To scientists formed throughout the Cold War, the term cybernetics leaves a funny taste in the mouth. During the Cold War, the West had astronauts while Eastern Europe had cosmonauts, and we had computer science while they had cybernetics. The term—from Greek kubernētēs ‘steersman,’ from kubernan ‘to steer’—used in this context goes back to 1948, when the American mathematician Norbert Wiener published the book Cybernetics or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine.
During the Sixties the term was still sometimes used in Europe, especially in the context of artificial intelligence (which is a dynamic label for whatever in computer science is beyond the bleeding edge), but under the epistemological pressures of the Cold War it was rapidly supplanted by the term informatics. In the German language region, the proper Kybernetik was even renamed to Regelungstechnik.
Today, the term is making a comeback, especially in the form of CPS, for cyber-physical systems. In 2006, the US National Science Foundation (NSF) identified cyber-physical systems as a key area of research, defining it as follows:
The term cyber-physical systems (CPS) refers to the tight conjoining of and coordination between computational and physical resources. We envision that the cyber-physical systems of tomorrow will far exceed those of today in terms of adaptability, autonomy, efficiency, functionality, reliability, safety, and usability. Research advances in cyber-physical systems promise to transform our world with systems that respond more quickly (e.g., autonomous collision avoidance), are more precise (e.g., robotic surgery and nano-tolerance manufacturing), work in dangerous or inaccessible environments (e.g., autonomous systems for search and rescue, firefighting, and exploration), provide large-scale, distributed coordination (e.g., automated traffic control), are highly efficient (e.g., zero-net energy buildings), augment human capabilities, and enhance societal wellbeing (e.g., assistive technologies and ubiquitous healthcare monitoring and delivery).
Those of you on professional social networks may have seen the recent CPS-related job postings in commercial printing research by one of the companies with a blue logo and one of the companies with a red logo. Commercial printing is about manufacturing and at least since Aldus Manutius the printing industry has been fanatic about workflow automation and optimization. It looks like CPS might be the enabling technology for digital printing.
For an overview of CPS, the extended version of Edward Lee's 2006 position paper is a good start; you can find it here on the Ptolemy II Web site. For more information browse that Web site, and use your favorite search engine to find other people's work. Hint: the high order bit is time.
This year the National CPS PI Meeting takes place August 10-12 at the Westin Arlington Gateway, Arlington, VA. The event is by invitation only (see here for the Education Workshop).