The word ‘cybernetics’, from its Greek roots, means to steer or navigate. However, its most contemporary definition has been proposed by Louis Kauffman, the President of the American Society for Cybernetics: “Cybernetics is the study of systems and processes that interact with themselves and produce themselves from themselves” (2012). It is a fast growing discipline that observes and studies the cyclical systems that are capable of showing change by sending and receiving information and processing it to impact some form of control and cause change in their environment and themselves. Cybernetics is relevant to the study of mechanical, physical, biological, cognitive and social systems delving in the fields like game theory, perceptual control theory, neuropsychology, behavioral psychology, cognitive psychology, philosophy and organizational theory. ‘Observed systems’ are studied under first-order cybernetics and ‘observing systems’ are studied under second-order cybernetics; this distinction evolving during the 2nd half of the 20th century.
However, third-order cybernetics is rapidly taking shape, embracing the 1st and 2nd order and developing into a discipline than not only studies, but also attempts to steer control in systems. The ethical implications of this development are the blatant human intervention into the naturally occurring systems, which were up till now only being studied. Where the recent advancements have encouraged many fields to hope for dramatic breakthroughs, critics have also found reason to question the extent till which cybernetics can affect the nature of human kind. This paper will attempt to weigh both sides of the argument as to whether the discipline of Cybernetics should be regulated for fear of its over-reaching ethical ambiguity or it should be allowed to bloom in finding better solutions to the problems of the world. Conclusively, it would be attempted to justify whether uninhibited cybernetics can add to the pace of scientific growth of regulations and legislations can better streamline its progress.
A Brief History of Cybernetics
Although, the term “cybernetics” was first used by Plato in the context of ‘study of self governance’ in “The Alcibiades” to signify the governance of people, its modern meaning did not emerge until the term was used by Norbert Wiener in 1947 in his book “Cybernetics, or Control and Communication in the Animal and Machine” (Johnson, 2012). In the early 1940s, another mathematician, John von Neumann, contributed heavily to the field of Cybernetics by establishing its universality in the concept of self replication, evident in social memes, living cells and even computer viruses. Cybernetics interacts with established disciplines such as electrical engineering, mathematics, biology, neurophysiology, anthropology, and psychology evoking the rich interaction of goals, predictions, actions, feedback, and response in systems of all kinds (Pangaro, 2006). Although, initially, cybernetics found its application in controls of physical systems like artillery, electrical circuits and robot designing; its use in softer sciences and social systems also developed almost simultaneously.
During the late 1950s, the concept of AI, or Artificial Intelligence, emerged and vouched for comparison with Cybernetics; successfully, usurping its place and getting heavily favored by sponsors and scientific community alike. However, during the mid 1970s, cybernetics re-emerged in the quest of designing intelligent machines and answering the reasons for an elusive autonomy in systems. While in social context, cybernetics can explain a great deal about morals and ethical practices; in technical arena, it is widely lauded with the possibilities of radically transforming the human condition. With growing resurgence and adaptation into other disciplines of sciences; cybernetics has been under the ethical microscope for the past quarter century, or so.
Cybernetics – a Beacon of Hope
As B. Johnson claims “to say that cybernetics is the ‘science’” of communication, feedback, and control in mechanical, biological, and social systems derogates from the vital point that cybernetics is an "art" focused on “converting knowledge into choice and converting choice into action” (2012). With technologies using brain waves coming to prominence and merging of human neural networks with computer networks using brain implants, boundaries between human and machine are fast dissolving. But what exactly cybernetics is capable of can be determined by its multiple uses that are emerging in mainstream. Some prominent commercial applications that have been legally approved and socially accepted are:
- Brain chip implants in stroke patients allowing them to induce computer activity by simply thinking about it;
- Electronic pacemakers for heart patients;
- Artificial joints and prosthetic limbs (arms and legs) for physically challenged;
- Drug implant systems for victims of substance abuse;
- Implanted corneal lenses for vision impaired;
- Artificial skin for accident victims.
These and many other commercial uses have allowed cybernetics to evolve into a discipline that can dramatically improve human life by providing respite to the sufferers of natural damage at the hands of age, genetics or accident. In the year of 2009, Toyota released its research of a wheelchair that can be navigated using a helmet that can detect and interpret brain waves (Foxnews, 2009). In similar domain, researchers are testing a prototype computer interface that allows users to interact with a virtual reality world through brain impulses, which if successful, could greatly increase the mobility and independence of people who are paralyzed or have similar conditions (Kenyon, 2000). However, this is not where the scope of cybernetics is limited. In addition to improvement, enhancement related experiments have also been underway which clearly support advancement in terms of longevity and body functions of human beings. This has led to the rise of a plethora of ethical concerns regarding cybernetics, which are along the lines of concerns surrounding genetic engineering.
