Artificial Embodiment: An integrative methodology for a science of consciousness

This is my abstract for this year’s Ratna Ling conference on first-person methods.

Artificial Embodiment: An integrative methodology for a science of consciousness

Even today, 40 years after Bach-y-Rita’s seminal Nature paper on a tactile-visual sensory substitution (TVSS) system, no consensus can be reached on how best to interpret users’ verbal reports. Is the experience of using such sensory augmentation interfaces visual, tactile, cognitive, or something altogether new? The growing fascination with technological wizardry, i.e. the building of different and more advanced interfaces, is in itself unlikely to resolve such a foundational issue.

The lack of a principled methodology to make progress on this impasse can naturally be linked to another growing debate in the cognitive sciences, namely about the role of first- or second-person approaches for the scientific study of consciousness. The development and establishment of these approaches is encountering some difficulty in the face of a widespread skepticism inherited from the behaviorist tradition. In order for them to demonstrate their methodological validity it is especially important that they go beyond mere data collection, i.e. descriptions of experiential phenomena, and move into a more productive relationship with the rest of cognitive science.

Accordingly, we propose to address the distinct difficulties faced by phenomenological methodology and sensory augmentation research by relating these two growing areas of research in a mutually beneficial manner. The crucial step of moving beyond mere technological wizardry or data collection into a principled scientific research program is to link them together in terms of hypothesis generation and verification. We refer to this novel research program as Artificial Embodiment (AE). The basic methodology consists of four essential steps:

(i) Synthesis of interfaces: The experiential phenomena of interest are not naturally occurring and need to be artificially induced by technological means. Here it is possible to draw on the work that has already been going on in research into enactive interfaces and sensory augmentation.

(ii) Emergence of experience: The experiential phenomena of interest emerge out of the ongoing interactions of a human subject with the world, as mediated by the interface designed in step (i).

(iii) Analysis of first-person perspective: The experiential phenomena that emerge in step (ii) are essentially opaque, especially if the subject is not an expert in becoming aware of experiences and describing them. In other words, experiences are typically in need of being explicitated by means of second-person interview techniques, and then require further analysis.

(iv) Generation of hypotheses: The insights gained in step (iii) form the empirical basis for verifying the original motivating hypothesis for the study. They also inform the process of generating novel hypotheses, which then become the basis for the design of novel interfaces in step (i).

It is step (iv) which crucially turns these disparate elements into a coherent scientific research program. Indeed, any serious study should ideally traverse this methodological circle at least twice: Once to generate a novel hypothesis, and then once more to verify the validity of this hypothesis.

So far there exists no scientific study which has systematically followed the AE research program as outlined above. One topic that is generating growing interest in the cognitive sciences is the role of value for the embodied mind. Accordingly, we propose to use AE as a framework for investigating the phenomenon of situated normativity, i.e. the values associated with instinctive or unreflective embodied action. Such values are a good starting point because they are an essential aspect of phenomenal feel, as well as of affective behavior, and thus provide us with the basis for correlating subjective and objective data. A study with haptic interfaces (distance-to-touch) has indicated that subjects show aversive behavior with minimal priming (“avoid objects”) and no knowledge of the interface. Can we explain this normative reaction in terms of the phenomenology of the subjects?

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