W. Ross Ashby

From Wikiquote
(Redirected from William Ross Ashby)
Jump to: navigation, search
W. Ross Ashby, 1960.

W. Ross Ashby (September 6, 1903November 15, 1972) was an English psychiatrist and a pioneer in cybernetics and the study of complex systems.


  • During the last few years it has become apparent that the concept of "machine" must be very greatly extended if it is to include the most modern developments. Especially is this true if we are studying the brain and attempting to identify the type of mechanism that is responsible for the brain’s outstanding powers of thought and action. It has become apparent that when we used to doubt whether the brain could be a machine, our doubts were due chiefly to the fact that by ‘‘machine’’ we understood some mechanism of very simple type. Familiar with the bicycle and the typewriter, we were in great danger of taking them as the type of all machines. The last decade, however, has corrected this error. It has taught us how restricted our outlook used to be; for it developed mechanisms that far transcended the utmost that had been thought possible, and taught us that ‘‘mechanism’’ was still far from exhausted in its possibilities. Today we know only that the possibilities extend beyond our farthest vision.
  • The last two chapters, however — those on the cortex and its highest functions — fall off sadly, as so often happens when those who have spent much time studying the minutiae of the nervous system begin to consider its action as a whole; yet it is difficult to see, while present - day neurophysiology is limited to the study of the finest details in an organism carefully isolated from its environment, how the neurophysiologist’s account could have been improved. The last two chapters, in fact, show only too clearly how ill adapted classical neurophysiology is to undertake the study of the brain’s highest functions. At the moment it is far too concerned with details, and its technical resources are leading it only into the ever smaller. As a result, the neurophysiologist who starts to examine the highest functions is like a microscopist who, hearing there are galaxies to be looked at, has no better resource than to point his microscope at the sky. He must not be surprised if he sees only a blur.
  • Two main lines are readily distinguished. One already well developed in the hands of von Bertalanffy and his co-workers, takes the world as we find it, examines the various systems that occur in it - zoological, physiological, and so on - and then draws up statements about the regularities that have been observed to hold. This method is essentially empirical. The second method is to start at the other end. Instead of studying first one system, then a second, then a third, and so on, it goes to the other extreme, considers the set of all conceivable systems and then reduces the set to a more reasonable size. This is the method I have recently followed.

Design for a Brain: The Origin of Adaptive Behavior (1952)[edit]

Source: Ashby (1952) Design for a Brain: The Origin of Adaptive Behavior. New York, Wiley. (1960 edition online)
  • Every stable system has the property that if displaced from a state of equilibrium and released, the subsequent movement is so matched to the initial displacement that the system is brought back to the state of equilibrium. A variety of disturbances will therefore evoke a variety of matched reactions.
    • p.54
  • The primary fact is that all isolated state-determined dynamic systems are selective: from whatever state they have initially, they go towards states of equilibrium. These states of equilibrium are always characterised, in their relation to the change-inducing laws of the system, by being exceptionally resistant.
    • p. 238

An Introduction to Cybernetics (1956)[edit]

Source: W. Ross Ashby (1956) An Introduction to Cybernetics. Chapman & Hall.
  • Cybernetics is likely to reveal a great number of interesting and suggestive parallelisms between machine and brain and society. And it can provide the common language by which discoveries in one branch can readily be made use of in the others... [There are] two peculiar scientific virtues of cybernetics that are worth explicit mention. One is that it offers a single vocabulary and a single set of concepts suitable for representing the most diverse types of system... The second peculiar virtue of cybernetics is that it offers a method for the scientific treatment of the system in which complexity is outstanding and too important to be ignored. Such systems are, as we well know, only too common in the biological world!
    • p.4-5
  • The most fundamental concept in cybernetics is that of "difference", either that two things are recognisably different or that one thing has changed with time. Its range of application need not be described now, for the subsequent chapters will illustrate the range abundantly. All the changes that may occur with time are naturally included, for when plants grow and planets age and machines move some change from one state to another is implicit. So our first task will be to develop this concept of "change", not only making it more precise but making it richer, converting it to a form that experience has shown to be necessary if significant developments are to be made.
    • p.9
  • [T]he concept of “feedback”, so simple and natural in certain elementary cases, becomes artificial and of little use when the interconnexions between the parts become more complex. When there are only two parts joined so that each affects the other, the properties of the feedback give important and useful information about the properties of the whole. But when the parts rise to even as few as four, if every one affects the other three, then twenty circuits can be traced through them; and knowing the properties of all the twenty circuits does not give complete information about the system. Such complex systems cannot be treated as an interlaced set of more or less independent feedback circuits, but only as a whole.
    For understanding the general principles of dynamic systems, therefore, the concept of feedback is inadequate in itself. What is important is that complex systems, richly cross-connected internally, have complex behaviours, and that these behaviours can be goal-seeking in complex patterns.
    • p.54 as cited in: Margaret A. Bode (2006) Mind as Machine: A History of Cognitive Science, Volume 1. p.229

About Ashby[edit]

  • General systems theory is considered as a formal theory (Mesarovic, Wymore), a methodology (Ashby, Klir), a way of thinking (Bertalanffy, Churchman), a way of looking at the world (Weinberg), a search for an optimal simplification (Ashby, Weinberg), didactic method (Boulding, Klir, Weinberg), metalanguage (Logren), and profession (Klir).
    • George Klir cited in: James T. Ziegenfuss (1983) Patients' rights and organizational models: sociotechnical systems research on mental health programs. p.104
  • [A] famous photograph... showing McCulloch (1898–1969) and Norbert Wiener (1894–1964) with British Cyberneticians Ross Ashby (1903–1972) and Grey Walter (1910–1977), first appeared in de Latil (1953) with the caption "The four pioneers of Cybernetics get together in Paris", and encapsulates a view of the development of cybernetics that has slowly become more accepted: that there were important British contributions from the outset.

External links[edit]

Wikipedia has an article about: