When a Machine Breaks…:

In today’s post, I am looking with more depth at the ideas of Cybernetics with relation to Ross Ashby, one of the pioneers of Cybernetics.

In particular, I am looking at one of the Ashby aphorisms:

When a machine breaks, it changes its mind.

This is a very interesting observation from a Cybernetics standpoint. Ashby defined a machine as follows:

It is a collection of parts which (a) alter in time, and (b) which interact with on one another in some determinate and known manner.

A designer designs the machine specific to an environment. This means that the designer has encoded a model of the environment into the machine so that when certain perturbations are encountered, the machine reacts in a certain manner. The variety that is estimated to be “thrown” at the machine is captured by the designer, and appropriate responses are encoded into the parts or the circuitry of the machine. The external variety is attenuated to a successful degree by the information conveyed by the machine in terms of affordances and signs on the machine. For example, a vending machine has signs on it along with pushable buttons that convey information to the user.

Ashby viewed this as the machine being successfully adapted to its environment. Ashby spoke of adaptation as being in a state of equilibrium. He referred to the stable state of equilibrium as “normal” equilibrium.  

Normal equilibrium has some special properties which we must notice. Firstly, the system tends to the configuration C; so, if it is disturbed slightly from C, it will automatically develop internal actions or tendencies bringing it back to C. In other words, it opposes any disturbance from C. Further, if we disturb it in various ways, it will develop different tendencies with different disturbances, the tendencies being always adjusted to the disturbances so as to oppose them.

it must be noted that an equilibrium configuration is a· property of the organization… The equilibrium states of a machine are defined by the organization only.

From this point on, Ashby explains what the “break” means with regards to the machine.

Let us imagine a machine has “broken.” The first observation is that no matter how chaotic the result, it is, by our definition, still a machine. But it is a different machine. A break is a change of organization.

The specific organization entails what the machine can do when it is perturbed. The machine only has the initial information to deal with perturbations. When a new scenario arises, it cannot deal with it because it cannot generate new information (unlike humans). The difference with us humans is that we can generate new information as needed to deal with the new perturbation. Sometimes, this can be in the mode of the basic fight or flight response. The reaction is indeed an effort to get an equilibrium. As Ashby put it:

The drive to equilibrium forces the emergence of intelligence.

Information is described as the reduction in uncertainty. When the environment is dynamic and constantly changing, we can say that there is a usefulness quotient for the freshness of the information on hand. This is something like a “best by date” that is on the carton of milk. As Ashby put it – Any system that achieves appropriate selection (to a degree better than chance) does so as a consequence of information received. From a second order Cybernetics standpoint, information is generated by the autopoietic being. It is not something that can be transmitted in the form of a physical commodity from one person to the other. We should work on improving our ability to generate new information as needed when new perturbations arise. This provides us the requisite variety to deal with the new variety that is thrown at us. What worked in the past, and what worked at another organization may not be meaningful with the new perturbations. The generation of new information requires updating the model of the environment to some degree. This updating corresponds to isomorphism, the idea that there is a corresponding one to one relationship between the various states of the model and the environment. The better this correspondence, the better the model.

Another aspect of the statement that the machine changes its mind, is that the “mind” is embodied in the physical body also. There is a famous debate in philosophy that looks at how much the mind is separate from the body – is the mind embodied in the body or is it separate? It is believed that the mind is part of the body as much as the body being part of the mind. There is no use trying to separate the two. Ashby may be giving a gentle nod to this idea that the mind should not be separated from the body.  When a machine breaks, it changes its mind!

Ashby’s approach of tying adaptation/intelligence to the idea of stable equilibrium is unique. I will finish off with his explanation regarding this:

Finally, there is one point of fundamental importance which must be grasped. It is that stable equilibrium is necessary for existence, and that systems in unstable equilibrium inevitably destroy themselves. Consequently, if we find that a system persists, in spite of the usual small disturbances which affect every physical body, then we may draw the conclusion with absolute certainty that the system must be in stable equilibrium. This may sound dogmatic, but I can see no escape from this deduction.

Please maintain social distance and wear masks. Stay safe and Always keep on learning… In case you missed it, my last post was Cybernetics Ideas from a Thermostat:

3 thoughts on “When a Machine Breaks…:

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