Advisory Board

Dr. Francis Heylighen

The New Scientist article Global Brain began with

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“THE LONGER I work on it, the more I become convinced that this will be reality very soon — much sooner than most people might think.” Francis Heylighen, an artificial intelligence researcher at the Free University of Brussels, is talking about the “global brain”.

Dr. Francis Heylighen is a cyberneticist who works as a research professor at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, the Dutch-speaking Free University of Brussels, where he directs the transdisciplinary research group on Evolution, Complexity and Cognition (ECCO). His research focuses on the emergence and evolution of complex, intelligent organization. Applications include the origin of life, the development of multicellular organisms, knowledge, culture, and societies, and the impact of information and communication technologies on future social evolution.
 
Together with Cliff Joslyn and Valentin Turchin, he is editor of the Principia Cybernetica Project, which is devoted to the collaborative development of an evolutionary-systemic philosophy. He created its website, the Principia Cybernetica Web, in 1993, as one of the first complex webs in the world. It is still viewed as the most important site on cybernetics, systems theory and related approaches. Together with his PhD student Johan Bollen, in 1995 Francis was the first to propose algorithms that could turn the world-wide web into a self-organizing, learning network that exhibits collective intelligence, i.e. a global brain. He is also one of the first to formulate a theory of memetics that can be empirically tested. He is one of the founders, and the present editor, of the Journal of Memetics. He is chairman of the Global Brain Group and on the editorial boards of Journal of Collective Intelligence, Entropy, and Informatica.
 
Francis is author of Self-Steering and Cognition in Complex Systems, Mediator Evolution: a general scenario for the origin of dynamical hierarchies, The anticipation-control theory of mind: an evolutionary-cybernetic perspective on cognition, consciousness and the brain, A Nodal Growth Algorithm for Concept Discovery, Conceptions of a Global Brain: an historical review, and coeditor of The Evolution of Complexity : The Violet Book of `Einstein Meets Magritte’. Read his full list of publications.
 
His scientific work covers a wide range of subjects, exemplifying his intellectual curiosity and fundamentally transdisciplinary way of thinking. In addition to the topics mentioned above, subjects include the foundations of quantum mechanics, the structure of space-time, hypermedia interfaces, the psychology of self-actualization and happiness, the market mechanism, formality and contextuality in language, causality, and the measurement of social progress.
 
This impressive variety of ideas is held together by two basic principles. The relational principle notes that phenomena can only exist in relation (connection or distinction) to other phenomena, and thus only make sense as part of a complex network or system. The evolutionary principle notes that variation through (re)combination of parts and natural selection of the fitter combinations results in ever more complex and adaptive systems. The two principles come together in his concept of a distinction dynamics, which he first formulated in his PhD thesis (and later book), Representation and Change. In his analysis, classical scientific methodology is based on given, unchanging distinctions between elements or states. Therefore, it is intrinsically unable to model creative change. But the evolutionary principle makes distinctions dynamic, explaining the creation and destruction of relations, distinctions and connections, and thus helping us to understand how and why complexity emerges.
 
Francis earned his MSc in Physics (Summa cum Laude) from Vrije Universiteit Brussel in 1982 and his PhD in Specialization Physics (Summa cum Laude) from Vrije Universiteit Brussel in 1987. He is fluent in Dutch, English, and French and has an elementary understanding of German.
 
Read his interview by Nanotechnology Business!