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Heinz von Foerster

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Biography

Born: November 13, 1911

Died: October 2, 2002

Heinz von Foerster was a leading information theorist of the twentieth century, who combined his knowledge of philosophy and physics to develop the study of cybernetics and artificial intelligence.

Von Foerster was born in Vienna in 1911 and grew up in the company of the leading intellectuals, performers, and artists of city’s fin de siècle. Von Foerster recalled that when his parents and maternal grandmother, a prominent feminist, hosted them, he would sit under the piano and listen to their free-flowing debates—an approach that contributed to Von Foerster’s own distaste for disciplinary borders.

As a teenager, he was a poor student of Classical languages, and struggled to keep up with the Gymnasium curriculum. He excelled, however, in mathematics and physics and entered Vienna’s Institute of Technology to study technical physics. Here, he soaked up the ideas of the Vienna Circle, a group of philosophers gathered at the University of Vienna who applied the logical positivism of Ludwig Wittgenstein. Von Foerster’s devotion to Wittgenstein led him to memorize much of the philosopher’s "Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus." He was also strongly influenced by philosopher Rudolf Carnap and mathematician Hans Hahn. He attributed his early understanding of second-order reasoning to the Vienna Circle. As he later told an interviewer, it opened up new ways of thinking for him: “how do we do it, how do we do things, how do we think about it, how can we describe our descriptions, how can we think about our thinking?”

During World War II, he hid his partial Jewish ancestry and was able to work in Berlin’s radar laboratories. Meanwhile, he received a doctorate in 1944 from the University of Breslau. When the war was over, he returned to Vienna and found that the ruined city offered few opportunities for supporting his wife and three children. He was able to secure two jobs: rebuilding telephone relays and switching stations for an affiliate of the Swedish telephone company Ericcson and creating broadcasts for Red White Red, a radio station established by the American occupation forces.

Von Foerster and his family left Soviet-occupied Vienna in 1949 and immigrated to the United States. He brought a calling card with him to secure a place in American academic life: a manuscript entitled “The Memory -- a Quantum Mechanical Treatise.” In this short book, Von Foerster proposed a molecular basis for memory, connecting the exponential rate of decay of biological molecules with a similar curve charting the speed at which people forgot a set of syllables. This research attracted attention among scientists at the University of Illinois who were developing a parallel theory of memory and feedback. Von Foerster was brought to speak in Chicago on memory and then was invited to the Josiah Macy Jr. Foundation’s conferences in New York.

The Macy Conferences of the 1940s and 1950s brought together influential scientists and thinkers, including Norbert Wiener, Gregory Bateson, Margaret Mead, and Warren McCulloch, to discuss a variety of scientific concerns, from medical technology to computer programming. Von Foerster joined this interdisciplinary circle with gusto, volunteering to edit its proceedings and document what amounted to a blueprint for future research in many of these fields. In particular, Von Foerster was drawn to the conference on Circular Causality and Feedback Mechanisms in Biological and Social Systems, or Cybernetics, in which he identified a continuation of the logical positivism of his Vienna youth.

In the 1950s, Von Foerster headed the Electron Tube Laboratory at the University of Illinois’ electrical engineering department. He researched high-speed electronics and electro-optic switching devices, but transitioned the laboratory away from tubes and toward solid-state devices.

Between 1958 and 1975, he founded and supervised the university’s Biological Computer Laboratory, which became a center for innovation in biophysics and the study of memory and knowledge. Among von Foerster’s projects was parallel computing, which aimed to process data faster by breaking down tasks into multiple parts. His laboratory built the first parallel computer, the Numa-Rete. It was a square of four hundred photocells—a virtual retina—that could count multiple objects in its field of vision.

As a polymath, Von Foerster pursued a variety of projects outside his specialty in biophysics. He sparked a lively debate in the 1960s after co-authoring a paper that proposed a population “doomsday” extrapolated from contemporary demographic data. His lifelong concern with epistemology led him to propose a set of theories that became known as constructivism.

He was a Guggenheim fellow and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Further reading

John Markoff, "Heinz von Foerster, 90, Dies; Was Information Theorist," NY Times, Nov 9, 2002.

Stefano Franchi, Güven Güzeldere, and Eric Minch, "Interview: Heinz von Foerster," Stanford Humanities Review, Vol. 4, Issue 2: Constructions of the Mind, Updated 26 June 1995.