The Life & Mind Seminar Network

Discussion: Cybernetics vs. ALife – key differences

Posted in Seminars by Marieke on September 26, 2010

Everybody knows that the work done these days under the label of Artificial Life owes a lot to the early cybernetics movement. Yet, we tend to see ALife as a movement in its own right, rather than as a mere resurgence of cybernetics. Why, what are the key differences? I have some ideas on what makes ALife ALife, rather than just neo-cybernetics, but it would be good to hear other opinions on this.


p.s. This question arises in the context of authoring a review of ALife and Evolutionary Robotics. If you have opinions on what such a review should crucially contain (or not), even if they are totally unrelated to the question posted, i would be happy if you could drop me an email:

5 Responses

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  1. matthewegbert said, on September 27, 2010 at 12:56 pm

    To me, ALife a broader, more encompassing term, including, for instance, artificial chemistries, autopoiesis, swarm AI, cellular automata, etc.

    I think evolutionary robotics is perhaps more like an extended cybernetics. New evolutionary methods, but with the (shared with cybernetics) focus upon continuous dynamics control systems..



  2. Lenka said, on September 27, 2010 at 6:00 pm

    I completely agree with Matthew, ALife to me is something self-sustaining and self-organizing that does not require human intervention once started.

    On the other hand, evolutionary robotics is just a way to use computers’ super-speed (well if we compare with human brain) to find the best of a vast number of possibilities.

    Evolutionary robotics would become ALife if the actual hardware evolved and people wouldn’t have to build anything.

  3. Tom Froese said, on September 28, 2010 at 2:13 pm

    I think we tend to overlook that cybernetics also gave birth to the computationalist paradigm of the cognitive sciences, i.e. the very paradigm that most artificial life work can be contrasted against.

    I’ve written a little bit about this interesting bit of scientific history in a recent paper “From Cybernetics to Second-Order Cybernetics: A Comparative Analysis of Their Central Ideas” which can be found here.

  4. Marieke said, on September 28, 2010 at 3:12 pm

    Interesting – I don’t really agree with any of you, which is a rare thing :)

    @matthew & lenka: I have heard several times that Maturana and Varela were referred to as cyberneticists so i don’t really think autopoiesis and self-organization fall strictly outside the realm of cybernetics, nor do swarms or the like. System theory is a very central idea to cybernetics (and not just control systems) and the formal concepts have grown alongside the discipline. particularly in biological cybernetics, you’ll find that it will cover a wide range of phenomena. I agree with you on evo-rob, though.

    @tom: yes, cybernetics gave birth to AI – it also gave birth to EEG, information theory, neural networks and a number of other things. why is that a bad thing or something to be contrasted to ALife?

    For my own opinion, I really think Alife and cybernetics have a lot in common. Where their emphasis is different though (and this idea is partially due to takashi and whoever was standing next to him when discussing this at ALife XII), is in looking at the origin and history of a system: most of all at evolution, but also at development and personal history. I don’t even think that this is something that is exclusive to ALife, but the emphasis is certainly different. The other thing is that cybernetics is also associated with a past epoch and the then available set of tools, even if there are surely still people labeling themselves “cyberneticists” around.

  5. rsanz said, on October 22, 2010 at 9:16 am

    The full title of Wiener’s classic “Cybernetics” is “Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine” and to my understanding this is what is being done inside ALife. ALife it is fully focused on control and communication in systems that are homomorphic to parts of biosystems.

    Concernig the opposition to the “computationalist” flavor, most ALife I’ve seen are just programs running on Von Neuman machines. They’re paradigmatically computational (hence fully cyber).

    In summary: ALife is just a subset of the classical cybernetic vision.

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