## Cybernetics • Regulation In Biological Systems • Discussion 3

Maybe it will help to say a few things about the way forward …

I’ll be getting back to Ashby’s text directly — it’s still the best guide I’ve found to the rudiments of cybernetics and the underlying logic of developing systems.  Once we’ve laid down a stable platform of basic ideas we’ll be equipped to explore many directions of application, extension, and generalization.

As far as the future goes …

The way I see it, scientific inquiry is a cybernetic process carried on at every scale from individual inquirers to whole communities of inquiry.  That’s the way forward for me, but it’s still a ways to go.

### Reference

• Ashby, W.R. (1956), An Introduction to Cybernetics, Chapman and Hall, London, UK.  Republished by Methuen and Company, London, UK, 1964.  Online.

cc: Cybernetics • Ontolog (1)(2) • Structural Modeling (1)(2) • Systems Science (1) (2)

## Higher Order Sign Relations • 2

Questions about use and mention came up recently on Facebook.  In pragmatic semiotics the trade-off between signs-of-objects and signs-as-objects opens up the wider space of “higher order sign relations”.  Here is how I introduced the subject in an earlier writing:

When interpreters reflect on their own use of signs they require an appropriate technical language in which to pursue their reflections.  For this they need signs referring to sign relations, signs referring to elements and components of sign relations, and signs referring to properties and classes of sign relations.  The orders of signs developing as reflection evolves can be placed under the description of “higher order signs” and the extended sign relations involving them can be referred to as “higher order sign relations”.

## Cybernetics • Regulation In Biological Systems • Selection 8

We want to understand how a species of organisms might evolve:  (1) organic means of storing formal structures capable of bearing information about an organism’s state in the world, and (2) faculties for developing artificial extensions of those means.  Keeping that goal in mind, let’s follow Ashby’s thesis about the mark of a good regulator as he applies it to higher forms of regulation.

## Regulation In Biological Systems

### Survival

10/6.[concl.]   The same argument will apply, with obvious modifications, to the automatic pilot.  If it is a good regulator the passengers will have a smooth flight whatever the gustiness outside.  They will, in short, be prevented from knowing whether or not it is gusty outside.  Thus a good pilot acts as a barrier against the transmission of that information.

The same argument applies to an air-conditioner.  If I live in an air-conditioned room, and can tell, by the hotness of the room, that it is getting hot outside, then that conditioner is failing as a regulator.  If it is really good, and the blinds are drawn, I shall be unable to form any idea of what the outside weather is like.  The good conditioner blocks the flow inwards of information about the weather.

The same thesis applies to the higher regulations achieved by such activities as hunting for food, and earning one’s daily bread.  Thus while the unskilled hunter or earner, in difficult times, will starve and will force his liver and tissues (the essential variables) to extreme and perhaps unphysiological states, the skilled hunter or earner will go through the same difficult times with his liver and tissues never taken to extremes.  In other words, his skill as a regulator is shown by the fact, among others, that it prevents information about the times reaching the essential variables.  In the same way, the skilled provider for a family may go through difficult times without his family realising that anything unusual has happened.  The family of an unskilled provider would have discovered it.

In general, then, an essential feature of the good regulator is that it blocks the flow of variety from disturbances to essential variables.

### Reference

• Ashby, W.R. (1956), An Introduction to Cybernetics, Chapman and Hall, London, UK.  Republished by Methuen and Company, London, UK, 1964.  Online.

## Cybernetics • Regulation In Biological Systems • Discussion 2

In the last selection we found Ashby making what may strike us initially as a surprising inference.  Starting from the assumption that “an essential function of $F$ as a regulator is that it shall block the transmission of variety from disturbance to essential variable” he draws the conclusion that “the regulator’s function is to block the flow of information”.

Ashby’s reasoning at this point caused me to do a double take, because I normally think of information as a resource for reducing variety, in other words, the dispersive quality of entropy.  But a little reflection convinced me Ashby is making sense here, so long as we read him right.

