ArticlePDF Available

Heinz von Foerster and the Mansfield Amendment

Authors:

Abstract

Heinz von Foerster was the founder and director of the Biological Computer Laboratory (BCL) at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. BCL existed from 1957 to 1976. In 1976 Heinz retired and moved to California. One revealing story about Heinz and the Biological Computer Laboratory concerns the Mansfield Amendment, which led to the closing of BCL. I was a graduate student at the University of Illinois from the late 1960s until 1975.
Cybernetics And Human Knowing. Vol. 10, nos. 3-4, pp. 187-190
Heinz von Foerster and the
Manseld Amendment
Stuart Umpleby
1
Heinz von Foerster was the founder and director of the Biological Computer
Laboratory (BCL) at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. BCL existed
from 1957 to 1976. In 1976 Heinz retired and moved to California. One revealing
story about Heinz and the Biological Computer Laboratory concerns the Manseld
Amendment, which led to the closing of BCL. I was a graduate student at the
University of Illinois from the late 1960s until 1975.
Cybernetics, as a eld, originated in the late 1940s and early 1950s during a series
of ten conferences sponsored by the Josiah Macy, Jr. Foundation. The conferences
were held in New York City and were chaired by Warren McCulloch. The conferences
were attended by people from philosophy, mathematics, engineering,
neurophysiology, and social science (Heims, 1991).
In 1956 at a conference at Dartmouth University a split occurred. The engineers
felt they had made signicant progress in programming computers to emulate some
aspects of human intelligence. They preferred to proceed on the basis of somewhat ad
hoc assumptions about the nature of intelligence, human or machine. The
neurophysiologists and philosophers preferred to continue their research on
neurophysiology. They felt they had much to learn about the functioning of the human
nervous system. From this time forward the elds of articial intelligence and
cybernetics developed largely independently in terms of communication among
researchers. However, various agencies in the Department of Defense, for example the
Ofce of Naval Research and the Air Force Ofce of Scientic Research, continued to
support both groups. In the 1960s BCL was the leading center for cybernetics research
in the U.S. Most of the money came from the Air Force.
In the late 1960s there were protests on college campuses against the war in Viet
Nam and against military research being done on campus. The Department of Defense
(DOD) funded quite a lot of research on campuses, but most of it was basic research
not related to military activities. In an effort to calm the anti-war protests on college
campuses Senate Majority Leader Mike Manseld, a liberal Democrat from Montana,
proposed the Manseld Amendment. This amendment to the Defense Procurement
Authorization Act of 1970 required that DOD only support basic research “with a
direct and apparent relationship to a specic military function or operation.” (Hauben,
1999) Apparently the intent was to diminish the DOD presence on college campuses.
1. Department of Management Science, Research Program in Social and Organizational Learning, The George
Washington University. Email: umpleby@gwu.edu
188
Stuart Umpleby
During World War II, Heinz had conducted research in Germany, but he had
conducted only theoretical research that had no military applications. Following the
passage of the Manseld Amendment each researcher who had been receiving DOD
funds was required to explain the relationship of the research to a military mission.
Heinz replied to this question that the research at BCL was not related to a military
mission. Hence, the people in DOD could provide no further funds to support the
research in cybernetics that BCL had been doing.
When faced with the same question the people doing research on articial
intelligence and robotics became creative. They imagined a variety of futuristic
electronic and robotic devices on battleelds. These science ction-like descriptions
proved to be quite popular in Washington, DC. The funding agencies within DOD
used them to request more research funds from Congress. The members of Congress
were favorably inclined. They reasoned that the more automated the battleeld was,
the fewer soldiers / voters would be killed or wounded.
In 1971 Congress created a new program, Research Applied to National Needs
(RANN), within the National Science Foundation (2003). At BCL people hoped that
this program would continue some of the non-military research that DOD had been
supporting. There were two problems with RANN. First, it focused on applied
research rather than basic research. The interdisciplinary, basic research that DOD had
been funding had no obvious place to go. Second, the people in RANN were a
different group of people from the people who had been funding cybernetics research
within DOD. The new people were not familiar with the previous work that had been
done in cybernetics and so lacked the background necessary to evaluate research
proposals in this eld.
With research from DOD at an end, Heinz applied to RANN for support of the
BCL research on cognition and “experimental epistemology.” However, the reaction
of the people in RANN was that the people at BCL did not understand the philosophy
of science. They held the conventional view that science involved removing the
observer from scientic observations, not paying attention to the observer. Hence, the
BCL proposal to RANN was rejected. BCL then sought funds from private
foundations with some success but not sufcient success to continue the work of the
Laboratory. Rather than return to teaching undergraduate engineering courses, Heinz
chose early retirement. Ross Ashby and Gotthard Gunter had returned to Europe a few
years before. When Heinz left the University of Illinois, BCL and its basic research in
cybernetics came to an end. Although the Manseld Amendment was later repealed
(Hauben, 2003), it had had the unintended consequences of curtailing basic research
in cybernetics in the U.S. and increasing funding for articial intelligence and
robotics, particularly if the research had a plausible link to a military mission.
