A Legacy of Curiosity: Ricardo B. Uribe and Cybernetics

By Sophia Ebel

Is it possible for a sole field of study to encompass philosophy, mathematics, biology, cognitive science, computer science, sociology, political science, economics, and more? To attempt to answer some of the most complex questions out there about the diverse systems—biological, social, technological, and more—that govern our lives? That, in a nutshell, is the field of cybernetics—the “antidisciplinary” science that formed the core of Ricardo B. Uribe’s research at the University of Illinois.

BCL Report No. 68.2, Ricardo B. Uribe Papers, University of Illinois Archives, Record Series 11/6/40, Box 2.

Born in Santiago, Chile, in 1935, Uribe studied electrical engineering at the University of Chile before joining the institution’s teaching and research staff. In the early 1970s he worked on Project Cybersyn, a project supported by the Chilean government that employed cybernetic approaches to organize and reform the country’s economy. Political turmoil, however, changed the course of Uribe’s life and career when General Augusto Pinochet seized power in the 1973 Chilean coup d’état. Uribe and his family fled, seeking refuge in Illinois where renowned cybernetician Heinz von Foerster (whose papers are also held by the University of Illinois Archives) had created a position for him in UIUC’s Biological Computer Laboratory (BCL).[1]

Education and the ways in which humans understand the systems surrounding them are two threads interwoven throughout Uribe’s work; these reflect both the cybernetic research interests of the time and his own lived experiences. Much of Uribe’s early writing relates to “autopoiesis” —the process by which a system is able to self-maintain, reproduce, and create the components it needs to expand—and the implications of autopoietic systems for relativity, human understanding, and various forms of modeling. A variation on this concept is demonstrated by W. Ross Ashby’s elementary Non-Trivial Machine (NTM), a device contained in the Ricardo B. Uribe Papers. Ashby was a cybernetician contemporary of Uribe; Von Foerster had coined the term “non-trivial machine” to describe any system in which the “input-output relationship is not invariant, but is determined by the machine’s previous output.”[2] The machine does utilize input, but like an autopoietic system has an independent internal state and constantly produces new operations as to maintain a condition of unpredictability.  

Ashby’s Non-Trivial Machine, Ricardo B. Uribe Papers, University of Illinois Archives, Record Series 11/6/40.

Ashby’s NTM consists of an aluminum box with two switches and two lights. The observer’s task is to determine the internal structure of the system by flipping the switches and watching the lights. One of the switches, however, changes the internal configuration of the box whenever it is flipped. The purpose of this machine was to exemplify the environment in which an artificial brain may operate, and to demonstrate the difficulty of understanding human cognition—perhaps the ultimate non-trivial machine. Autopoiesis, while not equivalent to cognition, is considered one of the prerequisites of a cognitive system. 

Uribe’s views on education were also central to his career and work. In his magnum opus, Tractatus Paradoxico-Philosphicus: A Philosophical Approach to Education, Uribe described education as a recursive system: 

“If humans rather instruct than educate their children, these children will instruct their children even more (educating them even less), and they in turn will similarly do with their own children and so on and on. If humans do not perish at the hands of uneducated leaders, sooner than later they will grow into a population of morons who only obey rules, predictable creatures, ants of an anthill, humans no more. The sad (happy?) end of the story: awareness of their own shortcomings will thoroughly escape them.”[3]

Tractatus Paradoxico-Philosophicus, Ricardo B. Uribe Papers, University of Illinois Archives, Record Series 11/6/40, Box 6.

This passage calls back to the violence and bloodshed Uribe would have witnessed during and after the 1973 Chilean coup d’état, and defines his approach to instruction at the University of Illinois. In addition to his work in BCL, Uribe established the Advanced Digital Systems Laboratory (ADSL) to bring together students across disciplines and encourage creative, collaborative, and unconventional problem solving. ADSL continues today as the Advanced Digital Projects Laboratory, and is an undergraduate/graduate course open to qualified students from all colleges. Uribe’s philosophy also shaped the curriculum of “ECE 110: Introduction to Electrical and Computer Engineering,” which introduces first year students to ECE principles in a hands-on and explorative manner. The central project of the course—working in groups to design “an autonomous electric vehicle” able to navigate an unknown course—is Uribe’s design.[4]

In addition to Tractatus Paradoxico-Philosophicus and the NTM, the Archives’ recent donation of Uribe’s papers include years of BCL reprints and reports, manuscripts relating cybernetics to other scientific and humanistic fields, conference materials, American Society for Cybernetics documents, and select course materials. Uribe’s legacy is one of curiosity—asking big questions and encouraging others to think in unconventional ways, question the status quos of both life and learning, and discover for themselves.  


[1]  James Hutchinson, “Remembering Ricardo Uribe, Founder of ECE’s Advanced Digital Projects Laboratory,”Grainger College of Engineering Electrical & Computer Engineering, last modified October 13, 2019, https://ece.illinois.edu/newsroom/news/4295.

[2] Heinz von Foerster, “Perception of the Future and the Future of Perception,” BCL Publication 198, photomechanically reproduced from Instructional Science, 1, 1, (March 1974): 31-43, Record Series 11/6/40, Box 3, University of Illinois Archives.

[3] Ricardo B. Uribe, “Tractatus Paradoxico-Philosophicus: A Philosophical Approach to Education,” Red Edition, Copyright 1991-2007, Record Series 11/6/40, Box 6, University of Illinois Archives.

[4] Ricardo B. Uribe et al., “A design laboratory in electrical and computer engineering for freshmen,” IEEE Transactions on Education, vol. 37, issue 2 (May 1994): 194-202, doi: 10.1109/13.284994. 

The Ricardo B. Uribe Papers were processed with generous funding from the Thomas M. Siebel Endowment for the History of Science.

Updated on