Jack Ring’s suggestion, “Consider that the regulator blocks information that is detrimental to the system mission”, serves to point us in the right direction.  Strictly speaking, though, it is not the information about temperature variation that is detrimental to the system’s mission but the temperature variation itself.  The regulator acts in such a way as to block the information about variation, but solely as a side effect of damping the real variation.

But we need to keep one thing in mind.  When we speak of the regulator blocking the flow of information, we are talking about the whole system $(D, F, E)$ as a “black box”, where the net information flow from input to output is as low as possible.  When we turn to a finer-grained analysis of regulated systems we will see that all sorts of information has to be processed inside the system in order to achieve its mission.

### Reference

• Ashby, W.R. (1956), An Introduction to Cybernetics, Chapman and Hall, London, UK.  Republished by Methuen and Company, London, UK, 1964.  Online.

## Cybernetics • Regulation In Biological Systems • Selection 7

Let’s pick up the observation Ashby made at the end of the last selection, regarding the job of a regulator, and continue with his text from there.

## Regulation In Biological Systems

### Survival

10/6.[cont.]   If $F$ is a regulator, the insertion of $F$ between $D$ and $E$ lessens the variety that is transmitted from $D$ to $E.$  Thus an essential function of $F$ as a regulator is that it shall block the transmission of variety from disturbance to essential variable.

Since this characteristic also implies that the regulator’s function is to block the flow of information, let us look at the thesis more closely to see whether it is reasonable.

Suppose that two water-baths are offered me, and I want to decide which to buy.  I test each for a day against similar disturbances and then look at the records of the temperatures;  they are as in Fig. 10/6/1.

Fig. 10/6/1

There is no doubt that $\mathrm{Model}~ B$ is the better;  and I decide this precisely because its record gives me no information, as does $A\text{'s},$ about what disturbances, of heat or cold, came to it.  The thermometer and water in bath $B$ have been unable, as it were, to see anything of the disturbances $D.$

### Reference

• Ashby, W.R. (1956), An Introduction to Cybernetics, Chapman and Hall, London, UK.  Republished by Methuen and Company, London, UK, 1964.  Online.

## Regulation In Biological Systems

### Survival

10/6.   Regulation blocks the flow of variety.   On what scale can any particular mechanism $F$ be measured for its value or success as a regulator?  The perfect thermostat would be one that, in spite of disturbance, kept the temperature constant at the desired level.  In general, there are two characteristics required:  the maintenance of the temperature within close limits, and the correspondence of this range with the desired one.  What we must notice in particular is that the set of permissible values, $\eta,$ has less variety than the set of all possible values in $E;$  for $\eta$ is some set selected from the states of $E.$  If $F$ is a regulator, the insertion of $F$ between $D$ and $E$ lessens the variety that is transmitted from $D$ to $E.$  Thus an essential function of $F$ as a regulator is that it shall block the transmission of variety from disturbance to essential variable.

### Reference

• Ashby, W.R. (1956), An Introduction to Cybernetics, Chapman and Hall, London, UK.  Republished by Methuen and Company, London, UK, 1964.  Online.

## Cybernetics • Regulation In Biological Systems • Discussion 1

Re: Ontolog ForumJAPDM

JA:
We continue in pursuit of a system-theoretic answer to the question:  What are formalisms and all their embodiments in brains and computers good for?
PDM:
Could you also provide a brief answer to the question, through your analysis of the text you reference — we all suffer from attention deficit and may forget what you were trying to say at the beginning.

I know what you mean.  Brevity is the soul of wit, but the brief lives of mortal attention spans struggle to embody half of it.  I personally have trouble remembering what I was thinking a few days ago unless I wrote it down somewhere I can easily find again.

My question about the good of embodied formalisms was intended to call attention to a natural connection between Pragmatic Truth and Cybernetic Purpose.  Pragmatic ways of thinking about the role of representations in relating interpreters to objective realities naturally harmonize with systems thinking about the role of information in achieving the objectives of agents.  In either mode of thinking we tend to become quickly dissatisfied with disembodied abstractions, detached from dynamic context and meaningful purpose.

### Reference

• Ashby, W.R. (1956), An Introduction to Cybernetics, Chapman and Hall, London, UK.  Republished by Methuen and Company, London, UK, 1964.  Online.