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Heinz von Foerster Congress 2003, Vienna, 13-15 November
This 3 day congress commemorating Heinz von Foerster was held in the Wittgenstein House, Vienna, an appropriate location acknowledging Heinz's Viennese origin as well as his family connection with the philosopher Wittgenstein. In recognition of his achievements, the city government and the Ministry for Education, Science and Culture sponsored the event to the extent that it was free of charge to members of the American Society for Cybernetics. Participants were also invited by the Mayor to a very fine reception in the old town hall on the evening of Friday, 14 November.
There had also been an ASC Conference in the earlier part of the week, during 10-12 November, organised as a separate event. This focused even more firmly than the later event on the contributions of Heinz von Foerster, since its 3 days were devoted, respectively, to the discussion of three “imperatives” delineated by him. The first of these was: “The Imperative of Change”, followed by “The Imperative of Learning” and lastly, “The Ethical Imperative”. Each of these was introduced by a speaker having close association with Heinz, followed by shorter contributions under the heading of Panel Conversations. These were in turn followed by Workshops, Playshops and Case Studies related to the theme of the day.
The Congress in the second part of the week consisted of talks followed by discussion, plus one film. The number of participants was in the region of 200 and almost all of the presentations and discussions were in English. The programme was very full, with a 9 o'clock start on each of the days, and parallel sessions in the afternoons, and on the evening of the first day a Heinz von Foerster Lecture, planned to be an annual event. The evening of the second day was occupied by the reception in the town hall, and that of the third day by the film.
The contributions of Heinz and his associates were reviewed in a number of presentations, one of the most notable being by Paul Pangaro, with the title “Finality and Form”. He acknowledged the influence on his thinking of, first, Jerry Lettvin in MIT, and then a period in the Media Laboratory there, followed by association with Gordon Pask, Seymour Papert and finally, Heinz von Foerster. He quoted Warren McCulloch as saying that the nervous system “influences the world to produce a stable state”, and considered how machines might be made to have biological characteristics.
Overviews were also given by Ranulph Glanville and Bernard Scott from Britain, the former stressing Heinz's emphasis on the wonder we should feel for what we observe. Bernard Scott treated the work of Pask jointly with that of Heinz, but had to rush his presentation because of the very full programme and trouble with the computer used for PowerPoint presentation, so that the issues could not be explored in detail.
Some papers dealt with specific topics, including one by Allenna Leonard, the President of the ASC, on Stafford Beer's viable system model. This was explained in simple terms, with reference to a student's planning of everyday activities. Another paper was by a teacher who had taken to heart Heinz's insistence that education should be by personal exploration and who was able to show the value of this in teaching botany. Direct observations by students showed that some plants did not conform to textbook descriptions.
The special Heinz von Foerster lecture was by Dirk Baeker of the University of Witten, Germany, with the title “Knowledge and Ignorance”. He claimed to show that three problems of a mathematical character, initially posed by Warren McCulloch, had eventually been solved by Heinz von Foerster. The solutions he presented were in terms of sociology and it was suggested in discussion that they were analogies rather than solutions, but the speaker claimed more general relevance.
One session was devoted explicitly to the history of the Biological Computer Laboratory founded by Heinz in the University of Illinois, and papers in other sessions were either given by former members of the BCL or referred to members now deceased. One former member, probably the last before the dissolution of the laboratory, is Stuart Umpleby who was formerly president of the ASC, and who pointed out that the latter effectively developed from the BCL. In his talk, he used the ideas of constructivism or second-order cybernetics to explain the differing views of a business taken by the American and Russian managers. His views stem from involvement in training Russian managers and they go some way toward explaining the slow recovery of Russian manufacturing industry since perestroika.
A famous recruit to the BCL was Ross Ashby, and a detailed biography was given by one of his grandsons, revealing many surprising aspects of his character. The talk was given just 1 day prior to the 31st anniversary of Ashby's death. The setting-up of a digital archive of Ashby's works has been undertaken.
Another former member whose work was discussed was Gotthard Günther (obituary in Kybernetes 12, pp. 119-20, 1985). In a paper by the Film Director, Peter Krieg it claimed that Gotthard's work shows how to build what he termed a polylogic computer, and that development of an actual machine is currently in progress. The idea is that a computer should be able to employ various versions of logic and should automatically select the most appropriate for a particular job. This would be a particular manifestation of self-reference. Peter Krieg came to know Gotthard Günther in connection with the making of his film “Machine Dreams”, where Gotthard was able to advise about ideas on machine consciousness that he had formerly explored in collaboration with Isaac Asimov.
