William Ross Ashby
|W. Ross Ashby|
6 September 1903|
|Died||15 November 1972(aged 69)|
|Fields||Psychiatry, Cybernetics, Systems theory|
|Known for||Cybernetics, Law of Requisite Variety, Principle of Self-Organization|
|Influenced||Norbert Wiener, Ludwig von Bertalanffy, Herbert A. Simon, Stafford Beer, Walter Cannon and Stuart Kauffman|
W. Ross Ashby (London, 6 September 1903 – 15 November 1972) was an English psychiatrist and a pioneer in cybernetics, the study of complex systems. His first name was not used: he was known as Ross Ashby.
His two books, Design for a Brain and An Introduction to Cybernetics, were landmark works. They introduced exact and logical thinking into the nascent discipline and were highly influential.
William Ross Ashby was born in 1903 in London, where his father was working at an advertising agency.1 From 1917 to 1921, William studied at the Edinburgh Academy in Scotland, and from 1921 at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, where he received his B.A. in 1924 and his M.B. and B.Ch. in 1928. From 1924 to 1928 he worked at the St. Bartholomew's Hospital in London. Later on he also received a Diploma in Psychological Medicine in 1931, and an M.A. 1930 and M.D. from Cambridge in 1935.
Ross Ashby started working in 1930 as a Clinical Psychiatrist in the London County Council. From 1936 until 1947 he was a Research Pathologist in the St Andrew's Hospital in Northampton in England. From 1945 to 1947 he served in India where he was a Major in the Royal Army Medical Corps.
When he returned to England, he served as Director of Research of the Barnwood House Hospital in Gloucester from 1947 until 1959. For a year, he was Director of the Burden Neurological Institute in Bristol. In 1960, he went to the United States and became Professor, Depts. of Biophysics and Electrical Engineering, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, until his retirement in 1970.2
On 4–6 March 2004, a W. Ross Ashby centenary conference was held at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to mark the 100th anniversary of his birth. Presenters at the conference included Stuart Kauffman, Stephen Wolfram and George Klir.3 In February 2009, a special issue of the International Journal of General Systems was specifically devoted to Ashby and his work, containing papers from leading scholars such as Klaus Krippendorff, Stuart Umpleby and Kevin Warwick.4
Despite being widely influential within cybernetics, systems theory and, more recently, complex systems, Ashby is not as well known as many of the notable scientists his work influenced, including Herbert A. Simon, Norbert Wiener, Ludwig von Bertalanffy, Stafford Beer, Stanley Milgram, Kevin Warwick, and Stuart Kauffman.5
Ashby kept a journal for over 44 years in which he recorded his ideas about new theories. He started May 1928, when he was medical student at St. Bartholomew's Hospital in London. Over the years, he wrote down a series of 25 volumes totalling 7,400 pages. In 2003, these journals were given to The British Library, London, and in 2008, they were made available online as The W. Ross Ashby Digital Archive.6
Ross Ashby was one of the original members of the Ratio Club, a small informal dining club of young psychologists, physiologists, mathematicians and engineers who met to discuss issues in cybernetics. The club was founded in 1949 by the neurologist John Bates and continued to meet until 1958.
The title of his book An Introduction to Cybernetics popularised the usage of the term 'cybernetics' to refer to self-regulating systems, originally coined by Norbert Wiener in Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine.
The book dealt primarily with homeostatic processes within living organisms, rather than in an engineering or electronic context.
Earlier, in 1946, Alan Turing wrote a letter7 to Ashby suggesting that Ashby use Turing's Automatic Computing Engine (ACE) for his experiments instead of building a special machine. In 1948, Ashby made the Homeostat.8
In An Introduction to Cybernetics, Ashby formulated his Law of Requisite Variety9 stating that "variety absorbs variety, defines the minimum number of states necessary for a controller to control a system of a given number of states." This law can be applied for example to the number of bits necessary in a digital computer to produce a required description or model.
