Interview on Cybernetics

August 22, 1989

00:05 Gooch

Hello, I’m Sherwin Gooch. Welcome to High Tech Heroes. Our guest this week is a nephew of the famous philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. In collaboration with Norbert Wiener, John von Neumann, Margaret Mead, and others, our guest helped to found the science of cybernetics. He was born in Austria and received a degree in physics engineering from the Institute of Technology in Vienna, followed by a PhD in physics from the University of Breslau. He has held many engineering and research positions, served in many professional organizations, and is a prolific author. Among the positions he has held are: staff physicist, director of the Microwave and Plasma Research Lab, professor of engineering, professor of biophysics, director of the Electron Tube Research Lab, director of the Biological Computer Lab, chairman of the board of Cybernetics Research Institute, and director of Systems Research Limited.


Some of the ways in which he has served professional organizations are: secretary, Josiah Macy Jr. Foundation, president of the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, chairman of the research board and member of the board of directors of the American Society for Cybernetics, and advisory editor of Currents in Modern Biology. Our guest has published over one hundred articles, including papers written in German, English, French, Russian, Spanish, and Italian. The subject matter of his papers varies dramatically, with titles including Diode Characteristics of a Hollow Cathode, Microwave Modulation of Light Using the Kerr Effect, A Quantum-Mechanical Theory of Memory, Music and Computers, and Physics and Anthropology. He was perhaps the first to research computing via neural networks, publishing his results in the mid-1960s, and has even published in the Whole Earth Catalog.


To round out his reputation as a Renaissance man, he has played professionally in a jazz combo, served as editor in chief for Science and Art at the radio network of the Information Services Branch of the U.S. Army, and has been named a Guggenheim fellow. And so I’m happy to welcome one of the founders of the science of cybernetics, professor Heinz von Förster, to our program. Hello Heinz, and welcome to High Tech Heroes.

02:19 von Förster

Sherwin! It’s wonderful to see you after so many years! Thank you very much.

02:24 Gooch

So I’m sure everyone is wondering: what is cybernetics?

02:28 von Förster

I wonder it all the time myself what it is. One of the things I think you learn when you become interested in cybernetics is that definitions are no good. So I would rather not go into details [of] what is cybernetics. As one of my friends, for instance, said: don’t ask, “What is cybernetics?” ask: “When is cybernetics?”

02:56 Gooch

Well, it might be helpful, though, to at least have some general feel for what cybernetics is.

03:01 von Förster

We are doing it already. We are doing it already by going into a dialogue. I think the essential—I will follow your suggestion. I think, essentially, cybernetics is a way of looking at things, a way of understanding what’s going on. What is language? What are problems of that sort? And it is a little bit—if I may be a little bit naïve at that moment—for instance, if you have a chimpanzee and there is a banana, and he comes up with a stick and pulls the banana out: cybernetics is not the banana, cybernetics is the stick. It is: how do you get there? How do you see that thing? How can you do things?

03:44 Gooch

Well, cybernetics has to do with control and communication.

03:47 von Förster

Mmm… not necess—yes, with communication more than with control. I mean, in the years—how old is it that now? Cybernetics was published in 1948. You probably—last year, if we had the interview, we’d have celebrated the fortieth birthday of Norbert Wiener’s publication of Cybernetics. And, of course, as he called it at that time: Cybernetics: Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine. That was the early definition of it; all the interest of the early fathers of cybernetics.

04:21 Gooch

I would point out that this leaves out all of the plant species.

04:26 von Förster

Oh, you mean because it’s not an animal? No, you see, this is why I said: forty years ago, the particular pit of these guys who became fascinated with this notion of communication-control. Namely, essentially, a circularity which is going on. Talking to you, you’re talking to me, talking to you. This circularity is one of the essential conceptual backbones of the notion of cybernetics.

04:53 Gooch

So things continue to change as you compute. Now, how do you describe a conversation? You would say my… let’s see… what I believe that you said—

05:04 von Förster

No, wait. You are going right away into the will; interesting stuff, cybernetics. No. You would like to get a little bit of a cybernetic view of the notion of language, yeah?



05:16 von Förster

Language is, of course, one of the essential, the bases, of how we communicate, yeah? Okay. Now, the original idea is: what is going on in a dialogue? You say: I say something, my question, and you give me an answer. So it’s very obvious, very simple.


Very straightforward.

05:34 von Förster

What’s the problem? The problem is the following thing: if you ask me a question, I have to interpret that question and say, “What did Sherwin really want to know when he asked me that?” So I address myself to that interpretation of your question, and I come back with my answer. Now you have to figure out: what is Heinz now saying?



05:54 von Förster

So the dialogue is: I’m interpreting, you’re questioning, and you’re interpreting the answers, which is my interpretation of your question.