Another contributor was Lars Löfgren, now an emeritus professor in the University of Lund, Sweden, who spent several periods in the BCL. He referred to Wittgenstein and to the fact that scientific activity in many disciplines is hampered by over-production of truths. The remedy has to be found in improved intercommunication rather than a unifying theory. He quoted Heinz von Foerster as saying that “language is a wonderful thing, with even the word 'word' to refer to a word”. He related his viewpoint to the halting problem for automata, and to Gödel, and to constructivism.
A very different presentation was made by another former member of the BCL, Alfred Inselberg. He has developed the means of displaying multidimensional data graphically. The basic principle is quite simple, but it has been developed so that it allows deductions from multidimensional data in a manner having some similarity to the use of a spreadsheet. He has in fact used the term “visual spreadsheet” to refer to a commercially available computer program. It differs from the usual spreadsheet in that it depends on empirical data rather than on mathematical functions specified by the user. It can therefore, be seen as a means of analysing the statistical data, and it was mentioned that, when applied to such data referring to the economy of a particular small country, it revealed an important correlation that had not been noticed earlier. (There was an inverse correlation between the production of fish and that of a particular mineral, attributable to the fact that many workers divided their efforts between the two by engaging in fishing when it was profitable and in mining at other times.)
Another speaker from the former BCL was Paul Weston, whose main activity was the exploration of possibilities for artificial neural nets, in the early tradition of cybernetics that has been largely displaced by the emphasis on philosophical and social aspects. He gave a clear account of the working of the demonstration device used in BCL, that would promptly indicate the number of connected dark areas on a photocell grid. His contention was that the thorough investigation of neural nets had been well worthwhile, but that the achievement of useful net behaviour by purely local adjustment was impossible, and it was appropriate that the attention of the group had come to be directed elsewhere.
This view is probably correct if attention is restricted to purely local adjustment, but later developments have shown that artificial neural nets can undoubtedly be useful. The use of “backpropagation” is a central feature of this and represents a departure, with some biological plausibility, from purely local adjustment. It can in fact be claimed that an early appreciation of the value of this feature was another development within the BCL, during my time as a visitor there.
The foregoing account of this very full conference is necessarily sketchy and undoubtedly important points have been missed. It is hoped that papers will be made available on the Internet, those from BCL members on a Web site devoted to it, and others on the ASC Web site at www.asc-cybernetics.org. The conference was both enjoyable and valuable and the main ASC Organiser, Pille Bunnell, is to be congratulated along with many others.
I have to admit that, despite my high regard for Heinz von Foerster, I had some negative feelings prior to the conference. It is easy to feel that the concept of “constructivism” is less revolutionary than is often claimed, and can be misleading. A particularly misleading claim, I felt, is that by Heinz is that the meaning of a verbal utterance is formed by the listener. There is a sense in which the statement is true, but it ignores the fact that the verbal utterance has been formed by a speaker with the intention of guiding the listener's thoughts in a desired direction. The claim by Heinz should not be taken too seriously since it was undoubtedIy one of his characteristic aphorisms intended to provoke discussion.
The negative feelings were quickly dispelled at the actual conference, where the papers and discussion were essentially sound and practical. “Constructivism”, though perhaps not radically new, usefully underlines the dependence of theory and belief on observation and individual interpretation. The point about Heinz's misleading claim was explicitly conceded during one of the sessions, where it was remarked that no one would expect to find in a book the disclaimer. “Any errors in this book are the responsibility of the reader”.
The conference was also supported by the Heinz von Foerster Society (Gesellschaft), formed by Dr Albert Müller and Dr Karl H. Müller, of the Institute for Contemporary History of Vienna University. An aim of the society is to compile a Heinz von Foerster archive. Membership is invited, with an initial fee which will contribute to establishing the archive. Enquiries should be addressed to one of the originators at: Institut für Zeitgeschichte der Universität Wien, Spitalgasse 2-4, A-1090 Wien.
Also associated with the event was a special issue (Vol. 10 Nos 3-4, 2003) of the journal Cybernetics and Human Knowing: A Journal of Second-Order Cybernetics Autopoiesis and Cybersemiotics, with a fine range of papers reflecting on Heinz or developing themes initiated by him. A home page for the journal, with abstracts and some full articles, is available at: www.imprint-academic.com/C&HK