Asaro P. (2008) Computer als Modelle des Geistes. Über Simulation und das Gehirn als Modell des Designs von Computern. Österreichische Zeitschrift für Geschichtswissenschaften 19(4): 41–72. https://cepa.info/2310
The article considers the complexities of thinking about the computer as a model of the mind. It examines the computer as being a model of the brain in several very different senses of “model‘. On the one hand the basic architecture of the first modern stored-program computers was „modeled on“ the brain by John von Neumann. Von Neumann also sought to build a mathematical model of the biological brain as a complex system. A similar but different approach to modeling the brain was taken by Alan Turing, who on the one hand believed that the mind simply was a universal computer, and who sought to show how brain-like networks could self-organize into Universal Turing Machines. And on the other hand, Turing saw the computer as the universal machine that could simulate any other machine, and thus any particular human skill and thereby could simulate human intelligence. This leads to a discussion of the nature of “simulation” and its relation to models and modeling. The article applies this analysis to a written correspondence between Ashby and Turing in which Turing urges Ashby to simulate his cybernetic Homeostat device on the ACE computer, rather than build a special machine.
Cariani P. (2009) The homeostat as embodiment of adaptive control. International Journal of General Systems 38(2): 139–154. https://cepa.info/349
W. Ross Ashby was a founder of both cybernetics and general systems theory. His systems theory outlined the operational structure of models and observers, while his cybernetics outlined the functional architecture of adaptive systems. His homeostat demonstrated how an adaptive control system, equipped with a sufficiently complex repertoire of possible alternative structures, could maintain stability in the face of highly varied and challenging environmental perturbations. The device illustrates his ‘law of requisite variety’, i.e. that a controller needs at least as many internal states as those in the system being controlled. The homeostat provided an early example of how an adaptive control system might be ill-defined vis – vis its designer, nevertheless solve complex problems. Ashby ran into insurmountable difficulties when he attempted to scale up the homeostat, and consequently never achieved the general purpose, brainlike devices that he had initially sought. Nonetheless, the homeostat continues to offer useful insights as to how the large analogue, adaptive networks in biological brains might achieve stability.
Egbert M. (2013) For Biological Systems, Maintaining Essential Variables Within Viability Limits Is Not Passive. Constructivist Foundations 9(1): 109–111. https://constructivist.info/9/1/109
Open peer commentary on the article “Homeostats for the 21st Century? Simulating Ashby Simulating the Brain” by Stefano Franchi. Upshot: The target article proposes that Ashby’s investigations of the homeostat and ultrastability lead to a view of living systems as heteronomous, passive “sleeping” machines and thus are in fundamental conflict with concepts of autonomy developed by Jonas, Varela and others. I disagree, arguing that (1) the maintenance of essential variables within viability limits is not a passive process for living systems and (2) the purpose of Ashby’s investigations of the homeostat was to investigate adaptivity, a subject that is related to, but clearly distinct from, autonomy. As such, I find Ashby’s work on adaptivity to be neither in opposition to nor in direct support of modern concepts of biological autonomy and suggest that a productive way forward involves the investigation of the intersection between these two fundamental properties of living systems.
Franchi S. (2013) Author’s Response: Is the Homeostat a Passive Machine? Is Life a Passive Phenomenon? Constructivist Foundations 9(1): 115–124. https://constructivist.info/9/1/115
Upshot: The target article suggested that Ashby’s device, the homeostat, embodies and illustrates a conception of life as a passive-contingent phenomenon. It advocated renewed experiments with updated and extended versions of his device that would allow us to understand better what passive-contingent life “would be like.” In assessing the proposal, we should be particularly careful when dealing with the concept of “passivity,” and we should not mistake the proposed theoretical exploration for a substantial metaphysical thesis about life in general.
Franchi S. (2013) Homeostats for the 21st Century? Simulating Ashby Simulating the Brain. Constructivist Foundations 9(1): 93–101. https://constructivist.info/9/1/093
Context: W. R. Ashby’s work on homeostasis as the basic mechanism underlying all kinds of physiological as well as cognitive functions has aroused renewed interest in cognitive science and related disciplines. Researchers have successfully incorporated some of Ashby’s technical results, such as ultrastability, into modern frameworks (e.g., CTRNN networks). Problem: The recovery of Ashby’s technical contributions has left in the background Ashby’s far more controversial non-technical views, according to which homeostatic adaptation to the environment governs all aspects of all forms of life. This thesis entails that life is fundamentally “heteronomous” and it is conceptually at odds with the autopoiesis framework adopted by Ashby’s recent defenders as well as with the primacy of autonomy in human life that most of the Western philosophical tradition upholds. The paper argues that the use of computer simulations focused on the more conceptual aspects of Ashby’s thought may help us recover, extend and consequently assess an overall view of life as heteronomy. Method: The paper discusses some computer simulations of Ashby’s original electro-mechanical device (the homeostat) that implement his techniques (double-feedback loops and random parameter-switching). Results: First simulation results show that even though Ashby’s claims about homeostatic adaptivity need to be slightly weakened, his overall results are confirmed, thereby suggesting that an extension to virtual robots engaged in minimal cognitive tasks may be successful. Implications: The paper shows that a fuller incorporation of Ashby’s original results into recent cognitive science research may trigger a philosophical and technical reevaluation of the traditional distinction between heteronomous and autonomous behavior. Constructivist content: The research outlined in the paper supports an extended constructionist perspective in which agency as autonomy plays a more limited role.
