Ratio Club

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Founded in 1949 by neurologist John Bates, the Ratio Club was a small British informal dining club that ran from 1949 to 1958. It hosted an interdisciplinary gathering of scholars and scientists who were among the first to study cybernetics and information theory in Britain.

The name “Ratio” was derived from Bates’ contention that the brain functioned via complex biochemical reactions rather than rational human thought.

Convening over small dinners located a various member's houses in London, the Ratio Club explored concepts of feedback systems, neural networks, and self-organizing machines. Members included mathematician Alan Turing who had recently published landmark papers on neural networks and intelligent machinery; psychiatrist W. Ross Ashby who would become known as the father of homeostatics for modeling dynamic equilibrium in biological systems; Heinz von Foerster, the Austrian born computer scientist and philosopher; and neurosurgeon Grey Walter famous for his electromechanical tortoises exhibiting complex behavior.

These thinkers represented an array of fields spanning neuroscience, engineering, logic, and computing at a time when barriers between disciplines still dominated institutional science. Through interpersonal exchange in the relaxed Ratio Club setting they together gave birth to cybernetics in Britain, integrating insights across areas to understand regulation and adaptation holistically.

The ideas incubated in the Club during this period would prove tremendously influential, providing conceptual blueprints for everything from early artificial intelligence to systems theory to studies of consciousness. First steps were taken at the Ratio Club toward the computational brain models and machine learning techniques that now power modern AI. Later luminaries like Stafford Beer would also participate and carry cybernetic approaches to new domains like management science and operations research.

There is no official Ratio Club website or public archive. It was private peer exchange predating digital repositories. But Bates' son compiled a list of attendees which represents one informal record of participation.

Core members included Ross Ashby, Alan Turing, Heinz von Foerster and Grey Walter from an array of sciences. By the end, at least 25 prominent British thinkers had participated for periods of time.


By nurturing an unlikely confluence of talents before fragmentation into overspecialization, the foundational work of the Ratio Club left fertile seeds that grew into many fruits advancing the state of systems intelligence today. Though meeting less frequently from the late 50s onward as members split into more formal institutional programs, the Ratio Club left an indelible, cross-pollinating imprint on many strains of systems science.

The Club's intermingling of Turing's computability theories, Ashby's equilibrium studies, Walter's electronics tinkering, and von Foerster's biological cognition studies set the stage for contemporary efforts to replicate adaptive intelligence. Ratio Club conversations on neural complexity challenged the limitations of top-down expert systems, contributing perspective that helped steer cybernetics toward connectionism, embodiment, and socially situated approaches to AI.

Alan Turing's participation exposed him to Ross Ashby's early homeostat models which Turing expanded upon in later work developing trial-and-error machine learning systems.

Heinz von Foerster's involvement sparked conceptual breakthroughs on self-organization and recursion that proved indispensable foundations to modern computer science.

John Bates' interests in complex biochemical brain processes catalyzed Grey Walter's exploration of robotic sensory perception and purposeful behavior in his cybernetic tortoises.

Stafford Beer's later participation infused management science with cybernetic principles, foretelling adaptive enterprise solutions and predictive data analytics for complex business environments. Together these eclectic thinkers midwifed information theory, dynamical systems theory, operations research and other sciences of complex systems vital to our networked era. The Ratio Club presaged nothing less than today's sentient machines and global digital nervous system.

Further Reading