Our thinking: AI, CPS and cybernetics

As we approach the middle of the 21st century, there are many possible futures. At the School of Cybernetics, we are actively building them. Our approach to the future is focussed less on the instruments of technologies and more on the broader systems in which these technologies exist, and that will be necessary to bring these futures into being. We think differently and holistically about systems – about technology, people and planet – and we bring diverse and divergent kinds of people along on a journey to establish a new field of knowledge and practice that engages closely with the world that is emerging.

Artificial intelligence features centrally in conversations about the future. But our future is bigger than AI.  


AI lives not only in our cultural imaginations but in the built world around us. We see AI in systems that encompass everything from the electrical grid and railway lines to mine sites, elevator shafts, food-supply chains and the objects that fit in our pocket. There is not just one AI but many. So, we find it helpful to think more broadly, to focus on understanding and scaling “cyber-physical systems” (CPS), a constellation of technologies where data, networks, algorithms and machine learning converge to transform the way computers and physical objects work.  


Cyber-physical systems are profoundly changing the world we live in. 


The core features of all cyber-physical systems are an ability to automatically sense the environment (drawing from IoT connect datasets or creating new data through sensing technology), to infer something from this data, and to act upon that data in a way that has real and unmediated effect in the world. With advances in machine learning, these systems are moving rapidly towards being “proactive”, that is, capable of action without immediate reference to human controls, and being “intelligent” in that they can learn and adapt their action according to new information. 


Our intent is to shape a field of inquiry into cyber-physical systems that is deeply and intrinsically connected to building the world we want to see, one that is safe, sustainable and responsible. 


Cybernetics is a way forward. 


Norbert Wiener popularised the term cybernetics in 1948 with the publication of his book by the same name. The word cybernetics comes from the ancient Greek word kybernetikos meaning “good at steering”; the perfect word for what Wiener defined as “the science of control and communications in the animal and the machine”, the study of how machines, humans and the environment (however that is defined) communicate with and control each other through regulatory systems and feedback loops. 


Cybernetics started as a remarkable set of conversations that represented an attempt to constitute a new body of knowledge and a new discipline. These conversations were a clear and deliberate examination of the role of technology in our lives and revealed new kinds of possibilities for the future. It has become more than a set of methods – it is a philosophy. It offers a way of thinking about the world that feels both immense and acute.   


As cyber-physical systems transform the world around us and shape the way we as human beings exist and interact with each other and our physical environment, cybernetics offers a way of transcending boundaries, of thinking in systems and ensuring that humans, technology and the environment are always in frame. At the School of Cybernetics, we are curating the next set of conversations, and reimagining cybernetics for the middle of the 21st century so that the technologies of our future are scaled safely, sustainably and responsibly.