Obituary for Professor Gordon Pask
International Journal of General Systems Vol. 26, no. 3, pp. 219-222.

Andrew Gordon Speedie Pask, cybernetician, born Derby, June 28, 1928; died in London, March 28, 1996. He was educated at Rydal School in North Wales. BA (1952) and MA (1954) from Downing College, Cambridge. PhD (1964) from University College, London. DSc (1974) by the Open University. Married Elizabeth Poole in 1956 (two daughters, Amanda born 1961 and Hermione born 1967, one grandson, Nicholas). He was a professor at Brunel University with many successful doctoral students. He also held a position at the Centre for Innovation and Co-operative technology (CICT) of the University of Amsterdam.

Gordon Pask was a unique man. The art and science of Andrew Gordon Speedie Pask, born on June 28th, 1928, is symptomatic of his role as a founding father of the transdisciplinary fields of cybernetics and systems science. His interests were distributed over a vast array of problem areas such as psychology, biology, educational sciences, mathematics, logic, machine learning, epistemology, linguistics, etc. He was also a gifted artist, novelist, and lyricist. In all of these areas he sought underlying principles of organization and communication which, though embedded in different contexts, dealt with the necessity of incorporating the unique subjectivity of human experience and the objects of a given group's discourse.

Gordon's primary contribution to cybernetics and systems science, as well as to numerous other fields, was his emphasis on the personal nature of reality, and on the process of learning as stemming from the consensual agreement of interacting actors in a given environement. Life and intelligence lie somewhere in the conflict between closed, unique, construction and open, shared, interaction. Between a specific material fabric, and a general conceptual/functional organization. In fact, his message, still very much mute to the more hardcore computationalist ears in the Artificial Intelligence and Artificial Life communities, stresses that only systems striving out of this conflict can be considered to be alive and/or intelligent, and endowed with the potential for open-ended conceptual/functional variety.

To study these systems, he developed an extensive theory of learning that required the developement of a second order cybernetics, in which concepts such as information, meaning, and knowledge are studied in relation to the particular observer of the processes that implement them. This way, learning is no longer seen as a one to one mapping of real world to mental categories, but as a dynamic, internal, self-organizing process of coming to know, constrained by developmental interaction with an environment and fellow "knowers". His Conversation Theoryfinds a philosophical grounding in this constructivist cybernetics deriving from parallel efforts of Heinz von Foerster, Humberto Maturana, and Francisco Varela, among others.

It is interesting to notice that his constructivist message of a personal reality lead to a research program particularly interested in devising ways of improving human-human and human- machine interaction as a means of devoloping consensual scientific progress. Such program is clearly at odds with the closed, hopelessly relativist, epistemology that seems to be the misguided interpretation of constructivism by many realists.

Consider for instance the remarkable adaptive devices that he developed throughout the years. From the Musicolour system that adapted to musical performances to the SAKI (Self Adaptive Keyboard Instructor), the world's first adaptive typing training system originally designed for Hollerith card punch operators, which is now common and immitated in several modern typing training systems. He also devised self-organizing systems that evolved their own sensors in response to their own interaction with a particular environment. These systems where implemented in the 1950's as chemical networks and later in the early 1960's simulated in several computational automata-world environments. Both predated contemporary artificial life models by more than two decades, and still present this field with some of its more challenging problems.

Later, he developed a series of computer programs, such as CASTE (Course Assembly System and Tutorial Environment) and ThoughtSticker designed to implement aspects of his Conversation Theory. These programs helped users lay out their own ideas regarding a particular area of interest, and in the process suggested novel perspectives regarding the problem area. Curiously, Conversation Theory actually derived from the work done at his research organization System Research Ltd to assist baggage handling at London's Heathrow airport. Many of the computer environments that Gordon conceived, effectively foresaw most of today's new computational developments by a few decades. He was interested in artificial systems as vehicles for driving through knowledge in a new level of man-machine symbiosis aiming at increasing world-wide understanding. He was interested in the sort of interactive environments that the World Wide Web is starting to offer today. In fact, Gordon was interested and involved in the 1990's development of truly self-organizing archives of human knowledge in the Internet, which he believed to be frustratingly underused in its power as an epistemological tool. Specifically, he pointed out that it lacked the sort of material constraint and interactive conflict required of intelligent systems in order to enlarge a system's conceptual variety.

Conflict was in fact one of his preferred tools to achieve consensual understanding between participants in a conversation. He used it as his teaching and consulting approach: the teacher/consultant catalyst. Again, enriching the unique personal through the constraints of the consensual and the material. Those who sought knowledge through interaction with him, often comment on how they achieved unexpected levels of understanding of some subject matter, but will also quickly point out how such interaction drained all of their energy, often requiring timeout to recover.

Gordon was a very generous man who touched those around him with profoundly felt gestures of kindness and genuine interest in his fellow human being. Above all, through his scientific and personal interactions he remains a great inspiration to those who come across him directly or indirectly. Gordon Pask was a unique man, yet Gordon Pask is shared by all of those touched by his inseparable blend of humanity and science.

Note: Pictures prepared from photographs taken by Robert Glueck at the Principia Cybernetica Workshop, Brussels, 1991

Other Pask Links on the Web:

Pangaro's Pask Archive

Gordon Pask Memorial Site

Luis Rocha
Computer Research Group, MS P990
Los Alamos National Laboratory
Los Alamos, NM 87545