Our work builds on frameworks and theories from the fields of cybernetics and systems engineering, two fields of practice that developed around the design and management of large-scale systems, the closest parallel one might find to cyber-physical systems.
Increasingly over recent years, there have been growing calls for the tech industry to shift focus from the technology itself to the humans behind the technology, and the impact on communities and the environment. This isn’t the first time people have sought to do this. The idea that technical systems couldn’t be divorced from the human and environmental systems that created them (and that they shaped in turn) was core to cybernetics, one of the disciplines from which Ai emerged.
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 machine, humans and the environment (however that is defined) communicate with and control each other through regulatory systems and feedback loops.
Cybernetics became more than a set of methods – it was a philosophy – and gave rise to a series of conferences that are still referred to, to this day. Cybernetics also spawned many technology sub-disciplines, including systems engineering, and the Australian National University offers world-leading systems engineering programs. The cybernetics of the mid-20th century was developed using many disciplines, including mathematics, physics, anthropology and psychology. For much of the rest of the 20th century, this approach was lost.
Mary Catherine Bateson, daughter of Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead who participated in the early cybernetics conferences, wrote of the trajectory of cybernetics in the latter half of the 20th century:
“The tragedy of the cybernetic revolution, which had two phases, the computer science side and the systems theory side, has been the neglect of the systems theory side of it. We chose marketable gadgets in preference to a deeper understanding of the world we live in.”
At 3Ai we are drawing from these ideas of interdisciplinarity, thinking in systems and incorporating human and environmental considerations into technical systems. This revival of cybernetics – or at least those parts that were lost – is central to our approach to research.