Cybernetics – a Leap Mankind May Not be Prepared to Handle
In the year of 1998, Kevin Warwick became the first researcher to be successfully implanted with a silicon chip in his wrist, allowing him to switch on the lights as he entered a room by merely thinking about it (Wired Magazine, 2009). Subsequently, he was successful in connecting human nervous systems (his own and that of his wife, Irene Warwick, for instance) with computer networks allowing them a medium of communication far superior than any that exists (RBR Staff, 2012). It is expected that in coming years, cybernetics would not only be able to assist in fixing physical injuries, but can also improve the chances of recovery in case of neural disorders and mental illnesses. However, the extent of machine intervention with the nature of human being is a concern that is fuelling many discussions. While improvement of lifestyle with computer chips, does not make one a cyborg; external stimulation and enhancement of the human body can generate reason for regulations.
With the simultaneous development of Nanotechnology as a discipline, the scope of cybernetics extends way beyond computer chips assimilated into human neural network. The possibility of nano-robots and information storage and communication at the molecular level, dramatically increases the pace of cybernetic advancements. These developments can prolong lives, reduce disability, enhance quality of life, and even reduce health care costs. In fact, many “nano visionaries” contend that nanotechnology will be an important tool to forestall aging and perhaps even to achieve certain “immortality” (Hook, 2012).
There have also been experiments in which computer chips implanted in the brains of rats have been successful in monitoring and steering their physical activities. This external stimulus to the organism, generating action comes with a bagful of questions regarding free will. Whether encroachment of brain and body functions by technology is identified as the organism as an external entity or freely assimilated into organism’s own will remains to be demystified. This leads to bigger questions, whether mankind is ready to deal with the giant leaps that cybernetics is preparing it for. Improvement in the living conditions of the disabled may be a strong pro in favor of cybernetics, but the possibility of human body enhancements to alter the natural condition of being is a strong con that repeatedly raises the need for regulation and legislations. The subjectivity of the whole discipline makes it even more too moral speculation as it is difficult to understand the intent underlying each technology advancement made by cybernetics.
The Ethical Question
It must be noted that the term ‘cybernetics’ is not limited to its biological and computer application alone. There are social, psychological, and philosophical aspects of it that has helped researchers find answers to mysteries of the nature. Therefore, every ethical and moral question revolving cybernetics must be viewed from multiple points of view. A simple statement like “Is cybernetics good, bad, or indifferent?” can sum up the list of ethical questions (Cohen, 2012).
Who will control this technology and how could it determine the future of cybernetics? It is an assured answer to many physical and mental ailments that humanity is suffering from today. Cybernetics is also a hope for a better future where the general living conditions, human identity, and nature can be drastically improved; given the far reaching implications into amalgamating the virtual and the physical world. However, while medicinal advancements cry loud to keep the growth of technology unchecked and unregulated, the scope of artificial enhancements to human entity makes it a moral dilemma for the researchers as well as the authorities.
Laws and legislations in many countries where cybernetics is a growing discipline, dictate human testing of the techniques to be illegal. Also, administration of many of the new technologies on informed subjects, who are willing to participate in research, is also heavily regulated. Just like euthanasia, cybernetic enhancement of human body is not a topic which the state gives ‘right to decide’ of to the individual. The glaring fact of the matter is that mankind still does not seem prepared to accumulate technology-induced enhancements into its nature. Social discord disparity is bound to happen if an unregulated cybernetic enhancement of lifestyle is allowed to flourish.
Therefore, while is in the interest of humanity to learn and develop this discipline with judicious practice, it is also in interest of societies and civilization to regulate the paths that cybernetic advancements will take.
As the first law of cybernetics states: “The unit within the system with the most behavioral responses available to it controls the system” (Chapman, 2010). This means that we, as individuals, are perfectly capable of making informed choices that can change our environment and in turn can change our state of being. Cybernetics can prove to be a boon for mankind if allowed to advance in the right direction. Nevertheless, if it is allowed to mushroom without any responsibility and regulation, it can evolve into a metaphorical hydra which can rear its numerous multiple heads against mankind. And we would have no way to identify the difference between what is real and what is virtual.
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