Autobiography

This is a small biography of my life as it relates to my academic work. For an overview of my current work, please have a look at the Research page.

Tom Froese
Tokyo, April 30, 2012

A new life and growing up

I was born in 1981 and raised in Kiel, a beautiful and sleepy city by the Baltic Sea in northern Germany. During the first years of my life I practically lived in an aquarium shop. My parents, Rainer and Sabine, ran this shop to make a living, while my dad was finishing his doctorate in fisheries biology. According to my mother’s various anecdotes, I was fascinated by the fish, and so apparently began my lifelong interest in nature, and in biology in particular. My upbringing was in tune with the changing times, as my mother had trained in the constructivist pedagogy of Piaget and Vygotsky, while my dad had immersed himself in the dialectical materialism of Marx and Engels.

In 1990 my parents decided to move to exotic and lively Manila, Philippines, and they took me and my younger sister, Nele, with them. I absorbed a lot of the American-inflected local culture, but there was a also a sense of continuity as my education continued at the German School Manila, which was one of several European schools united in one Eurocampus. We also made regular visits to the various coasts and islands, where I had the good fortune of being able to explore one of the most diverse marine ecosystems in the world under the guidance of my father. I learned the ins and outs of biological observation and taxonomy, and I still happen to remember a random selection of scientific names of tropical fish.

The German School was too small to offer classes beyond tenth grade. After I graduated as a Gymnasiast student in 1998, I switched to the International School Manila and enrolled in the excellent International Baccalaureate (IB) program. The IB was a tough but rewarding experience. My interests were very broad, ranging from higher-level literature to higher-level chemistry.

Perhaps most relevant for my subsequent academic path were two courses. I enjoyed the logic of Computer Science, where my interest in artificial intelligence (AI) resulted in a simple game programming project for which I was awarded a Computer Department Award by the school. And I was also fascinated by Theory of Knowledge, where I came across philosophy for the first time. My interest in philosophy of mind and AI resulted in a final essay about the Turing Test that unexpectedly almost made me fail that course. Ironically, that essay was inspired by Franklin’s book “Artificial Minds”, i.e. precisely the book which I happened to use much later as a foil for my enactive critique of AI (Froese and Ziemke, 2009), so perhaps that low grade had been deserved after all.

From Artificial Intelligence to Artificial Life

I graduated from the International School with the class of 2000, at the time a much-hyped year. I packed my bags, said goodbye to my family, and moved to the UK, where I began my undergraduate studies in the Department of Computer Science and Cybernetics at the University of Reading. Here my earlier interests in AI and biology were combined into a fascination with artificial life, dynamical systems, robotics, and theoretical cognitive science. I was especially attracted to the problem of the origin of animal communication, which I explored by bringing together evolutionary algorithms, artificial neural networks, and models of multi-agent systems for my third year project under the supervision of Dr Will Browne.

During my undergraduate years I also immersed myself in all kinds of underground scenes and forms of alternative culture, and I began to teach myself continental philosophy. This heady mixture resulted in many formative experiences and relationships. I still remember that it was Schopenhauer’s philosophy which for the first time turned my world upside down in a systematic way. I was astonished that the situation we always already find ourselves in is compatible with a variety of different beliefs in reality.

The technical skills I had acquired for my third year project came in handy for my Master’s project. Under the supervision of Dr Sillas Hadjiloucas, I used a similar combination of evolutionary and neural network algorithms in order to categorize wavelet-compressed recordings of normal and abnormal heartbeats on the basis of actual medical data. In 2004 I received my M.Eng. in Computer Science and Cybernetics with First-class honours. My Master’s project was awarded with an External Examiner’s Commendation, and the results were later published in my first journal article (Froese et al., 2006).

