Monday, October 15, 2012

The work of von Foerster: summary of a summary

The academic work of Heinz von Foerster was, and remains, highly influential in a number of disciplines, namely due to the pervasive implications of his distinction between first and second order cybernetics (and its antecedent ideas). Where first order cybernetics may be simply described as the study of feedback systems by observation, second-order cybernetics extends this observation of a system to incorporate the observer itself: it is reflexive in that the observation of the feedback system is itself a feedback system to be explained. While I am familiar with this concept, I am not particularly familiar with the body of work produced by von Foerster to instantiate this concept, although I have encountered numerous references to him, particularly when the subject is related to enactivism.

In 2003, Bernard Scott republished a summary of von Foersters' work which he originally published in 1979. The original paper was published just a few years after the official retirement of von Foerster, who apparently (as many an academic has before and since) continued his work for many subsequent years. It serves as a summary of the breadth of work and its contribution, and was republished partly in recognition of the continuing, and expanding, influence it exerts. This post is a very brief summary of this summary paper.

In general terms, von Foerster views on computation and cognition seem to be inherently integrated, holistic, proposing dynamic interactions between the micro, the macro and the global. This view thus contrasts with functional models of cognitive processes which in their nature, can only be static snapshots of the dynamic interactions at play: cf autopoietic theory that extends this notion with the principles of self-reconstitution and organisational closure. Particularly, he emphasises the necessity of considering perception, cognition and memory as indivisible aspects of a complete integrated cognitive system, cf enactivism.

With this consideration as a consistent thread, four primary phases in the development of von Foersters' research are identified. Firstly is his consideration of large molecules as the basis for biological computation, rather than the prevailing focus on neural networks, and that 'forms' of computation underlie all computational systems. Secondly is the exploration of self-organisation, and the reconciliation of organisation with the potential paradox of self-reference. In this sense, a system that increases in order (organisation) requires that its observer adapts its frame-of-reference to incorporate this: if this were not required of the observer, then the system can not be regarded as self-organising. The resulting infinite recursion provides an account of the conditions necessary for social communication and interaction: a consequence of the second order cybernetics. Thirdly is a focus on the nature of memory as being key to understanding cognition and consciousness. Returning to the notion of holistic cognition described above, this is in contrast to the perspective of memory as a static storage mechanism which was prevalent among behaviourist psychologists, and still remains prevalent in the work of designers of synthetic cognitive models and architectures (the countering of which is a key theme of my own research). The fourth and final identified phase (of the original 1979 paper that is) is the formalisation of the concept of self-referential systems and analysis as recursive computation, and the extension of this to apply also to the observer.

The threads of self reference and a holistic perspective have, as noted above, had a wide influence, and continue to do so. I did not realise before that Maturana and Varela's well known formulation of autopoiesis was done at the lab that von Foerster led (the Biological Computing Laboratory, University of Illinois). The relationship is of course clear now that I know about it (!): autopoiesis builds upon the self-reference and holism with self-reconstitution and organisational closure to form a fully reflexive theory. Similarly, enactivism seems to owe much to von Foersters' influence, with its integrated consideration of agent and environment, embodiment and cognition - a theme that has become increasing prevalent in recent years among those working on cognitive robotics with a more theoretical perspective - extending to the consideration of social behaviour. In all, the principle of second-order cybernetics and the theoretical perspectives upon which it is based remain important in the consideration of cognition and human behaviour despite its seemingly abstract theoretical nature, and Heinz von Foerster played a rather prominent role in providing its underpinnings.

Some of the 'buzzwords' raised in the summary of von Foersters' research which carry through as such today (among others - and I use the term buzzwords without any pejorative intent, merely as a 'note-to-self'):
- second order cybernetics
- self-organisation
- the holistic nature of cognition (developed as enactivism)

Paper reference:
Scott, B. (2003), "Heinz von Foerster - an appreciation (revisited)", Cybernetics and Human Knowing, 10(3/4), pp137-149

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