The Cybernetic Factory

Homeostasis“ is defined by the Encyclopædia Britannica as “any self-regulating process by which biological systems tend to maintain stability while adjusting to conditions which are optimal for survival“. Examples for animals include the regulation of the body temperature, the level of glucose and oxygen in the blood, the blood pressure, the volume of body waters and the concentration of sodium, potassium and calcium Irons in the blood plasma.

Thanks to a complex system of negative (i.e. stabilizing) feedback loops which rely on the interaction of high tech sensors, powerful organs and the deep processing brain, the human vital system is constantly controlled and optimized to adjust in real-time to changes in the environment with a view to ensuring sustainability—without human intervention, so to speak. Talking about Big Data! Humans, who appeared on earth more a million years ago according to science, are like the adaptive manufacturing system of the future.

Homeostasis gave rise to the broader, transdisciplinary “cybernetics“ concept. It was defined as “the scientific study of control and communication in the animal and the machine“ by Norbert Wiener, a professor of mathematics at MIT, in the late 40’s. Cybernetics tends to end up being about anything related to the self-regulated control and optimization of complex systems using technology. It is ubiquitous. Pricing algorithms used by Uber or Amazon (see “The Scientific Art of Pricing“—January 22) rely on cybernetic solutions—By automatically adjusting prices to the micro-economic environment, they maintain an equilibrium between supply and demand. And of course there is robotics and the driverless car.

In the early 60’s, cybernetics evolved further with Stafford Beer, a British engineer, who pioneered the idea of the “Cybernetic Factory“ (image below). His idea was to have all corporate operations controlled by computers rather than people in an adaptive manner, with so-called “U-machines“ fulfilling the function of the brain, or homeostat. The concept was born at the same time as J. Forrester invented “system dynamics“ on the back of its GE experience (see “System Dynamics“—November 22, 2016).

In 1972, Mr. Beer laid out a new vision in his book “The Brain of the Firm“ which he called the “Viable System Model“. This time, it applied to a firm as a whole. In it, he established a detailed analogy between the functioning of a human being and that of a corporate. As for biological systems, the objective of any company is to survive in an environment which is constantly evolving. Organizations ought to be carried from one equilibrium to another through some form of homeostasis. This was an example of corporate Darwinism in its purest from, where adaptation relies on control and optimization.

Today, technology is giving the cybernetic factory and the cybernetic firm a new dimension. Industry 4.0, Industrial IoT… Visionaries imagined it more than fifty years ago already. Let us remember where it all comes from. Hats off to these scientists.

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