REFERENCES
Biological Computer Laboratory
. (n.d.) Retrieved 10/14/2003 from http://www.ece.uiuc.edu/pubs/centhist/six/bcl.htm
Biological Computer Laboratory Publications.
(n.d.) Retrieved 10/14/2003 from http://web.library.uiuc.edu/ahx/asc/
bcl.html
The Mansfield Amendment
189
Hauben, R. (1999). Creating the Needed Interface.
Telepolis: Magazin der Netzkultur
. Retrieved 10/14/2003 from
http://www.heise.de/tp/english/inhalt/co/5106/6.html
Hauben, R. (2003) Finding the Founding Fathers of the Internet.
Multitudes,
11
, Retrieved 10/14/2003 from http://
multitudes.samizdat.net/article.php3?id_article=292
Heims, S. J. 1991.
The Cybernetics Group
. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
National Science Foundation. (n.d.)
Manufacturing: The Forms of Things Unknown.
Retrieved 10/14/2003 from http://
www.nsf.gov/od/lpa/news/publicat/nsf0050/manufacturing/history.htm
... But in response to campus protests, progressive Senator Mike Mansfield successfully moved an amendment to the defense Procurement act so that defense-funded research thenceforth must be demonstrably relevant to the mission of the military. Marvin Minsky and the artificial intelligence people were willing to sign up for this, but von Foerster was not (Umpleby, 2003;2008). it didn't help, of course, that von Foerster had aligned himself publicly with the anti-war counterculture, nor that the Soviets had become so enamored with cybernetics. ...
... Finally, this approach dissolved back into traditional sciences and created new neurosciences and computer sciences as well as an ambitious military-funded robotics and artificial intelligence (Krieg, 2005). Heinz, however, united a second transdisciplinary group to explore, model, and understand the relation of machines, language, and human evolution as second-order cybernetics in his Biological Computer Lab from 1958 to 1976, until it was no longer possible to do nonmilitary related research due to the Mansfield Amendment (Umpleby, 2003). ...
Full-text available
Article
This article introduces stories as a link between culture and evolution. It elaborates how the decline of interhuman communication leads to a loss of perception, capability for cooperation, and human intelligence and contributes to the current ecocide. It shows how cybernetics hacked the relationship between evolution and machine development, which brought forth the outlines of man’s current digital transformation and future. It suggests that Lucas Pawlik is still working on a possible sustainable future for humanity that Heinz von Foerster tried to initiate.
... For years Heinz would go to Washington DC and discuss his next round of funding and then receive it at his lab directly from the government. In this way, he would maintain the extraordinary run of his BCL of some 20 years or so (Umpleby 2003). Yet as Heinz tells the story, one year he went to Washington as usual and was told that he was not going to get the money directly; instead, he would have to approach an individual through whom they were centralizing distribution. ...
Full-text available
Book
CYBERNETICS: STATE OF THE ART is the first volume of the book series CON-VERSATIONS. Driven by cybernetic thinking, it engages with pressing questions for architecture, urban planning, design and automated infrastructure; in an age of increasing connectivity, AI and robotization and an evolutionary state of the Anthropocene - perpetuating angst-ridden anxiety as well as excitement and joy of a future, that we will be able to predict with less and less certainty. The book, with a foreword by Omar Khan, discusses cybernetic principles and devices developed in the late 20th century – mainly developed by Ross Ashby and Gordon Pask (second-order cybernetics), to learn from for a future of mutual relationship and conversation between man and machine. The anthology reviews and previews cybernetics as design strategy in computational architecture, urban design and socio-ecological habitats - natural and artificial. It weaves together cybernetic-architectural theories with applications and case studies ranging from regional planning to the smart home. Nine chapters written by an international group of authors from four academic generations are structured into two complimenting parts. While ‘A Concept and a Shape’ focuses on the history and theory of cybernetics, its temporary disappearance and future impact (Raúl Espejo, Michael Hohl, Paul Pangaro, Liss C. Werner), ‘System 5’ – relating to Stafford Beer’s project ‘Cybersyn’ - discusses applications, the role of the individual and human feedback; also with a strong theoretical underpinning (Raoul Bunschoten, Delfina Fantini van Ditmar, Timothy Jachna, Arun Jain, Kristian Kloeckl). CYBERNETICS: STATE OF THE ART invites the reader to enjoy a glimpse into the past to enjoy and discuss a cybernetic future.
... History is important to the editors, Karl Müller and Alexander Riegler, and to the generation of scholars who studied under the founders of second-order cybernetics in the mid-1970s (Stuart Umpleby and Robert Martin, who did their PhDs with Heinz von Foerster at the University of Illinois; and Bernard Scott who did his with Gordon Pask at Brunel University). This is not surprising because they have all written participant histories of the field ( Müller & Müller 2007;Umpleby 2003Umpleby , 2005Umpleby , 2007Martin 2007;Scott 2004). But several members of the next generation also pay attention to history. ...