From Artificial Life to Enaction

Initially I had been interested in artificial life because its methods appeared more promising for creating genuine AI than the classical symbolic approaches, but during my studies I found myself increasingly drawn to questions in the science and philosophy of life and mind. The problem of mind could not be addressed without tackling the problem of life. I started to realize that the concrete phenomenon of life was a fundamental ‘blind spot’ (both organismic life in biology and personal life in cognitive science are essentially absent), which impeded scientific and practical progress.

With these ideas vaguely forming in the back of my mind, I chose to continue my research into animal communication by joining the Center for Computational Neuroscience and Robotics (CCNR), at the University of Sussex, as a new part-time D.Phil. student in October 2004. For the first two years, under the supervision of Dr Emmet Spier, I struggled with definitions of communication in biology and cast my net of interests over a wide area of obscure scientific and philosophical traditions. I was happy to learn that many researchers at Sussex approached the question of consciousness as a legitimate area of scientific research, and that many agreed that the neo-Darwinian synthesis had left the question of life untouched.

In the beginning I was still keen on the mixture of lived experience and solid metaphysics offered by German philosophers such as Schopenhauer and Husserl, but that was about to change when I met my future wife, Iliana Mendoza, a Mexican art historian trained in deconstruction and postmodernism. Again my world was systematically turned upside down, in more way than one. It was fortuitous that my immersion in art as well as cultural- and observer-relativism resonated with the general intellectual climate of the CCNR. Indeed, I had found a natural progression from the cybernetics of my undergraduate years to the second-order cybernetics of von Foerster, and I became obsessed with the work of Maturana, Varela, and von Glasersfeld. This fertile period will later find expression in my re-interpretation of the philosophy of Hume (Froese, 2009), my first philosophical journal paper.

In 2006 I was very fortunate that Prof Ezequiel Di Paolo agreed to be my doctoral supervisor. He was one of the revolutionary thinkers at Sussex, and he was becoming one of the leading proponents of the enactive approach to cognitive science. Under his guidance I traded the radical relativism of second-order cybernetics for Varela’s relational middle-way of enaction. The enactive paradigm offered the promise of a unified research program for my eclectic range of interests, integrating personal experience, organismic life, relational thinking, synthetic approaches, and dynamical systems theory. I had finally found my intellectual home in a young and burgeoning community of researchers whose ideas excited me immensely, and I was able to switch to full-time study in October 2007. Around this time I realized there was an opportunity to practically exemplify the enactive approach in terms of the lived experience induced by using a novel technological perceptual interface, and so with the help of Dr Adam Spiers, an old friend and colleague from Reading, the Enactive Torch was born (Froese and Spiers, 2007). Admittedly this was quite a departure from my original thesis proposal, and so my PhD committee had to convince me to refocus my efforts on creating some computer models of social interaction.

Tom Froese The title of my doctoral dissertation is “Sociality and the Life-Mind Continuity Thesis: A Study in Evolutionary Robotics”. The motivation for this dissertation was to further develop the enactive approach to cognitive science in terms of its two essential foundations. On the one hand, it is based on an operational approach to biology and social interaction, which was strongly inspired by the autopoietic tradition developed by Maturana, Varela and colleagues. I explored this aspect by means of a series of modeling experiments of multi-agent systems, which were implemented using an evolutionary robotics and dynamical systems method. My analysis of the models supported the idea that an interaction process between two agents cannot be reduced to the sum of their individual behavior. Instead, the interaction itself is constitutive of their behavioral capacities and can even temporarily extend them. My presentation of this work at an euCognition meeting in Venice received the Best Student Presentation award, and thereby earned me a ticket to present the paper in Japan (Froese and Di Paolo, 2008).

On the other hand, the enactive approach is also based on the phenomenological tradition in philosophy and, following Husserl, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty and others, tries to clarify the essential structures of our lived experience in terms of biological embodiment, wordly situatedness and social intersubjectivity. I made use of these insights as a complement to the dynamical systems approach in order to highlight how the actual and potential presence of others can modulate our basic experiential relations, including perception (Froese and Di Paolo, 2009). The take-home message of my dissertation is: by engaging in social interaction we can transform ourselves, others and the world. In January 2010 I was ready to move on and got married and graduated on the same day.

