Cybernetics And Human Knowing. Vol. 10, nos. 3-4, pp. 187-190
Heinz von Foerster and the
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, as a ﬁeld, 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 signiﬁcant 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 ﬁelds of artiﬁcial intelligence and
cybernetics developed largely independently in terms of communication among
researchers. However, various agencies in the Department of Defense, for example the
Ofﬁce of Naval Research and the Air Force Ofﬁce of Scientiﬁc 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 Mansﬁeld, a liberal Democrat from Montana,
proposed the Mansﬁeld 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 speciﬁc 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: email@example.com
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 Mansﬁeld 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 artiﬁcial
intelligence and robotics became creative. They imagined a variety of futuristic
electronic and robotic devices on battleﬁelds. These science ﬁction-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 battleﬁeld 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 ﬁeld.
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 scientiﬁc 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 sufﬁcient 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 Mansﬁeld 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 artiﬁcial intelligence and
robotics, particularly if the research had a plausible link to a military mission.
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/
The Mansfield Amendment
Hauben, R. (1999). Creating the Needed Interface.
Telepolis: Magazin der Netzkultur
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Hauben, R. (2003) Finding the Founding Fathers of the Internet.
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Heims, S. J. 1991.
The Cybernetics Group
. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
National Science Foundation. (n.d.)
Manufacturing: The Forms of Things Unknown.
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