W. Ross Ashby (September 6, 1903, - November 15, 1972) was an English psychiatrist and a pioneer in cybernetics, the study of complex systems. His first name was never used, and generally, he was called 'Ross Ashby'.
William Ross Ashby was born in 1903 in London
, where his father worked as Assistant Manager of an Advertising Agency. From 1917 to 1921 William studied at the Edinburgh Academy
, and from 1921 at the Sidney Sussex
, 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 1930, and an M.A. 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. Andrews 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.
Ashby was president of Society for General Systems Research from 1962 to 1964. He became a fellow of the Royal College of Psychiatry in 1971.
On March 4-6, 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.
Despite being widely influential within cybernetics
, systems theory
and, more recently, complex systems
, he is not as well known as many of the notable scientists his work influenced including Herbert Simon
, Norbert Wiener
, Ludwig von Bertalanffy
, Stafford Beer
and Stuart Kauffman
In May 1928, Ashby was 24 and a medical student at St. Bartholomew's Hospital in London when he started a journal, recording his theories in a series of 25 volumes (7,400 pages) over a period of 44 years. In 2003 the journal volumes were given to The British Library, London. In 2008, they were made available on the Internet in The W. Ross Ashby Digital Archive.
Ross Ashby was one of the original members of the Ratio Club
, a small informal dining club
of young psychologists
who met to discuss issues in cybernetics
. The club was founded in 1949 by the neurologist John Bates
and continued to meet until 1958.
Earlier, in 1946, Alan Turing wrote a letter to Ashby suggesting he use Turing's Automatic Computing Engine (ACE) for his experiments instead of building a special machine. In 1948 Ashby made the Homeostat . Ashby only made one reference to Turing in his journal, in December 1954.
Ashby's Law of Requisite Variety
--variety absorbs variety, defines the minimum number of states necessary for a controller to control a system of a given number of states. For example, the number of bits necessary in a digital computer to produce a required description or model.
In 1970 with Conant he produced the Good Regulator theorem "Every Good Regulator of a System Must be a Model of that System" .
Stafford Beer applied Variety to found management cybernetics and the Viable System Model. Working independently Gregory Chaitin followed this with algorithmic information theory.
- 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: This article has the first known occurrence of the term "self-organizing" in print.
- 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, U.S. 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.
- 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 Encyclopedia Britannica Yearbook 1973, and some links.
- 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