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Conferences remember Biological Computer Laboratory


Bridget Maiellaro, ECE Illinois

Heinz von Foerster
Heinz von Foerster

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of the University of Illinois’ Biological Computer Laboratory in 1958, and two organizations recently contributed to a celebration of this milestone. The American Society for Cybernetics and the annual conference on Understanding Complex Systems met last month at the University of Illinois. Part of the reason for the joint meeting was to acknowledge how the work conducted at the Biological Computer Laboratory between 1958 and 1975 continues to inspire research today.

“In addition to doing research on neurophysiology and creating simulations of perception and other cognitive processes, the people in BCL thought deeply about the implications of this research for our understanding of knowledge and for the philosophy of science,” alumnus and former president of ASC Stuart Umpleby said. “As a result, they decided that the philosophy of science needs to be modified.  Since every statement is made by an observer, the observer cannot be eliminated from the scientific process.  Including the observer in science is an expansion of the philosophy of science for all disciplines.  In the 1970s this idea was strongly resisted by scientists.”

Heinz von Foerster (1911-2002), former Illinois professor of biophysics, launched the Biological Computer Laboratory in 1958. He is remembered for research on self-organizing systems and self-referential systems, was the director of the Biological Computer Laboratory until he retired and moved to California in 1975. After von Foerster’s departure, the laboratory was closed.

The work on cybernetics at BCL was inspired by the Macy Foundation conferences on “Circular Causal and Feedback Mechanisms in Biological and Social Systems,” which were held in New York City in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Von Foerster was a participant in these conferences. In the 1960s and early 1970s the Biological Computer Laboratory was the leading center for cybernetics research in the United States. Since it closed, many of the people who worked and studied there have become members of the American Society of Cybernetics. In recent years research on some aspects of cybernetics has been continued under the label “complex systems.”

The American Society of Cybernetics was created to develop and anticipate the impact of cybernetics, as well as provide current information in the field to others. Meanwhile, the annual Understanding Complex Systems symposium is aimed to create and advance research activities from various fields of study to advance the complex systems community.

Umpleby, who holds multiple degrees from the University, chaired the panel on the work of the Biological Computer Laboratory at the conference.

Now a professor of management at The George Washington University, Umpleby first learned about cybernetics while working with von Foerster at the Biological Computer Laboratory when he was a student in the late 1960s. (In fact, many ASC members used to study at the laboratory.)

“I have spent much of the last 30 years trying to make a scientific revolution, a revolution created and defined by (Heinz von Foerster),” Umpleby said. “From Heinz I learned how to ‘create’ science."

Both conferences took place in Loomis lab and ended on May 15. However, the ASC Conference began May 11, while the Understanding Complex Systems Symposium started on May 12. It was the first time the two conferences have been held together.

Umpleby said that the conferences were planned to be held together, since the field of complex systems is in part a newer version of cybernetics. As a way to advance discussions, participants of both conferences were able to visit sessions held by either organization at no additional charge.

“There was very good interaction between the two groups,” Umpleby said. “I think it was a very fruitful conference. I look forward to more collaboration in the future…The fields of cybernetics and complex systems have much to learn from each other.”