... In consolidating its epistemology and, with it, an ability to rigorously address the issues of self-reference towards which a field concerned with circularity is inevitably drawn, it is with SOC that cybernetics reaches maturity as a discipline. That this happens simultaneously with the fragmentation of the field during the 1970s, under pressure from changes in external funding climate and professional accreditation (Umpleby 2003;Umpleby & Dent 1999), has consequences not just for the ideas of SOC but also for how we understand earlier, and other, aspects of cybernetics. ...
... In consolidating its episte-mology and, with it, an ability to address rigorously the issues of self-reference towards which a field concerned with circularity is inevitably drawn, it is with SOC that cybernetics reaches maturity as a discipline. That this happens simultaneously with the fragmentation of the field during the 1970sunder pressure from changes in the external funding climate and professional accreditation (umpleby 2003;umpleby & Dent 1999) -has consequences not just for the ideas of SOC but also for how we understand earlier, and other, aspects of cybernetics. ...
Chapter
The following sections are included: Differentiating externally motivated application and internally motivated practice The pleasure of constructing the world Cybernetic machines for thinking and showing
Chapter
Heinz von Foerster was a physicist and philosopher, who worked extensively in cybernetics, biology and family therapy, although he hated being categorised as belonging to a particular academic discipline. Indeed he once remarked that “I am Viennese. That is the only label that I have to accept. I come from Vienna; I was born there, that’s an established fact” (von Foerster H, Poerksen B. Understanding systems: conversations on epistemology and ethics. Carl-Auer-Systeme Verlag, Heidelberg, p. 43, 2002).
Chapter
Since it ascended in the mid-twentieth century on the basis of technical and scientific advances made during World War II, cybernetics has influenced design theory and research. It was appreciated by its originators primarily as a theoretical framework and as a common language to bridge disciplinary boundaries, but soon found more prominent applications in goal-oriented control engineering. Since around 1970, it developed a reflective, more philosophical, and less control-focused perspective referred to as second-order cybernetics. This perspective recognises circular causality, non-determinism, the subjective observer and other concepts avoided by natural science. In this way, it offers an approach to self-organising systems that negotiate their own goals in open-ended processes – in other words: design. As an introduction to design cybernetics, this chapter outlines the development of cybernetics from a technical engineering discipline to a design-philosophical perspective.
Full-text available
Article
The aim of this article is to show how sociocybernetics can clarify and bring order to two key concepts in the social sciences: ‘observation’ and ‘reflexivity’. The article provides an introduction and conceptual overview of second order cybernetics, placing it in the larger context of cybernetics and systems sciences studies. Since its inception, in cybernetics the role of the observer has been paramount. It is the observer who distinguishes systems of interest. It is the observer who communicates her observations and theoretical interpretations to the wider community of other observers. Critically, as Heinz von Foerster emphasises, with second order cybernetics the observer, since she is herself an observing system, should ‘enter the domain of her own descriptions’. With her second order studies, she is explaining herself to herself. Reflexively, she is obliged to engage in self-observation. The article sets out some of the theoretical and methodological implications of these propositions.
Full-text available
Chapter
I am happy that my commentators are generally supportive of my proposal that cybernetics can provide a unifying framework and foundations for psychology. (As a point of clarification, when I refer to "cybernetics," I mean the complementary union of both first-and second-order cybernetics.) However, I quite understand that, as pointed out by several commentators, this proposal will not be acceptable to everyone. Many domain specialists in any discipline lack an interest in the more holistic issues of foundations and conceptual unification. They have other priorities. Many have cognitive styles (by habit or heritage) that are not conducive to this sort of contemplation (for more about individual differences in cognition and learning, see Scott 1993). But I do believe that many can benefit if my proposal is adopted. As noted in my article, my early exposure to cybernetics certainly helped me. As an undergraduate student of psychology, I was an indifferent and poorly-motivated student in the midst of what I saw as a mess of a discipline, in which my teachers, espousing different paradigms, were incapable of constructive conversation with one another. Cybernetics enabled me to make sense of this mess and inspired me to become an enthusiastic scholar. It is thus no surprise that Vincent Kenny's impassioned account of the sorry state of psychology resonates with me. I see a properly-founded and articulated cybernetic psychology as the "psychological psychology" he seeks. I am certainly not advocating any kind of "glue" (§1). I see my proposed foundations and conceptual framework not only as unifying but also as filters that sift out and reject dross.
Manufacturing: The Forms of Things Unknown
National Science Foundation. (n.d.) Manufacturing: The Forms of Things Unknown. Retrieved 10/14/2003 from http:// www.nsf.gov/od/lpa/news/publicat/nsf0050/manufacturing/history.htm