A New Kind of Cybernetics

I became interest in Cybernetics in the mid 70’s when our Automation class teacher introduced us to A.Y. Lerner’s book “Fundamentals of Cybernetics”. What fascinated me most in this book was the description of “Analogous systems” in chapter 3.4 and the realization that very different structural patterns (mechanical, hydraulic, electrical) have similar behaviour and can be described with identical mathematical patterns:

I’m still enjoying skimming through this easy to read book and finding out how, even after half a century, most of it still holds true, some things have changed with technology advancements, and many of the questions still remain unanswered.

However, there was one thing in this book (and Cybernetics as a whole) I was never comfortable with: the distinction between the Control and Controlled (sub)systems.

Being in the engineering line of business, I was able to understand the reason for the need of such a structure from the perspective of resolving problems related to building machines that would control other machines, but the majority of the systems Cybernetic is supposed to deal with, organisms and (social) organizations, do not fit this simplified control structure. In most (dynamical) systems worth consideration by Cybernetics, it is impossible to separate the control and the controlled elements with such a clear cut. Elements in such systems are most often controlled (constrained by) but at the same time also have control (influence) over other elements of the system.


Much later I became aware of Maturana and Varela’s notion of autopoiesis and their definition immediately got my attention. They defined their autopoietic system as:

 “… a network of productions of components which:

a) through their interactions recursively constitute and realize the network of productions that produced them;

b) constitute the boundaries of the network as components that participate in its constitution and realization; and

c) constitute and realize the network as a composite unity in the space in which they exist.”

Autopoiesis, even if it seems its domain is primarily that of “biological machines” and cognition as a “biological phenomena”, was a great addition to cybernetics. Even if most “cybernetic machines” do not produce themselves, the paradigm of a network (system) that through the interaction of its components realize that same network (system), define the system as a unity within its boundaries, is what I was missing.

It was immediately obvious to me that the definition can be equally applicable for modern engineered and social systems. Maturana seemed reluctant to include social and man-made systems in his autopoietic picture. Varela, from the other hand, was very active in extending the notion of autopoiesis to such things like “artificial intelligence”.  

Anyway, the autopoietic definition of the system as a “network of productions” provided a better “generative mechanism” for a “scientific explanation” of the “constitution, realization and maintenance of the system as a composite unity“, but I’ve lost the distinction between levels of control in the organization of the system. How is the system maintained as a “composite network of productions” when there is no clear distinction “who is in charge” of what?

While the traditional cybernetic (linear) description was too simplistic, the autopoietic (networked) definition introduced a new element of chaos.

The Dynamical System Model

Fortunately, in the mid 80’s, while attending post-graduate courses in Control Engineering, I bumped in a structure that will, from that moment on, become the mainstay of my “Kihbernetics systems philosophy”. In a course about Continual and Discrete Tracking Systems we were introduced with a structure like the one presented on the picture below (scanned from my old notebook).

The context was about problems with the analysis of non-linear dynamical systems with memory, and the purpose of the lecture was to show an analysis method where, by separating the system in two subsystems, the “memory” part of the system (function  F) and the part without memory (functions  f  &  g) would allow for the separate identification of the two subsystems and consequently simplify the analysis of the system as a whole.

I think it is already obvious from this schematic, but just for the sake of clarity: The notation represents the following (physical) variables: u(t) is the input signal (vector) to the system and y(t) is the output signal, x(t) represents the current state of the system generated from the internal signal v(t) produced in the part of the system without memory.

The first thing I did was to change the shape of this block schematic in order to get the “untangled” version as on the pictures below. Now, the moment I draw this picture was the start of an epiphany.

As stated above, for all vectors (arrows) in this system there was a real physical equivalent (input, output, state), excepts for v(t) which was in the lecture simply identified as the “state preparation” vector. Everything fell in the right place the moment I realized v(t) must be the (novel) information used to build and maintain the systems knowledge state in its memory (function F).

When seen in this form and context it is immediately obvious that a system exposed to some input (data) may react or behave (function g) according to its present state (knowledge of the situation) to par the input. The system may also analyze the input (function f) to extract any available (new) information by comparing the received data with the same (current) knowledge state. This (novel) information or “the difference that makes a difference” is then committed to memory (function F) where it is used (integrated with existing knowledge) to update the knowledge state of the system in a cyclic (recursive) process of learning. You need knowledge to extract information from data, and than you use that information to upgrade your knowledge.

Note that this representation also fits perfectly with the theory of Autopoiesis. Learning is an autopoietic (recursive) process confined within the system, much like other biological processes of self-production (growth) and maintenance, while work represents the structural coupling of the system with its niche environment, or the allopoietic process of using resources from that environment to produce something else (behaviour, tools, symbols, waste) than the system itself.

Shannon’s transducer

I was never completely satisfied with the widely accepted notion of “transfer of information” and the fact that some authors treat information as a commodity that can be stored, transferred from place to place and used as needed. Compared with matter and energy, information is usually assigned a “special capability”, of being able to exist on more than one place at the same time. It is true that if you give me some information you don’t loose it like you would be missing some other thing that you gave to me. We can both have and use the “same” information. But, is it really the same information? If they are the same, how can I then sometimes misunderstand you?

The obvious answer to this question is that what is transferred between systems is not information. What is exchanged are mere material or energetic(al) artifacts (products, structures), and they definitely can NOT be in two places at the same time. Entropy (noise, degradation) is obviously affecting such structures during the exchange process, but there is nothing more to say about it than what Shannon presented in his 1948 paper except for few words about how is his theory frequently misunderstood.

Shannon’s “Information” theory is often imputed the deficiency of not being able to accommodate for “novel information” or unforeseen events. First of all, he named his theory Communication, not Information Theory and he specifically declared in the introduction of his paper that the theory is not concerned with the meaning of the message, just with the quantitative aspect of it (emphasis mine):

The fundamental problem of communication is that of reproducing at one point either exactly or approximately a message selected at another point. Frequently the message have meaning; that is they refer to or are correlated according to some system with certain physical or conceptual entities. These semantic aspects of communication are irrelevant to the engineering problem. The significant aspect is that the actual message is one selected from a set of possible messages.

Shannon also did something else in that seminal paper. In section 8 he provides a description of the transducer which is the common name for the transmitter that encode the information into the message and the receiver which use the inverse process to decode the information from the message. The full text of this description is provided in this screen grab of the relevant section in the paper:

If we picture this description as a block diagram we get the system from the drawing below. z-1 is just a unit delay function denoting the fact that the state variable αn+1 from this step, is applied as the state αn of the system in the next step. In the picture on the right we introduced a new variable zn (information) and an integrative “memory” function F to account for the difference between the composite (historical) knowledge and simple information.

And with that we came to a full circle. I had a consistent framework tying together a number of fundamental elements of the cybernetic (systems) theory:

  1. A definition and a model for a dynamical system closed to information but open to the exchange of matter and energy as defined by Ashby;
  2. A better definition and place for Information and Knowledge as internal variables of a dynamical system;
  3. A model that could describe autopoietic, learning and self-regulating functions in systems such as observers

During the years I applied this simple model in various situations and, I have to say, has yet to find an area where it can’t be useful in the explanation of complex systemic issues.

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