Motility at the Origin of Life: Its Characterization and a Model

The conference paper I presented with Nathaniel Virgo and Takashi Ikegami at the 2011 European Conference on Artificial Life was selected for a special issue of the journal Artificial Life dedicated to showcasing the best work of that conference. Our expanded paper has finally become available.

Motility at the Origin of Life: Its Characterization and a Model

Tom Froese, Nathaniel Virgo and Takashi Ikegami

Due to recent advances in synthetic biology and artificial life, the origin of life is currently a hot topic of research. We review the literature and argue that the two traditionally competing replicator-first and metabolism-first approaches are merging into one integrated theory of individuation and evolution. We contribute to the maturation of this more inclusive approach by highlighting some problematic assumptions that still lead to an impoverished conception of the phenomenon of life. In particular, we argue that the new consensus has so far failed to consider the relevance of intermediate time scales. We propose that an adequate theory of life must account for the fact that all living beings are situated in at least four distinct time scales, which are typically associated with metabolism, motility, development, and evolution. In this view, self-movement, adaptive behavior, and morphological changes could have already been present at the origin of life. In order to illustrate this possibility, we analyze a minimal model of lifelike phenomena, namely, of precarious, individuated, dissipative structures that can be found in simple reaction-diffusion systems. Based on our analysis, we suggest that processes on intermediate time scales could have already been operative in prebiotic systems. They may have facilitated and constrained changes occurring in the faster- and slower-paced time scales of chemical self-individuation and evolution by natural selection, respectively.

New paper on Bio-machine Hybrid Technology

This paper examines the consequences of recent developments in the cognitive sciences, such as a focus on biological autonomy, agency and embodied consciousness, for our understanding of the nature and future of technology.

Bio-machine Hybrid Technology: A Theoretical Assessment and Some Suggestions for Improved Future Design

Tom Froese
Philosophy & Technology

In sociology, there has been a controversy about whether there is any essential difference between a human being and a tool, or if the tool–user relationship can be defined by co-actor symmetry. This issue becomes more complex when we consider examples of AI and robots, and even more so following progress in the development of various bio-machine hybrid technologies, such as robots that include organic parts, human brain implants, and adaptive prosthetics. It is argued that a concept of autonomous agency based on organismic embodiment helps to clarify the situation. On this view, agency consists of an asymmetrical relationship between an organism and its environment, because the continuous metabolic and regulatory activity of the organism gives rise to its own existence, and hence its specific behavioral domain. Accordingly, most (if not all) of current technologies are excluded from the class of autonomous agents. Instead, they are better conceptualized as interfaces that mediate our interactions with the world. This has important implications for design: Rather than trying to help humans to achieve their goals by duplicating their agency in artificial systems, it would be better to empower humans directly by enhancing their existing agency and lived experience with technological interfaces that can be incorporated into their embodiment. This incorporation might be especially facilitated by bio-machine hybrid technology that is designed according the principles of biological autonomy and multi-agent coordination dynamics.

New BBS commentary on second-person neuroscience

The next issue of Behavioral and Brain Sciences includes a target article on second-person neuroscience by Schilbach et al.

I contributed a commentary with my collaborators in Japan based on our extensive research with agent-based models of social interaction. The title and abstract are as follows:

From synthetic modeling of social interaction to dynamic theories of brain-body-environment-body-brain systems

Tom Froese, Hiroyuki Iizuka and Takashi Ikegami

Synthetic approaches to social interaction support the development of a second-person neuroscience. Agent-based models and psychological experiments can be related in a mutually informing manner. Models have the advantage of making the nonlinear brain–body–environment–body–brain system as a whole accessible to analysis by dynamical systems theory. We highlight some general principles of how social interaction can partially constitute an individual’s behavior.

Turing instabilities in biology, culture, and consciousness?

One of the last pieces of work I started during my time at Ikegami Lab in Tokyo has finally been published. It is part of my efforts to try to understand the qualitative transition toward human symbolic cognition.

