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UK Cybernetics Society 30th Annual Conference Developments in Cybernetics
UK Cybernetics Society 30th Annual Conference Developments in Cybernetics
The conference was held on Saturday 10 September 2005 in the Council Room of King’s College, London, and was a successful event with a varied programme. There were eight presentations in all, four in each of the morning and afternoon sessions.
The first was by Jeremy Gordon on the topic: “Modern developments in low-level programming”. He reviewed developments in computing in general terms, and observed that multi-stream computing, and hence the interactive nature of the modern PC, became a practical possibility with the advent of 32-bit processors, and further possibilities are opened up by 64-bit processors, and by multiple processors on a single chip.
Although modern practice does not readily allow it, it can be useful and instructive to operate “close to the machine”, and the speaker described a system allowing the writing and debugging of programs in assembler language, all operating in a Windows environment. Details, and the opportunity of free download, can be found at the address: www.GoDevTool.com.
The next presentation was by Tony Wilkes of Organum Consulting on the topic of Musical Score Recognition. Some of the problems were those also arising in optical character recognition, but it was demonstrated that components in musical scores have remarkable diversity and may be superimposed on each other. The value of the scheme would be the storage of musical compositions in a standard digital form that could be used for future printing or performance.
An intriguing possibility is that the scheme might be linked to a further stage of analysis using methods developed by a group headed by Longuet-Higgins, allowing ascription of a key signature to any note or chord, and hence the synthesis of music having true or “just” intonation as achieved by singers and violinists, rather than its approximation by keyboard instruments using the 12-note octave. It is interesting to note, parenthetically, that the great Helmholz (1954) was an enthusiastic advocate of just temperament and lists various attempts to achieve a close approximation using instruments having up to 53 keys in each octave.
The third presentation was by Nick Hampshire, founder of AFAICS Research (where the initials stand for “as far as I can see”), and former editor of Electronics Today International. His topic was: “From ink and paper to e-ink and e-paper – the impact of technology on the printed word”. The magnitude of the impact was indicated by reference to the storage of what would amount to a small library on a single DVD, with the possibility of reproducing all of it at trivial cost. It has been predicted that by the end of this century only 10 percent of new published material will be in printed form.
Nevertheless, paper and ink have advantages of lightness, robustness, and readability under varying conditions of light, as well as ease of making annotations. A survey has shown that a large proportion of electronic documents are printed out by their recipients for convenient reading. Attempts are being made, notably in Japan and Eindhoven, to provide digital printout duplicating the desirable properties of ink and paper. A small light screen of A5 size was passed round, showing text that was formed by black “ink” particles moved into position electrophoretically. Attention is now being given to flexible media, under the heading of “flexible plastic electronics”. The speaker warned that there is an urgent need for standardisation in the area, so as to avoid incompatibilities like that between Betamax and VHS standards for video recording.
The morning session ended with a dynamic presentation by Dr Susan Blackmore of the University of the West of England, entitled: “The evolution of meme machines”. The idea of a “meme” was introduced by Richard Dawkins and discussed by Daniel Dennett as well as by the speaker herself in her book The Meme Machine. Compared to other creatures, humans have a unique capacity for imitation and a meme can be defined as a unit of cultural transmission or of imitation. Although the evolution of memes has obvious parallels with genetic evolution, the speaker emphasised that the theory should not be seen as analogy but as existing hi its own right.
It was claimed that memes are transmitted between individuals without the latter having any say in the matter, and in this sense they are like the “selfish gene” of Dawkins. There is, however, selection, and it does not follow that individuals incorporating memes are necessarily selfish. The speaker admitted that “selfish” was not the ideal word to use in the context though she had not been able to think of a better one. The “meme machine”, or process of mimetic evolution, can be viewed as being subject to viral infection, with religions branded as a particularly significant type of virus. Secularism can be seen as a meme but its spread is limited because its advocates refuse to employ unfair tactics such as the threat of hellfire. As might be expected, a lively discussion ensued. The speaker has a web site: www.susanblackmore.co.uk/memetics/ and considers the world wide web to be the greatest meme machine yet created.
The first presentation in the afternoon was by Tom Campbell of TeleGlobal International Ltd, with the title: “SNAP: secure network alternative payments”. He described a scheme for using cards, with PIN numbers but without “chips” or other expensive security arrangements, to allow the convenient transmission of relatively small amounts of money. They would be used for everyday transactions in shops as well as over the internet, for instance, for downloading music and for online gambling. The scheme has been developed and studied over two years and is compatible with existing financial arrangements. It is, in fact, due to be launched in the UK at the end of the coming October, so will be in operation, and probably commonplace, before this account appears in print. The company will inevitably derive a surplus due to cards being lost or forgotten while still carrying value, and this is to be given to a charity. In discussion, the ethicality of selecting a charity without giving customers a say in the matter was questioned.
The next presentation was by Doug Haynes, Director of the School of Business Information of the Liverpool John Moores University, and of Cybernetics North. His topic was: “Disseminating the Stafford Beer archives – DVD illustrations”. He reported on a major project to collect and present records of talks and discussions by Stafford Beer. A number of video clips were shown, some of them with rather unsatisfactory sound reproduction. The DVDs are to be made generally available once some technical aspects have been attended to.
The third of the afternoon presentations was by Raul Espejo, Professor of Information Management at the University of Lincoln, who collaborated with Stafford Beer for 30 years. His title was: “Responsible governance is good cybernetics”, where “governance” is the term used by Stafford to denote regulatory performance of higher quality than comes from existing governments. The speaker discussed mainly his present concern with arrangements for disposal of nuclear waste. In this he found a lack of communication between interested parties, even between the bodies concerned with disposal of waste and those responsible for decommissioning nuclear reactors. He referred to a principle of “requisite organisation”, similar to “requisite variety” to ensure appropriate “operational coupling”. This should be achieved with regard to varying cultures and conditions, epitomised by the observation that “transparency” is much more than a matter of making information available. A desirable strategy is inclusion, for instance, by the involvement of a representative of friends of the earth in decisions about disposal.
These valid and pertinent conclusions were claimed to follow from Stafford Beer’s Viable System Model, though no detailed derivation was given.
The final presentation was by Stephen Gage, Professor of Innovative Technology, University College, London. His topic was: “The wonder of trivial machines”, the reference being to Heinz von Foerster’s distinction between trivial machines and a nontrivial variety. The speaker is a designer and architect who was taught by Gordon Pask, and reference was made to Gordon’s assertion that architecture can be seen as a conversation between an architect and the public. The essential property of a nontrivial machine is unpredictability and an architect can embody something of this by creating a structure that produces different impressions depending on viewpoint and conditions of light. Usually the structure as such is static and so in a sense trivial, though there can be variability in lighting and other effects.
The fascination of the “chaos pendulum” as a desk toy illustrates the impact of variability and particularly of unpredictability. Currently, the variability of architectural structures does not have input from viewers, but this may change, prompted by availability of low-cost transducers. In the twenty-first century structures will be designed to be interactive. Though not mentioned by the speaker, an early study by Pask (1971) of interactive robotic theatre performances might give a lead.
It can be seen that the programme was varied and informative. This was another highly successful Annual Conference.
Alex M. Andrew
Helmholz, H. (1954), On the Sensations of Tone, Dover Publications, New York, NY (first German edition 1862)
Pask, G. (1971), “A comment, a case history and a plan”, in Reichardt, J. (Ed.), Cybernetics, Art and Ideas, Studio Vista, London, pp. 76–99