Franchi S. (2016) General homeostasis, passive life, and the challenge to autonomy. In: Müller V. C. (ed.) Fundamental issues of artificial intelligence. Springer, Cham: 285–300. https://cepa.info/5718
The paper argues that the conception of life as generalized homeostasis developed by W. R. Ashby in Design for a Brain and his other writings is orthogonal to the traditional distinction between autonomy and heteronomy that underlies much recent work in cellular biology, evolutionary robotics, ALife, and general AI. The distinction is well-entrenched in the Western philosophical canon but it fails to do justice to Ashby’s conception of life. We can assess the philosophical and technical viability of the general homeostasis thesis Ashby advocated, the paper argues, through the construction of virtual cognitive agents (i.e. simulated robots in a physically plausible environment) that replicate the architecture of Ashby’s original homeostat through a Ctrnn-like network architecture, whose outline implementation is then discussed.
Open peer commentary on the article “Homeostats for the 21st Century? Simulating Ashby Simulating the Brain” by Stefano Franchi. Upshot: Franchi argues that Ashby’s homeostat can be usefully understood as a thought experiment to explore the theory that life is fundamentally heteronomous. While I share Franchi’s interpretation, I disagree that this theory of life is a promising alternative that is at odds with most of the Western philosophical tradition. On the contrary, heteronomy lies at the very core of computationalism, and this is precisely what explains its persistent failure to construct life-like agents.
Harvey I. (2013) Standing on the Broad Shoulders of Ashby. Constructivist Foundations 9(1): 102–104. https://constructivist.info/9/1/102
Open peer commentary on the article “Homeostats for the 21st Century? Simulating Ashby Simulating the Brain” by Stefano Franchi. Upshot: It is a mistake to characterise Ashby’s view of life (from the 1950s) as passive, abstractly modelled in part by the homeostat; one should distinguish the stasis of homeostasis from the activity of the (model) organism. Likewise mistaken is the accusation of contingency; one should distinguish the purposeless mechanism from the purposeful (model) organism. There is no basic conflict between Ashby’s view and later developments in a similar tradition; technical advances are not the same as foundational gaps.
Ikegami T. (2013) The Self-moving Oil Droplet as a Homeostat. Constructivist Foundations 9(1): 114–114. https://constructivist.info/9/1/114
Open peer commentary on the article “Homeostats for the 21st Century? Simulating Ashby Simulating the Brain” by Stefano Franchi. Upshot: Using the example of chemical oil droplets, the paper discusses the idea of a homeostat in terms of a default mode network.
Livet P. (2006) Self-organization in second-order cybernetics: Deconstruction or reconstruction of complexity. In: Feltz B., Crommelinck M. & Goujoun P. (eds.) Self-organization and emergence in life sciences. Springer, Berlin: 249–263. https://cepa.info/6021
Excerpt: So called “Second-Order” cybernetics developed the notions of self-organization in a manner more radical than Wiener, attempting to both give a strong sense to the prefix “auto” and, at the same time, to explain reflexive phenomena, memory, and the relation between the organism and its history, in terms of the emergence of a global effect out of local interactions and the networking of retroactive processes. But the proposed theories didn’t always work. Today’s connectionist systems are analogous in some ways to the “non-trivial machines” of von Foerster. They lay claim to a common filiate (the formal networks of neurons of McCulloch and Pitts) and, more recently, they attack the problem of the recognition and the representation of recursive, nested structures. This new step is reminiscent of the one which took us from Ashby’s homeostat to the application by von Foerster of the concept of recursivity to the problem of non-trivial or memory-equipped machines. We will attempt to show that the analogy is a real one and that von Foerster anticipated many of the current problems. But we will also see that with the development of working models, other more redoubtable difficulties have appeared precisely where Second-Order cybernetics failed to foresee them.