Turing instabilities in biology, culture, and consciousness? On the enactive origins of symbolic material culture

Tom Froese, Alexander Woodward, and Takashi Ikegami

It has been argued that the worldwide prevalence of certain types of geometric visual patterns found in prehistoric art can be best explained by the common experience of these patterns as geometric hallucinations during altered states of consciousness induced by shamanic ritual practices. And in turn the worldwide prevalence of these types of hallucinations has been explained by appealing to humanity’s shared neurobiological embodiment. Moreover, it has been proposed that neural network activity can exhibit similar types of spatiotemporal patterns, especially those caused by Turing instabilities under disinhibited, non-ordinary conditions. Altered states of consciousness thus provide a suitable pivot point from which to investigate the complex relationships between symbolic material culture, first-person experience, and neurobiology. We critique prominent theories of these relationships. Drawing inspiration from neurophenomenology, we sketch the beginnings of an alternative, enactive approach centered on the concepts of sense-making, value, and sensorimotor decoupling.

To download the paper, click on the paper’s title above.

Commentary on introspection

In the latest issue of Consciousness and Cognition there is a nice article by Petitmengin and colleagues, which tries to experimentally demonstrate the efficacy of interview-based introspection. Since I have done some work with this method, I wrote a commentary on this experiment.

Interactively guided introspection is getting science closer to an effective consciousness meter

Tom Froese

The ever-increasing precision of brain measurement brings with it a demand for more reliable and fine-grained measures of conscious experience. However, introspection has long been assumed to be too limited and fallible. This skepticism is primarily based on a series of classic psychological experiments, which suggested that more is seen than can be retrospectively reported (Sperling, 1960), and that we can be easily fooled into retrospectively describing intentional choices that we have never made (Johansson, Hall, Silkström, & Olsson, 2005; Nisbett & Wilson, 1977). However, the work by Petitmengin, Remillieux, Cahour, and Carter-Thomas (2013) could resolve this dilemma. They showed that subjects can be interactively guided to become better aware of their past experience, thereby overturning the “choice blindness” results of Johansson et al. (2005). Although some more fine-tuning of the experimental protocol is needed, interactively guided introspection may well become the most reliable and exhaustive measure of consciousness.

BBS commentary on predictive coding

The latest issue of Behavioral and Brain Sciences is dedicated to Clark’s “hierarchical prediction machine” approach.

In our commentary Takashi Ikegami and I tried to highlight that this approach only makes sense if we accept Clark’s theoretical commitments to internalism and representationalism, and that even on its own terms its generalization to a unified theory of mind entails bizarre consequences.

The brain is not an isolated “black box,” nor is its goal to become one

Tom Froese and Takashi Ikegami

In important ways, Clark’s “hierarchical prediction machine” (HPM) approach parallels the research agenda we have been pursuing. Nevertheless, we remain unconvinced that the HPM offers the best clue yet to the shape of a unified science of mind and action. The apparent convergence of research interests is offset by a profound divergence of theoretical starting points and ideal goals.

Clark’s target article and his response to this and many other commentaries can be found here:

Clark, A. (2013). Whatever next? Predictive brains, situated agents, and the future of cognitive science. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 36(3): 1-73

More commentaries and another response by Clark can be found in Frontiers in Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology, which hosted a Research Topic on Forethought as an evolutionary doorway to emotions and consciousness.

The Dynamically Extended Mind: A Minimal Modeling Case Study

I will be presenting a talk at the 2013 IEEE Congress on Evolutionary Computation, which will be held June 20-23 in Cancun, Mexico. The paper is a contribution to the Special Session on Evolutionary Robotics.

Click on the title below to download a copy of the paper.

The Dynamically Extended Mind: A Minimal Modeling Case Study

Tom Froese, Carlos Gershenson, and David A. Rosenblueth

The extended mind hypothesis has stimulated much interest in cognitive science. However, its core claim, i.e. that the process of cognition can extend beyond the brain via the body and into the environment, has been heavily criticized. A prominent critique of this claim holds that when some part of the world is coupled to a cognitive system this does not necessarily entail that the part is also constitutive of that cognitive system. This critique is known as the “coupling-constitution fallacy”. In this paper we respond to this reductionist challenge by using an evolutionary robotics approach to create a minimal model of two acoustically coupled agents. We demonstrate how the interaction process as a whole has properties that cannot be reduced to the contributions of the isolated agents. We also show that the neural dynamics of the coupled agents has formal properties that are inherently impossible for those neural networks in isolation. By keeping the complexity of the model to an absolute minimum, we are able to illustrate how the coupling-constitution fallacy is in fact based on an inadequate understanding of the constitutive role of nonlinear interactions in dynamical systems theory.

