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Selected papers from conferences of the Cybernetics Society
Article Type: Guest editorial From: Kybernetes, Volume 40, Issue 1/2
The UK Cybernetics Society was formed in 1968 and has held annual conferences since 1974. A good many papers presented at those conferences were developed, with the benefit of delegate feedback, and subsequently published in this journal. The double issue Vol. 35 Nos 1/2, 2006, based on CybCon 2004, is an example. The synergy between this journal and the society has worked well in the past and it can be expected to flourish in the future, particularly in the light of our recent and closer association. This special issue celebrates the formal adoption of Kybernetes as the official journal of the UK Cybernetics Society. It is a proud association previously unique to WOSC.
Kybernetes and the Cybernetics Society have enjoyed other informal links over many years. It would take too much space to give an exhaustive list but a few links spring immediately to mind: Society Fellows Bernard Scott, Ranulph Glanville and D.J. Stewart are Members of the Kybernetes Editorial Board; and Alex Andrew is the Internet Editor, for example.
The Cybernetics Society does not place a limit on the length of papers presented at its conferences with the result that some papers are two or three times the 3,000 to 6,000 word length specified for publication in Kybernetes. It would be a significant loss if these papers were not brought to the wide audience offered by this journal, but severe editing to bring the papers down to the normal length would not been possible without losing their coherence. Fortunately, for this special issue, the Editor-in-Chief has kindly accepted submission of a selection of significantly extended papers from our 2006, 2008 and 2009 conferences. This has allowed the authors of the longer papers the freedom to retain, develop and extend their work to a greater depth and breadth than the normal space allows. Two of these extended papers are from Austria and the USA; it is particularly gratifying to be able to include such diversity of backgrounds.
From our 2006 Conference, we submit: “What is a symbol?” Bernard Scott and Simon Shurville; “The origins of British cybernetics: the Ratio Club”, Owen Holland and Phil Husbands; “Elegant motion: The Senster and other cybernetic sculptures by Edward Ihnatowicz”, Aleksandar Zivanovic and Stephen Boyd Davis; and “Cybernetics and system dynamics: impacts on public policy”, Michael Kennedy. From our 2008 Conference, we submit: “Memory model of information transmitted in absolute judgment”, Lance Nizami. From 2009 (our 41st Annual Conference), we submit: “From the systemic view to systems science”, Janos Korn; and “Cybernetics as the science of decision making” by Helmut Nechansky. Further information on each paper, author and conference can be found on: www.cybsoc.org/proceedings.htm
Scott and Shurville take the question, “What is a symbol?” as a focus to analyse aspects of human communication particularly as they relate to the arts, natural sciences, social sciences and cognitive sciences. Building on the work of Couffignal, von Foerster and Gordon Pask, they show that insight into the nature of the arts, humanities and vocational disciplines can be gained using sociocybernetics, cybernetics, second-order cybernetics and systems theory.
Holland and Husbands give a valuable, fascinating, authoritative, detailed and accurate account of the Ratio Club, a British cybernetic dining club that met between 1949 and 1958. Membership included some of the best known British cyberneticists, including: Grey Walter, Ross Ashby, Kenneth Craik and Alan Turing.
Zivanovic and Boyd Davis review the work of the pioneering artist and engineer Edward Ihnatowicz (1926-1988), who toured the world exhibiting his cybernetic sculptures. His skills and insight enabled him to create artworks that appeared to be intelligent, living machines because they moved in such a fluid, lifelike and elegant manner. That robotic machines built today do not always achieve this, is proof that he was years ahead of his time. This thorough, scholarly and historical review is a valuable and fascinating record of his work.
Kennedy reviews, compares and contrasts system dynamics and cybernetics. A brief theoretical review of both cybernetics and system dynamics is given. The author reviews a sample of the literature and gives a description of a number of practical applications of both disciplines for dealing with real-world situations in the public policy arena. Kennedy notes that the literature shows system dynamics tends to be applied to more practical applications, with cybernetics tending to be applied towards the theoretical. He concludes that in the public policy field there is much more in common between the two disciplines than there is separating them.
Nizami presents a critical review of the use by psychologists of Shannon’s information theory to measure human performance in making “absolute judgments”, “category classifications”, or “absolute identifications” of the sensations of loudness, brightness, hue, etc. The psychologists Garner and Hake and their successors used Shannon’s information theory to quantify information transmitted when humans make absolute judgments of sensory stimuli. Apparently, the Garner and Hake approach has greatly affected the study of human perception. He concludes that: absolute judgments have numerous idiosyncrasies that are incompatible with a Shannon communication system and that channel capacity is an illusion caused by sampling bias and wishful thinking. (It might come as a surprise to electronics and telecommunications engineers that Shannon’s information theory is being applied to humans’ ability to make judgements about sensations.)
Korn considers the “systemic view” of the world as seeing the world as “related properties or objects”. He sees this view as having produced, by and large, little more than speculative intellectual output. His aim is to use the scientific method to transform the systemic view of the world into a systems science. He begins by classifying objects in the world into: concrete, abstract, imaginary, symbolic, etc. He introduces information theory while recognising the limitations of applying it to scenarios with human components (as Nechansky does in his paper). Using methods from linguistics, mathematics, logic and network theory, he takes us through the hierarchy and complexity of letters of the alphabet, words, sentences, meanings, and natural language leading up to static and dynamic linguistic modelling. With examples from the history of science and engineering, that is: thermodynamics and control theory, he outlines a formal method for the production of outcomes, such as a methodology for problem solving, and the design of systems and products.
In any cybernetic system, goal-oriented action arises from a decision based on the difference between the measured value of some variable and the goal value for that variable. Thus, decision making depends on the necessity of having a goal value. To justify this thesis, Nechansky starts by giving a brief account of Miller’s living systems theory (which gives the functional necessities and common features of all forms of life) followed by a brief account of Stafford Beer’s viable systems theory. He then combines them and draws parallels with structures in management and social systems. He describes two applications. In the first, he combines elements of Miller’s theory with Beer’s theory, yielding a feedback system that forms the basis of any decision-making system. In the second, he shows how a complex controller structure forms the basic requirements for a brain. By considering cybernetics as a science of structures that enable certain decisions, he shows how the requirements and principles of decision making determine the development of complex controller structures.
I enormously enjoyed the privilege of organising the conferences, listening to the conference presentations and have enjoyed reading the full papers again. I have been enlightened and commend them to you.
I am indebted to Bernard Scott for his collaboration and assistance in bringing this special issue to fruition.
Martin Smith, Bernard ScottGuest Editors