Heinz von FoersterHeinz von Foerster was an Austrian-American physicist and electrical engineer who later became a biophysicist and founded a laboratory devoted to biology and computers. As a young man he was enthralled by the Vienna Circle (he was born in Vienna) and especially the young Ludwig Wittgenstein. He and friends memorized the entire Tractatus-Logico-Philosophicus and challenged one another to quote "chapter and verse." Von Foerster was a major participant in the last five Macy Conferences. He became one of the editors of the proceedings, suggested the conferences be known as conferences on cybernetics (after Norbert Wiener's new book by that name. He became close to all the founders of the conferences. His first presentation, at the sixth Macy conference, was on the role of memory. His earliest publication, while he was still in postwar Vienna, was on his claim that memory loss was an exponential decay curve, for the physico-chemical reason that this is the rate of macromolecular decay. He came to the United States, where Warren McCulloch, the chairman of the Macy conferences, invited him to describe his memory theory. Von Foerster became best known for his concept of "second-order cybernetics" - the self-referential problem of modeling or constructing cybernetic systems, which are themselves models. This is closely related to the puzzling difference between an observer and a participant when the relevant universe of discourse is expanded to include the observer. When philosophers think about the universe as a whole, they find there is no "Archimedean point" outside, from which they can look in to observe the universe.
. . . a brain is required to write a theory of a brain. From this follows that a theory of the brain, that has any aspirations for completeness, has to account for the writing of this theory. And even more fascinating, the writer of this theory has to account for her or himself. Translated into the domain of cybernetics; the cybernetician, by entering his own domain, has to account for his or her own activity. Cybernetics then becomes cybernetics of cybernetics, or second-order cybernetics.In 1969 Von Foerster described a memory model as requiring the integration into an overall model of cognition of three elements:
(i) the faculty to perceive,Von Foerster made a famous doomsday prediction in 1960 with an equation for population growth that approached infinity in 2026. It may have inspired the Ehrlichs to their image of a "population bomb." In any case, according to Paul MacCready's calculations, humans are now more that ninety percent of the biomass in terrestrial vertebrates, up from under one percent a mere ten thousand years ago. We have conquered the planet, for better or for worse. "What Is Memory that It May Have Hindsight and Foresight as well?," in Understanding Understanding, Essays on Cybernetics and Cognition Von Foerster's 1995 Interview by Stefano Franchi, Güven Güzeldere, and Eric Minch (Special issue of Stanford Humanities Review) Normal | Teacher | Scholar