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UK Cybernetics Society 31st Annual Conference
The conference was held on Saturday 16 September 2006 in the Council Room of King's College, London, and was a successful event with a varied programme. There were eight presentations in all, three the morning (with an intended fourth omitted because the authors were unable to attend) and five in the afternoon. The omission of one paper was of course unfortunate, but was useful in allowing more discussion time in the very full programme.
The preliminary arrangements were admirable, with abstracts of the papers, and biographical notes and photographs of the authors shown on the society's web site at: www.cybsoc.org
The first presentation was by Dr Alex Zivanovic with the title: “SAM and the Senster: early cybernetic sculptures”. It was an account of the work of the artist and inventor Edward Ihnatowicz whose interactive sculpture sound activated mobile (SAM) was shown at the cybernetic serendipity exhibition in 1968. This had four microphones and used phase comparison to turn its four-lobed head in the direction of received sound. The Senster was a much larger construction that was computer controlled and was exhibited by Philips in Eindhoven.
Both devices produced interesting interaction with human viewers, especially since their movements had a life-like character. It has since been verified by Dr Zivanovic that the movements did in fact agree with recent studies of biological motion. An interesting observation was that when the Senster was made to move in ways not related to activities around it, following built-in test routines, the effect was to produce panic in children watching it. A later construction by Ihnatowicz, called the Bandit, allowed interaction of a different kind and was exhibited on the fringe of an Edinburgh festival. It was able to guess the sex and temperament of each person with whom it interacted, with what was said to be remarkable accuracy.
The inventor apparently resisted suggestions that his work contributed to artificial intelligence but it is possible he was unduly modest in this. The presentation was purely about the work of Ihnatowicz, but it can be seen from the speaker's biographical note that he has himself been responsible for innovative developments in haptic devices with applications in medicine.
The next presentation was with the title: “What is a symbol?” by Dr Bernard Scott and Dr Simon Shurville, delivered by Dr Scott. This was a deep philosophical paper that it will be good to peruse in detail in print. It proposes a solution to a central problem of philosophy, termed the symbol-grounding problem. The problem is epitomized in the question to whose answering Warren McCulloch devoted himself, namely: “What is a number, that a man may know it, and a man, that he may know a number?”
A viewpoint advanced by Newell and Simon, to the effect that brains and computers are similar in their manipulation of symbols, was criticized as misconceived. Its shortcoming was illustrated by reference to Searle's “Chinese room”. An alternative viewpoint was developed by the speaker, supported by quotations from Ashby, von Foerster, Piaget, Maturana and others.
Gordon Pask's contribution to the 1958 NPL conference on “Mechanisation of Thought Processes” with the title: “Physical Analogue to the Growth of a Concept” was given as an example of a more fundamental approach than that of AI. Reference was made to the dual role of language, which serves both for communication between individuals and for internal reasoning. It was concluded that cybernetics should be seen as a meta-discipline, or means of evaluating other disciplines.
The third paper of the morning session was by Prof. Frank Stowell of the University of Portsmouth, on the topic: “General systems science, cybernetics and soft systems”. This was a fairly general review of these areas, emphasizing their unity and interdependence. Special reference was made to the Soft Systems methodology pioneered by Peter Checkland, which was claimed to offer an alternative to biological models as a basis. The coordination of effort needed to sail a tall ship was used as an illustration, and a viewpoint similar to that of second-order cybernetics was advanced to the effect that an observer of a system cannot be effectively outside it. The assertion that: “The answer was not in the answer but in the question” has been made in connection with Soft System consultancy as a way of saying that the answer that best suits a client's needs is often not what he asks for. The speaker used it to demonstrate the unity of systems science and cybernetics, where his appearance as a systems specialist in a cybernetics conference was an answer in itself.
The paper that was not actually given was by Dr Kim James and Dr Carole McKenzie of Psi International Business Consultants, on: “Cybernetics in management consultancy and training”.
The first presentation in the afternoon was by Prof. Michael Kennedy of London South Bank University, on: “The impact of system dynamics and cybernetics on public policy”. System Dynamics is the approach to modeling historically associated with the names of Forrester and Meadows, and the speaker argued compellingly for its potential usefulness. Unfortunately, administrators are reluctant to employ the methods, preferring to adopt short-term solutions to problem situations. One of the main conclusions from the early studies was that short-term solutions are almost invariably deleterious in the long run.