Consciousness science

I then temporarily joined Dr Anil Seth’s Neurodynamics and Consciousness Lab and the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science, also at the University of Sussex, as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow. My aim was to apply the enactive insights of my D.Phil., combined with the neuroscience of consciousness, in order to explain some unusual conditions of experiencing, especially those found in cases of synesthesia, depersonalization, and uses of sensory augmentation technology.

I followed Varela by drawing on the phenomenological component of the enactive approach to advance the theory of qualitative research in consciousness science (Froese et al., 2011a,b). I also engaged in practical qualitative research myself, conducting numerous interviews with synesthetes to elicit descriptions of their fascinating and colorful experiences. My methodology of choice was a ‘second-person’ approach to consciousness studies, namely the Explicitation Interview in which I had received training by Dr Claire Petitmengin. In addition, the first systematic study with the Enactive Torch was conducted (Froese et al., 2012). I am glad that my research at the Sackler Centre offered me this opportunity to trade my interaction with computers for interaction with people.

Dynamics and phenomenology

In November 2010 I realized my dream of becoming more acquainted with Eastern culture by starting a 2-year JSPS Postdoctoral Fellowship at the University of Tokyo in Japan. At the same time, as a member of the Ikegami Lab in the Department of General Systems Studies, I am returning to a more cybernetic style of research, but without losing my concern for the phenomenological side of life, mind, and sociality. Even scientific questions about the origin of life cannot be divorced from phenomenological questions about the meaning of life.

My general aim is to deepen our understanding of the relationship between dynamics and phenomenology, especially by making use of minimal technological systems. Since human beings are defined by their existence at the intersection between biology, phenomenology and technology, my research during this time will hopefully prepare some theoretical ground for another change of research direction in the future. I have a strong interest in improving current approaches in psychopathology, as well as extending insights into the cultural constitution of cognition.

References

Froese, T. (2009). Hume and the enactive approach to mind. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 8(1): 95-133

Froese, T. & Di Paolo, E. A. (2008). Stability of coordination requires mutuality of interaction in a model of embodied agents. In: M. Asada, J. C. T. Hallam, J.-A. Meyer & J. Tani (eds.). From Animals to Animats 10: 10th International Conference on Simulation of Adaptive Behavior, SAB 2008, Berlin, Germany: Springer-Verlag, pp. 52-61

Froese, T. & Di Paolo, E. A. (2009). Sociality and the life-mind continuity thesis. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 8(4): 439-463

Froese, T., Gould, C. & Barrett, A. (2011a). Re-Viewing From Within: A Commentary on First- and Second-Person Methods in the Science of Consciousness. Constructivist Foundations, 6(2): 254-269

Froese, T., Gould, C. & Seth, A. K. (2011b). Validating and Calibrating First- and Second-person Methods in the Science of Consciousness. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 18(2): 38-64

Froese, T., McGann, M., Bigge, W., Spiers, A. & Seth, A. K. (2012). The Enactive Torch: A New Tool for the Science of Perception. IEEE Transactions on Haptics, in press

Froese, T. & Spiers, A. (2007). Toward a Phenomenological Pragmatics of Enactive Perception. Enactive/07: Proceedings of the Fourth International Conference on Enactive Interfaces, Grenoble, France: Association ACROE, pp. 105-108

Froese, T. & Ziemke, T. (2009). Enactive Artificial Intelligence: Investigating the systemic organization of life and mind. Artificial Intelligence, 173(3-4): 466-500

Froese, T., Hadjiloucas, S., Galvao, R. K. H., Becerra, V. M. & Coelho, C. J. (2006). Comparison of extrasystolic ECG signal classifiers using Discrete Wavelet Transforms. Pattern Recognition Letters, 27(5): 393-407

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