About Cybernetics

This page last updated 23 February 2003


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Brunel University
MSc in Cybernetics
Two years part-time

Please note that this course is no longer running


The course was presented by following four themes, which were developed in parallel. These were: cybernetic concepts, the cybernetics of natural systems, cybernetic artefacts, and the cybernetics of mixed systems. Each of these areas included discussion of applications and methodology and, because they were presented in parallel, stimulated the cross-fertilisation of ideas. The content of these themes is outlined below.

Cybernetic Concepts

Introduction and History.

The history and philosophy of the subject Concepts is covered, with special reference to Wiener, McCulloch and others, and to the various mathematical and philosophical methods that have contributed to its development. Special attention is paid to a discussion of scientific method.

Machines, Variety and Control.

Particular attention is paid to the work of Ashby and Sommerhoff. Topics include: transformation and change, entropy and the second law of thermodynamics, order and disorder; the formal concept of a machine, coupling, causal loops and feedback; equilibrium, stability and goal-directedness; the concept of control, interactions producing control; basic concepts in engineering control theory; variety and constraint; the law of requisite variety and the limits of control; hierarchies of control and organisations.

Information Theory.

Shannon's classical theory forms the basis of this course, but other theories of information are also presented, including semantic theories and their relation to language and logic.

Language and Logic.

Semantics, syntax and pragmatics. The theories of logic, neural nets and automata are developed, starting from the context of ordinary language.

Cybernetic Mechanisms.

Cybernetic mechanisms and concepts are identified and analysed within the context of a wide range of situations in which they occur, including mechanical, biological and , social systems. The aim is to highlight the generality of cybernetic principles by comparing and contrasting the areas in which they are relevant.

Probability Theory and Forecasting.

Approaches to probability theory. Objective and subjective thinking. Bayes' theorem and its relationship to modelling techniques. Unique events and the assignment of probabilities to them. Paradoxes in probability theory and their resolution. Probability theory as the basis of short-term forecasting. Harrison and Stevens' Bayesian technique. Other forms and techniques in forecasting; share-price prediction.

The Cybernetics of Natural Systems


The main emphasis in on the results of experimental psychology that bear on cybernetics. Particular attention is paid to the psychology of perception and cognition, including learning theory, problem solving, concept formation, and language use and acquisition. The use of cybernetic principles in a variety of areas of applied psychology is presented, including psycho-therapy, counselling, selection, training, and occupational psychology.

Brain Models.

The structure and function of the nervous system, with special emphasis on the role of the brain. Models of brain function, starting with Sherrington and Pavlov and working through to the present, the work of Luria, Pribram and Sommerhoff being particularly emphasized.

Cybernetics and Social Systems.

The major emphasis is on identifying and explicating the mechanisms that produce stability and adaptation in social organisations, whether they be animal or human. The natural stability of ecological systems is analysed and attention focused on the stability of human social systems. The role of cultural factors, human needs and aspirations, and constraints on social action are studied in relation to the regulatory processes of society.

Cybernetic Artefacts

Artificial Intelligence.

This forms the major part of this section of the course and consists of a comprehensive and critical view of current work in the field, including hardware and software developments. This involves discussion of specific-task and general-purpose machines, robotics, and also theoretical work including pattern recognition, heuristic search, fuzzy sets, and special purpose languages for artificial intelligence work. Alternative approaches based on learning within the real world environment are emphasised to fit in with cybernetic philosophy.

Physical Models of Cybernetic Mechanism.

This is mainly a practical course in which students experiment with and construct simple cybernetic artefacts such as Ashby's Homeostat, Grey Walter's electronic 'tortoise', servomechanisms, and simple logic machines.

The Cybernetics of Mixed Systems

Man-Artefact Systems.

The principles of ergonomics and human engineering are presented, with special reference to the cybernetics of graphic design, equipment design and architecture. The course includes detailed discussion of: anatomy and workspace requirements; visual, auditory and other sensory displays; controls and consoles; influence of environment on working efficiency; noise; fatigue; accident prevention.

The Computer Modelling of Cybernetic Systems.

The aim of this course is to demonstrate the power and usefulness of the computer as a device for making complex but logically consistent models of cybernetic processes -processes which are usually dynamic and cannot be represented adequately, either verbally or with conventional mathematics. Topics include: a survey of the field; the systems dynamics approach to modelling industrial and social systems; micro-analytic simulations, including its application to the modelling of voting behaviour; information processing models and the simulation of cognitive functions; models of specialist decision making; models of belief systems and personality; models of population dynamics.

Management Cybernetics.

This course consists of case-studies based on the lecturers' own experience, each set against a theoretical background.


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