The Biological Computer Laboratory

Technological Innovations

[C]ybernetics found an American home in two military-funded, interdisciplinary research laboratories in the 1950s. MIT's Research Laboratory of Electronics, funded by the Joint Services Electronics Program, established cybernetics research groups in communications (supporting the work of Wiener and his protege Yuk-Wing Lee), biophysics (headed by Walter Rosenblith), and neurophysiology (headed by Warren McCulloch). In the late 1950s, Heinz von Foerster established the Biological Computer Laboratory at the University of Illinois. Funded by the Office of Naval Research and the air force, the lab worked mainly on artificial neural nets . . . . [T]he scientific fate of cybernetics was largely in the hands of these laboratories and some social scientists in the tumultuous 1960s and 1970s.

Ron Kline, The Cybernetics Moment, Johns Hopkins University Press (2015)

Murray Babcock was born in the prairie, on a central Illinois farm. As a young adult, he received training in electrical engineering to become an engineering aid at a Dayton, Ohio air field. He later enlisted as a radio technician in the Navy, but was honorably discharged after ending up in the hospital for five months after completing his basic training. He enrolled at Illinois shortly thereafter and worked with the BCL, where he would develop the Adaptive Reorganizing Automaton as part of his dissertation work with von Foerster.

Babcock designed the Adaptive Reorganizing Automaton as “a continuous and potentially recurrent network that would ‘evolve’ certain patterns of behavior due to its specific topology, environmental input conditions, and the system’s own input history.” It fits von Foerster’s definition of self-organizing systems; it resists an a priori sense of logic to what it senses by using what it senses occurring in its environment as a means of tracing a real-time logic. It determines the behavior of the parts of the system without previously establishing the nature of the whole. This is a vision of systems that Peter Asaro deems ahead of its time. BCL was thus innovative in not only the theorization, but also the creation of self-organizing systems to perform these ideas.

Babcock was one of several graduate students with BCL affiliations that would develop design prototypes that would become synonymous with BCL philosophies. This section begins to cover the stories of these prototypes, as well as the backgrounds of the graduate students that helped build them. 

According to Asaro, through the Adaptive Reorganizing Automaton, Babcock sought to demonstrate the modularity of self-organizing systems. Self-organization was a key focus within the BCL, perhaps most notably seen in its 1956 Allerton symposium on the subject, which hosted over 30 scholars and 23 presentations. Babcock led a collaboration that similarly put BCL views of bionics, an emerging interdisciplinary field at the time of which the BCL was at the forefront, to practice. As Bionics sought to solve technological problems through the study of biological systems and their operations, so too did the Dynamic Signal Analyzer - another BCL innovation Babcock worked on - mimic the structure of the inner ear (particularly its arrangement of small hairs and the specifics of its curve) to pick up more complex sounds and a wider range of frequencies through computational tools. 

Paul Weston, who joined the BCL part-time as an RA and was full-time by 1964, also worked with Murray Babcock on various BCL prototypes simulating perceptual processes in this manner. Weston arrived at UIUC mid-1956 (right in the BCL’s first year) from Wesleyan University, where he studied physics. He continued studying physics at Illinois, and first encountered von Foerster in a Cybernetics seminar that von Foerster taught. Weston recalls, “I simply had never seen a man who could deliver a message like that. He was completely organized, entirely engaged.”

By the time Weston reached full-time status, his focus was on the relationship between communication technologies and society, realized in his development of CYLINDER (an innovation discussed in the next section). His invention of the Numarete, however, was more well-known. Weston describes the Numarete, a Navy-sponsored project, as “a device that counts randomly arranged objects of various shapes and sizes.” He built two versions with different amounts of cells and claims the 400-cell version, which uses the most cells of the two, “easily outperforms humans in counting irregularly arranged objects.” When an object covers a cell, that cell receives no light, which generates a null value. The device has a photocell layer and a computing layer that work together to establish this sense of sight and memory of the objects. Complex shapes and holes in objects do not diminish its performance, and it only needs at least one cell of separation between objects to perform.

An article in the journal electronics and various public demonstrations, including one on national television, highlighted the Numarete. One of these occasions was “a little exposition” at “the state capital and passersby came and they tried to fool it, but it just couldn’t be fooled!” Indeed, the BCL often demonstrated its innovations so as to highlight their performative potential. Weston himself expresses the transformative potential that BCL figures saw in such performances - “We were very interested in the possibility of having these machines and using their capabilities to forward technology and the betterment of the world, if you will.” The BCL's technical innovations, then, were by no means separate from transformative and progressive considerations.

J.K. Russell's Visual Image Processor serves as another experimental design concerned, like the Numarete, with issues of memory. Russell sought to experiment with what was conventionally considered as data for computation. He wanted to design a computer that uses images as its data, just as a conventional computer does with numbers. This, however, presents significant issues in storage and processing. Part of the Visual Image Processor’s import, then, was as a case study on issues of storage in analog computing.

The VIP relied on the degree of grey scaling present in the rendered image as its input. These would provide different points in the image for the VIP to compute. It used “[c]athode-ray electrostatic storage tubes” for its storage of this grey scaling data. Its processing relied on three such tubes, with the first two reading the generated data and the third being reserved for “receiving a created image.” Once the processing completes, the first two, now empty, get the generated image, transferred from the third tube. This occurs in a loop for each stage necessary for processing.

Russell emphasizes that “[t]he VIP, a complex machine, is never ‘finished,’” a critical part of its design philosophy alongside that of aforementioned BCL innovations. Russell equally heralds the machine’s flexibility, noting that “[o]nly a small portion of its enormous computing potential has been studied.” Such designs reflect basic precepts in biological computing, which extended well past the BCL's work, particularly within that of the British cyberneticians with which the BCL interfaced. The next section picks up on BCL designs and the way they approached systems as a critique of modernism and militarism, even as the BCL depended on military funding.

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