Talking about The Future of Cybernetics

Click here to see the video from the talk. Click here to download the PDF of the slides.

Cybernetics is often confused with robotics and AI, chip implants and biomechatronics, and more. Don’t want to disappoint you but cybernetics is none of those things (though it has a lot to say about all of them). Cybernetics is not freezing dead people, neither. (I’m hoping that’s less of a surprise. Maybe not.)

worlds fair nano

Worlds Fair Nano – March 2018 – San Francisco

Hoping to clear up all that confusion in 20 minutes, I gave a talk on Saturday, March 10th, 2018, at 2pm at Worlds Fair Nano in San Francisco.

To speak about the future of cybernetics (as in this short video) is to speak about its past and present (requiring another short video). In an era that vacillates between rampant AI utopianism and rampant AI dystopianism, what does cybernetics have to offer our future?

Cybernetics sees the world as made up of systems that have purpose. It attributes agency to any mechanism—human or biological, mechanical or electronic, digital or analog, linguistic or social—that sets a goal for a purposive system. The cybernetic viewpoint is grounded in the loop from action to outcome to feedback to action again. It sees causality as circular. (Basic science sees causality as linear.) It’s that simple and that subtle: Cybernetics is a way of looking. It looks through the lens of purpose. What’s really amazing is what happens next. Let’s look at our looking:


We interact with the world by looking at how our actions bring change (right). Once we look at our looking (left), we are responsible for what we see and say as well as what we do.

Why did we see what we saw? Because of who we are. How did we choose to explain  what we see—with what ideas and relationships? Because of our purpose. As observers, we inevitably have purpose—we see cybernetically. For all these reasons we are responsible for being transparent about our purpose and for behaving ethically. (While we’re here, let me mention the most amazing paper about cybernetics and ethics.)

Spoiler alert about the talk: Behaving ethically requires conversation. And that’s the future of cybernetics: conversation. Wait—and consciousness.