06:04 Gooch

I noticed that one of the articles you wrote on concerns itself with the Gaia hypothesis.

06:10 von Förster

No, not really directly, but I’m very fond of the people who developed the Gaia hypothesis. Can you tell us a little bit about the Gaia hypothesis.

06:18 Gooch

Well, as I understand the Gaia hypothesis, it is that the Earth as a whole, or the planet as a whole, is a living system which has its own survival instincts, or some goal to survive.

06:36 von Förster

If I may—you’re picking up at that tiny little comment which I said once to the Whole Earth Catalog people: because it was a comment on an article by the Gaia people, I think, where they made some very erroneous statements, or maybe they were misprints. So what I wanted to do, I said: the Gaia notion is too important to be loused up by these trivial mistakes. That was my point.


Now, I give you a little bit—I think you touched the point of the Gaia people; what they want to do. And you mentioned, indeed, seeing the ecology of the whole Earth—you see, the atmosphere, the animals, the plants, the whole ecosphere—as a living organism. And of course, if you do that, you have to somehow make a decision in saying: what do we mean? What is a living organism? Yeah? So first, before one can go deeper into the whole Gaia notion, one should talk perhaps a little bit about biology, or living systems, and things like that.

07:38 Gooch

What is a living system? Well, what is—I suppose we should start, perhaps, of: what is a self-organizing system?

07:47 von Förster

Okay. They are all in the same category. In all of these notions appear the circularity, you see, that you do something which is doing it on that something is, et cetera, et cetera. For instance, in self-organization (which is a very fascinating notion) you need some kind of an energy source for a system to organize in the cause of the flow of the energy going through that system. The [???] is a completely distributed slime, and out of that suddenly growing things that look like that, yeah? And at first you don’t see that this is such an organization. From nothing, after a while, you get this, you get that, you get these molecular configurations. And this is a fascinating process. What’s going on? Constantly, circularity between a little bit of organization fostering more organization, et cetera, et cetera.

08:43 Gooch

Okay. Now, one of the other questions I have deals with the difference between form and information. Because information could be anything. I mean, if it’s information it doesn’t make any sense unless there’s somebody there to interpret it, or who knows the code, or the way that it’s written. And this is, I believe, tied up with what you call an observing system. Would you say that’s fair?

09:07 von Förster

Very good, Sherwin! I like, I like, I like your argument! Very good!

09:11 Gooch

Now, my question is: is your observing system (as far as information goes this way), do you feel that that’s the same observing system from quantum mechanics?

09:19 von Förster

Oh no. No, no. They are very different arguments, different levels of argumentation, different levels of observation. We have to separate them, yeah? They’re a separate problem.

09:27 Gooch

Yeah, well, I see. Okay. Let’s try, because I think they’re related.

09:32 von Förster

Yes, they are related in one sense. But, you see, observing is a much more general notion than that particular notion of observation that Heisenberg used to show that if you observe something, you alter it, you change it. It generated Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle.



09:53 von Förster

But let’s not go into that physics. Let’s stick to biology, let’s stick to life. We have not even continued our dialogue on life. But let’s go to the observation, yeah? I think what I like very much in your question is your notion that information is nothing. You said it’s nothing. All blah, blah, blah.

10:12 Gooch

It is nothing. It is only form, and only form is only in the eye of the perceiver.

10:18 von Förster

That’s right. Now, the usual notion of information is that on this sheet of paper you have information, yeah? And this, on my watch there, is information. You see, and you hinted—and I like that!—that that is no information. They are just hands on a clock, and they are black spots on a piece of paper. Only when you, Sherwin Gooch, are looking at the whole thing—you see, here it says, “What is cybernetics?” Suddenly, when you look at that sheet of paper, you generate the information by interacting with your own sensory experience. So information is generated in the one who looks at things, and it’s not passing around. For instance, “information processing” it is sometimes called—it’s as if information were a commodity which you can pass on. So these are the notions which are the misleading notions regarding information.

11:14 Gooch

We have to take a break. Heinz and I are talking here about cybernetics, and we’re going to talk in a minute about how cybernetics is going to influence the future.

Hello and welcome back to High Tech Heroes. I’m speaking here with Heinz von Förster about cybernetics, and I guess we’re going to cover some questions of: what is a living system? Which is, I think, a very hard thing to define, but perhaps you could try, Heinz?

11:39 von Förster

Sure, I will try. I think what evolved in the last twenty years or something like that: essentially, under the influence of cybernetic thinking (namely the circularity of processes, the notion of self-organization), the first thought that came about: is life really only to do with reproduction? The first notion was that life [is] reproduction. That’s the essential features. Now we are sitting here, Sherwin, we are perhaps producing, but we are not reproducing. But I think we are alive.