A popular paraphrasing of the law is "only complexity absorbs complexity", yet while a web search reveals many attributions to Ashby, it appears such attribution is in error. The phrase is not listed by the Cybernetics Society.11
- Intelligence amplification
- Systems theory
- Variety (cybernetics)
- Good Regulator
- 1952. Design for a Brain, Chapman & Hall.
- 1956. An Introduction to Cybernetics, Chapman & Hall.
- 1981. Conant, Roger C. (ed.). Mechanisms of Intelligence: Ross Ashby's Writings on Cybernetics, Intersystems Publishers.
- Articles, a selection
- 1940. "Adaptiveness and equilibrium". In: J. Ment. Sci. 86, 478.
- 1945. "Effects of control on stability". In: Nature, London, 155, 242–243.
- 1946. "The behavioural properties of systems in equilibrium". In: Amer. J. Psychol. 59, 682–686.
- 1947. "Principles of the Self-Organizing Dynamic System". In: Journal of General Psychology (1947). volume 37, pages 125–128.
- 1948. "The homeostat". In: Electron, 20, 380.
- 1962. "Principles of the Self-Organizing System". In: Heinz Von Foerster and George W. Zopf, Jr. (eds.), Principles of Self-Organization (Sponsored by Information Systems Branch, US Office of Naval Research). Republished as a PDF in Emergence: Complexity and Organization (E:CO) Special Double Issue Vol. 6, Nos. 1–2 2004, pp. 102–126.
- About W. Ross Ashby
- Asaro, Peter (2008). "From Mechanisms of Adaptation to Intelligence Amplifiers: The Philosophy of W. Ross Ashby," in Michael Wheeler, Philip Husbands and Owen Holland (eds.) The Mechanical Mind in History, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
- Biography of W. Ross Ashby The W. Ross Ashby Digital Archive, 2008.
- Autobiographical summary, taken from Ashby's own notes, made about 1972.
- W. Ross Ashby Centenary Conference The W. Ross Ashby Digital Archive, 2008
- International Journal of General Systems
- Cosma Shalizi, W. Ross Ashby web page, 1999.
- W. Ross Ashby Journal (1928–1972) The W. Ross Ashby Digital Archive, 2008.
- Alan Turing letter The W. Ross Ashby Digital Archive, 2008.
- "Java applet simulation". Archived from the original on 2 August 2012. by Dr Horace Townsenddead link
- WR Ashby, "An introduction to cybernetics", London, Chapman & Hall,1956. 
- Int. J. Systems Sci., 1970. vol 1, No. 2 pp89-97
- "What Ashby Says..." Retrieved 16 May 2014.
|Wikiquote has quotations related to: William Ross Ashby|
- The W. Ross Ashby Digital Archive includes an extensive biography, bibliography, letters, photographs, movies, and fully indexed images of all 7,400 pages of Ashby's 25 volume journal.
- Homepage of William Ross Ashby with a short text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Yearbook 1973, and some links.
- Asaro, Peter M. (2008). "From Mechanisms of Adaptation to Intelligence Amplifiers: The Philosophy of W. Ross Ashby," in Michael Wheeler, Philip Husbands and Owen Holland (eds.) The Mechanical Mind in History, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp. 149–184.
- W. Ross Ashby web page by Cosma Shalizi, 1999.
- W. Ross Ashby (1956): An Introduction to Cybernetics, (Chapman & Hall, London): available electronically, Principia Cybernetica Web, 1999
- The Law of Requisite Variety in the Principia Cybernetica Web, 2001.
- 159 Aphorisms from Ashby and further links at the Cybernetics Society
- W. Ross Ashby, Cybernetics and Requisite Variety (1956) from An Introduction to Cybernetics
- W. Ross Ashby, Feedback, Adaptation and Stability (1960) from Design for a Brain
- What is Cybernetics? on YouTube Livas short introductory videos