The approach was related to the regulation implicit in Lovelock's GAIA hypothesis and to Stafford Beer's Cybersyn regulatory system. It can allow examination of possible emergency situations and is relevant for example to UN measures for crisis response. Web sites at www.strategy.gov.uk and www.systemdynamics.org were recommended for further details.
The next paper was by Prof. Owen Holland of the University of Essex, on: “Early British Cybernetics and the Ratio Club” a topic on which he is writing a book. The Ratio Club was founded in 1949 as a dining and discussion club with, initially, monthly meetings. An impressive array of key figures belonged to it, including Ross Ashby, Alan Turing and Grey Walter as perhaps the best known. Others were Albert Uttley who came to head the Autonomies Division of the National Physical Laboratory, Donald Shell who was the leading authority on the anatomy of the cerebral cortex and collaborated with Uttley in a statistical analysis of its interconnections, and Horace Barlow who did pioneering work on the neurophysiology of vision as well as general theorizing about the nervous system and its operation to reduce signal redundancy.
Others still included J.A.V. Bates who worked on electroencephalography and also on modeling the human operator in a control situation, Philip Woodward who wrote a very highly regarded text on information theory with special application to radar and later headed a group that was the first anywhere to write a compiler for ALGOL68, and Donald MacKay, a physicist in King's College who later became Professor of Communication in Keele University.
It was pointed out that, although no members of the club actually received the accolade of FRS or Nobel prize, several came close. The club explored cybernetic principles largely independently of similar developments in America, and an amusing feature of the presentation was a number of quotations from club members that were distinctly lukewarm in their appreciation of parallel efforts across the Atlantic.
It is very good to know that this early history is being researched and recorded. The inclusion of Donald MacKay is especially welcome, not only because of his important contributions and close association with Warren McCulloch, but also because his first affiliation was King's College, from which the UK Cybernetics Society has also sprung. Donald in fact ran a series of seminars on essentially cybernetic topics, with invited speakers, well prior to the Society's inauguration. An obituary appeared in Kybernetes Vol. 16, No 3, p. 189,1987 and a list of his early publications can be found by following a link from the WOSC web site or by opening: http://pages.britishlibrary.net/alexandrew/MacKay(early)Refs.htm
The third presentation in the afternoon was by Dr John Hulbert on: “An AI Based Anti Terrorist Aircraft Screening System”. The speaker is well qualified to treat such issues, being a former Chief Superintendent of Devon and Cornwall Police as well as having degrees both in Applied Psychology and in Computing and Cognitive Science. He also has much relevant experience from secondments to various bodies in Britain and USA.
A prototype Anti Terrorist Aircraft Screening System was described. This is required to be information-rich, or with fully integrated communication. In particular, the fact that a person (or, presumably object) gave some reason for suspicion at one stage of checking should be made known at the next even if it was not in itself enough to warrant action. The use of profiling was discussed.
The fourth afternoon presentation was by Prof. Jack Cohen of Warwick University, with the provocative title: “What is Life? Negentropy is a Phlogiston-like Idea”. This was a spirited rebuttal of the accepted picture, following Schrodinger, of the universe running down to a heat death, with life as an anomaly feeding on negentropy. An alternative cosmology is possible according to which evolution of the universe is towards greater order. Gravity provides one mechanism for emergence of order since it causes scattered matter to condense as stars.
Facile explanations commonly given for other phenomena were also criticized, one of them being the picture usually given of the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution. This is commonly presented as a succession of mutations with each followed by a period of selection in which it may be accepted or rejected This was claimed to be a gross over-simplification, shown by the fact that current genomes contain untested mutations from millions of years back. This is another deep philosophical paper that it will be good to peruse in detail in print.
The final presentation was by Mick Ashby, one of the eight grandchildren of Ross Ashby, on: “Ross Ashby: His Life, Work and Digital Archive”. That a large comprehensive digital archive is being prepared was probably already known to most of the audience, for instance, from a previous presentation given at the von Foerster memorial event in Vienna. Nevertheless, the speaker was able to relate fresh interesting details of his grandfather's life as well as of ongoing work on the archive, which includes transcripts of handwritten notes and is thoroughly cross-referenced.
The last half-hour or so of the proceedings was against a background of “nessun dorma” and other arias delivered at high volume in the courtyard of nearby Somerset House as part of the Mayor of London's Thames Festival. It was not loud enough to interfere with discussion and in fact added a rather nice final touch.
It can be seen that the programme was varied and informative and the President of the Cybernetics Society, Prof. Martin Smith, is to be congratulated on putting it together. This was another highly successful Annual Conference.
Alex M. Andrew