12:17 Gooch

Yes, well, but I think that maybe a clinical definition of life would only be a system whose goal state is to propagate like systems, right?

12:26 von Förster

Very good! Yeah, yeah, yeah. Very good. I’m just saying: it always was thought life is something to do with reproduction. But that’s of course not the only thing. The notion of life is that it maintains life. And the idea is: when was life generated? Of course, when the self-organization of molecules (things like that, you see; these guys) suddenly started to reproduce—pop!—other guys, and maintaining that configuration without being destroyed.

12:59 Gooch

Actually generating more of this configuration.

13:02 von Förster

Not only generating more, but generating itself again, you see? Because this thing may fall to pieces. The point is that it regenerates itself. The notion of life as a self-regenerating entity entered more and more into the discussion. The question was: how can it do that? And when one looks at the whole details of maintaining life as the function of life, you come up with a notion which is now being kicked around in molecular biology, in all the circles of biology, origin of life people, et cetera, et cetera. This is the notion of autopoiesis. This is a term—I will translate it—it comes from the Greek. Autós (αὐτός) means “self.” And “poiesis” comes from the Greek word poiwéō (ποιέω), which is the same word as we have in “poetry:” is to “create,” to “produce.” So “autopoiesis” is a system which produces itself. So life maintaining life is one of the essential notions regarding: what is life? And the question: how does it do it?


The detailed interpretation of that is as follows: if you have a system which consists of many components, and these components interact with each other in a productive way (producing some other components)—when the system is organized such that the production of these components are the very components that do this production, then you have an autopoietic system, and then you have a living organization.

14:40 Gooch

So there are—so I guess I would ask the question: can living organizations contain other living organizations? It appears that we have cells, which are autopoietic entities unto themselves, and then we are a collection of these autopoietic entities being a living system—man. I guess, if I work for a corporation, perhaps that's a larger autopoietic entity. Or a government.

15:03 von Förster

Well, there are, of course, amongst the autopoieticists—if I may call these people who are representing the autopoietic philosophy—if you ask them, then they are not really uniform in their opinion. For instance, their notion of autopoiesis was applied to social systems the way do to corporations, the government, et cetera, et cetera. Know the originators of the notion of autopoiesis would fight that position. Let me introduce these people to you. You remember them—they are two Chileans, or three Chilean people, from Santiago de Chile. They are also sometimes referred to as the Santiago School of Biology. They come from Santiago de Chile. One is Humberto Maturana, another one is Francisco Varela, and the other one is Mr. [Ricardo] Uribe. So these three wrote the first paper, which was a real splash in biology, about autopoiesis, you see? And some people jumped on it immediately. Some people, of course, said this is all nonsense, how can you produce that, et cetera, et cetera. But this is now long history. This was probably 1973, 1974, or something. Around that time it was.


Now, in the meantime, the autopoietic notion has crept into the whole biological thread. The major biological representatives today are using that term—and to come back to your original question, which was the Gaia hypothesis—these people who expand the notion of autopoiesis to a larger system than just you and me, they said Gaia is an autopoietic system. Because it fulfills all the conditions: it fulfills the condition that all the components of that Gaia system are productively interactive with each other—and what do they produce? The very components with which they start out. So Gaia is a perpetually reconstructing, regenerating system which maintains the system as it is at the moment; the Gaia system. How can it do that? Because the sun is pumping in enough energy that this circularity of the processes which maintain the living organization of Gaia is maintained. Otherwise, it collapses and the whole thing goes.

17:25 Gooch

Now, I would like to ask you a little bit abstract questions. You have mentioned the biologists Maturana, Uribe—in particular, I would like to know about work on neural networks, biological neural networks, and life extension. It's my contention that immortality is probably just around the corner, and not necessarily through biology, but possibly through being able to read out the data in someone's—

17:54 von Förster

In what sense do you refer to immortality? Would you say Aristotle is immortal because we still read Aristotle?

18:00 Gooch

To an extent. But if I could read out, say, all the information in my brain, and then put that on a tape—

18:07 von Förster

[???] we have just watched about all the information. We do not use information as a commodity, so you can't read out the information of your brain. What do you mean by that?

18:17 Gooch

Well, what I mean by that is, for all intents and purposes, to be able to interact with a data structure that would—

18:24 von Förster

Which data structure?

18:26 Gooch

A copy of the data structure that I would use in my brain.

18:31 von Förster

Yeah, but how would you like to make a copy of your data structure of the brain? It's you, the only guy who knows it.

18:37 Gooch

Well, that's true. But I don't believe that that always has to be the case. And I think the fundamental question about this is: where is the information stored? Is it stored, actually, in the axons and dendrites; the connections of the neurons? Or is there actually some storage in molecular information? Because it may be the case—the whole question is: if you can completely get the form out without disturbing its neighbors (to an extent where it doesn't matter, anyway), then you can read it out. But if you're going to stick needles or probes in, or however you get the information out, and that destroys neighboring information, then maybe you can never get it out.