Paper: Is it normal to be a principal mindreader?

After collaborating with experts in psychiatry for several years, we have launched a critique of cognitivist theory of mind on the basis of phenomenological psychopathology. Our first paper has just been published in Research in Developmental Disabilities.

The title and abstract are as follows:

Is it normal to be a principal mindreader? Revising theories of social cognition on the basis of schizophrenia and high functioning autism-spectrum disorders

Tom Froese, Giovanni Stanghellini, Marco O. Bertelli

Schizophrenia and high functioning autism-spectrum disorders (ASD) are neurodevelopmental conditions that mainly impair social competence, while general intelligence (IQ) is spared. Both disorders have a strong ancillary role in theoretical research on social cognition. Recently the debate has started to be inflected by embodied and phenomenological approaches, which claim that the standard portrayal of all social understanding as so-called ‘mindreading’, i.e. the attribution of mental states to others in the service of explaining and predicting their behavior, is misguided. Instead it is emphasized that we normally perceive others directly as conscious and goal-directed persons, without requiring any theorizing and/or simulation. This paper evaluates some of the implications of abnormal experiences reported by people with schizophrenia and ASD for the current debate in cognitive science. For these people the practice of explicit mindreading seems to be a compensatory strategy that ultimately fails to compensate for – and may even exacerbate – their impairment of intuitive and interactive social understanding. Phenomenological psychopathology thereby supports the emerging view that ‘mindreading’ is not the principal form of normal social understanding.

The Positive Role of Parasites in the Origins of Life

My colleagues at the University of Tokyo, Nathaniel Virgo and Takashi Ikegami, are going to give a talk on some of our work at the 2013 IEEE Symposium Series on Computational Intelligence in Singapore. The talk will be given as part of the IEEE ALIFE 2013 symposium. Title and abstract are as follows:

The Positive Role of Parasites in the Origins of Life

Nathaniel Virgo, Tom Froese and Takashi Ikegami

One problem in the origins of life is how parasitic side-reactions can be mitigated. It is known that spatial self-organisation can help with this, making autocatalytic chemical systems more robust to invasion by parasitic species. In previous work we have shown that in such scenarios parasitic reactions can actually be beneficial. Here we demonstrate for the first time a system in which the presence of a parasitic autocatalytic cycle is not only beneficial but actually necessary for the persistence of its host. This occurs due to the effect the parasite has on the spatial organisation of the system; the host-parasite system is more stable than the host alone, despite the fact that the parasite’s direct effect on its host is purely negative. We briefly discuss the implications for the origins of life.

Enaction and biology of cognition

Back in 2010 John Stewart and I published a paper on Life after Ashby, in which we argued that the concept of autopoiesis is experiencing some growing pains within the paradigm of enaction, because the concept was originally conceived and expressed within an abstract systems framework that was already familiar from Ashby’s work.

This was followed in 2011 by a commentary by Maturana, in which he distances himself from what we had called the Ashbyan interpretation of autopoiesis and offers some additional clarifications about his work.

John and I wrote a response to Maturana’s commentary, Enactive Cognitive Science and Biology of Cognition, in which we clarify our position and offer some further reflections on the similarities and differences between Maturana’s biology of cognition and the enactive approach to cognitive science. We agree that Maturana’s work is an improvement over Ashby’s approach to biological function, but we also suggest that the enactive approach is in important respects an improvement over the biology of cognition.

Our response will be published in the next issue of Cybernetics & Human Knowing, which will also include another commentary on our original 2010 article by Bich and Arnellos. Like us and Maturana, these authors also reject the Ashbyan interpretation of autopoiesis, and they draw on the work of a number of other theoretical biologists in order to suggest that it is nevertheless possible to devise a notion of autopoiesis that can better deal with our initial criticisms.

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