policemen, we simply
decide to regulate fewer aspects of
Self Organizing Systems
The self-organizing system is another cybernetic concept, which we all see
demonstrated daily. A self-organizing system is a system that becomes more
organized as it goes toward equilibrium. Ross Ashby observed that every
system whose internal processes or interaction rules do not change is a self-
的系統。Ross Ashby 認為，系統的內在程序或互動規則不會變動者，就是一種
For example, a disorganized group of people who are waiting . . .
. . . to take a bus will fall into a line, because of their past experience that lines
are a practical, fair way to obtain service. These people constitute a self-
Even a mixture of salad oil and
vinegar is a self-organizing system. As
a result of being shaken as shown
here, the mixture changes to a
homogeneous liquid – temporarily.
As the salad dressing is allowed
to go to equilibrium, the mixture
changes its structure and the oil
and vinegar separate
automatically. We could say that
the mixture organizes itself.
The idea of self-organization leads to a
general design rule. In order to change
any object, put the object in an
environment where the interaction
between the object and the environment
changes the object in the direction you
want it to go. Let's consider three
examples . . .
First, in order to make iron from iron
ore we put the iron ore in an
environment called a blast furnace. In
the furnace, coke is burned to
produce heat. In the chemical and
thermodynamic environment of the
blast furnace, iron oxides become
As a second example consider the process of educating a child. The child is
placed in a school.
As a result of interacting with teachers and other students in the school, the
child learns to read and write.
A third example is the regulation
of business by government. To
regulate their affairs the people of
the United States adopted a
Constitution that established three
branches of government. By
passing laws, Congress creates
an environment of tax incentives
and legal penalties which are
enforced by the Executive
These incentives and penalties, which are adjudicated by the courts,
encourage businessmen to modify their behavior in the desired direction.
Each case – the iron smelting
furnace . . .
the school with its teachers and students . . .
. . . and government regulation of
business can be thought of as a
self-organizing system. Each
system organizes itself as it goes
toward its stable equilibrial state.
And in each case the known
interaction rules of the system
have been used to produce a
The recent work on cellular automata, fractal geometry, and complexity can be
thought of as an extension of the work on self-organizing systems in the early
So far we have talked mainly about how cybernetics can help us to build
machines and to understand simple regulatory processes. But cybernetics also
can be helpful in understanding how knowledge itself is generated.
This understanding can provide us with
a firmer foundation for regulating larger
systems, such as business
corporations, nations, . . .
Second Order Cybernetics
. . . began extending the application of cybernetics principles to understanding
the role of the observer. This emphasis was called 'second-order cybernetics.‘
Whereas, first-order cybernetics dealt
with controlled systems, second-order
cybernetics deals with autonomous
Applying cybernetic principles to
social systems calls attention to
the role of the observer of a
system who, . . .
. . . while attempting to study and understand a social system, is not able to
separate himself from the system or prevent himself from having an effect on it.
In the classical view, a scientist working in a laboratory takes great pains to
prevent his own actions from affecting the outcome of an experiment. However,
as we move from mechanical systems, such as those the scientist works with in
the laboratory, to social systems, it becomes impossible to ignore the role of the
For example, a scientist such as Margaret Mead who studied people and their
cultures, could not help but have some effect on the people she studied.
Because she lived within the
societies she studied, the inhabitants
would naturally, on occasion, want to
impress her, please her, or perhaps
Mead's presence in a culture altered that culture and, in turn, affected what she
This 'observer effect' made it impossible for Mead to know what the society was
like when she wasn't there.
A conscientious news reporter will
always be affected by his or her
background and experience and
hence will necessarily be subjective.
Also, one reporter is unable to gather
and comprehend all the information
necessary to give a complete,
accurate report on a complex event.
For these reasons, it is wise to have
several different people study a complex
event or system. Only by listening to
descriptions of several observers can a
person form an impression of how much
a description of an event is a function of
the observer and how much the
description is a function of the event
Whereas, in the early days,
cybernetics was generally applied to
systems seeking goals defined for
them, 'second-order' cybernetics
refers to systems that define their
It focuses attention on how purposes are
constructed. An interesting example of a
system that grows from having purposes
set for it to one that defines its own
purposes is a human being. When
children are very young, parents set
goals for them. For example, parents
normally desire that their children learn to
walk, talk, and use good table manners.
However, as children grow older, they learn to set their own goals and pursue
their own purposes, such as deciding on educational and career goals, . . .
To review what we have learned, cybernetics was first noted for the concept of
The human body is a rich source
of examples of how feedback
allows systems to regulate
themselves, causing scientists to
be interested in studying . . .
. . . and simulating human and
animal activities, from walking to
Cybernetics studies self-
organizing properties and has
moved . . .
. . . from a concern primarily with
machines . . .
. . . to include large social systems.
Although we shall never be able
to return to the times of Leonardo
Da Vinci and master all fields of
existing knowledge, we can
construct a set of principles that
underlie the behavior of all
Also, as cybernetics tells us, because the observer defines the systems he
wants to control, complexity is observer-dependent.
Complexity, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.