19:19 von Förster

Let me ask you something else. If you take an automobile—it drives very nicely along and does all these wonderful things. Where is the information stored in the automobile which makes it remember how to go ahead when you turn—

19:35 Gooch

To be an automobile?

19:36 von Förster

Yeah. Where is this information stored in the automobile?

19:39 Gooch

In the form of the automobile. It's also in the plans that they built the automobile from in the automobile factory, right? I mean, Henry Ford knew how the automobile worked. And he made more than one automobile. He made a lot of them the same. And I see no reason I could not make a lot of copies of my own brain. And then if I get hit by a car, I just go to a backup.

20:03 von Förster

Very nice. But you transpose the problem from the automobile to Mr. Ford's brain. You see, the question which we have, I thought, cleared in your first statement is: is information a commodity? Is information to be handed out this way and that way? And then I think we came to the conclusion that: where is your memory? Or where is my memory? I am my memory. You see, I can't start. It's the whole thing. You see how I can move or cannot move my fingers.

20:34 Gooch

I have read Memory without Record, Heinz, and I know what you're saying. However, I still believe that it's possible—for example, in that model it's all stored in connections of axons and dendrites, actually. Or you would see—see, now, your problem is with my use of the word “stored.” I would have to say the structure—

20:54 von Förster

That's your problem. It's not my problem, it's your problem.

20:59 Gooch

The structure acts in a certain way.

21:02 von Förster

Oh, that's not bad. That's quite good.

21:03 Gooch

Okay. And I would like to make another structure which acts in a similar—in fact, as much as possible, the same way.

21:09 von Förster

Yeah. But wouldn't, then, you need to know how the structure is which you would like to simulate?

21:15 Gooch

Yes. And this is my question for you. That structure has information, certainly, in the connections.

21:23 von Förster

That's what you say.

21:24 Gooch

Well, I really believe that the research is solid enough to know that this is true. But it may also be that a particular neuron knows whether to fire or not depending on some molecular state inside the cell. And this may mutate, may change, depending on…. And my question for you is: which is the case? Is that the case, or is it just not known?

21:48 von Förster

All these things are constantly going on when we speak, or when we talk, when I take this thing, when I look at my watch. All these things—the whole Sherwin Gooch, the whole Heinz von Förster, is constantly involved in all these activities. So if you pick a couple of neurons here, a couple of molecules there, they will tell you practically nothing. The only thing what's going on—if we are sitting together exactly as here, and you, Sherwin Gooch, say, “Where are in the molecules this and that stored,” and here comes Heinz von Förster and says, “Sherwin, don't look at storage in molecules, look at the whole system interacts with you, I interact with you, and you are interacting with me.” Look at this wonderful poster. Can we look at the moment where that is with the camera to see the cybernetics poster. Here we are! Can we see more of that poster? The whole poster, maybe? Then you see the two animals biting each other's tails. They are Greek names. They are called ouroboroi. And they come from Archimedes—alchemical substances which regenerate themselves. And if we could read what it says underneath—

23:17 Gooch

Underneath it says “communication is the interactive computation of a reality.”

23:22 von Förster

The interactive computation of a reality. What we are doing here is: during our interactions—linguistic, semantic—generate a reality which we hope your viewers will enjoy.

23:38 Gooch

Yes, but I still think the question is: if you duplicate Heinz von Förster—

23:43 von Förster


23:44 Gooch

Molecule by molecule that is impossible. However, it is possible, with technology advancing, to come to closer and closer copies. Now, a perfect copy is impossible, we know, because of the uncertainty principle.

23:57 von Förster

No, no, no, no, don't come with the uncertainty principle. Even the roughest copy is impossible, because you don't even know what that system is. You can't! It's a nonsensical question.

24:10 Gooch

I know it's an organization of molecules. Of atoms, if you will. Of particles.

24:16 von Förster


24:17 Gooch

And if I could duplicate that to close enough approximation, then I would be able to have a transporter of Star Trek fame, or a backup copy.

24:27 von Förster

I would rather prefer that you are playing Heinz von Förster on another show. That would be a much better effort, I believe, than to try to duplicate, molecule by molecule, Heinz von Förster.

24:39 Gooch

Yeah. Well, I see we're out of time, Heinz, and I really appreciate your taking the trouble to come here and be on the program. And it's been very enjoyable.

24:47 von Förster

Sherwin, it was a pleasure seeing you again after fifteen years.


It's great to see you again, Heinz.

von Förster

And good luck to you!


Thank you!

Interview on Cybernetics

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