Invited talk: The problem of meaning in AI and robotics

I was invited to give a talk at the conference cycle of the Cognitive Robotics Laboratory. The conference will celebrate the lab’s 10th anniversary, and will take place Feb. 21-22 at UAEM in Cuernavaca. Here is my title and abstract:

The problem of meaning in AI and robotics

Tom Froese

In recent years there has been a lot of renewed excitement about the possibilities of creating advanced artificial intelligence (AI) that could rival the human mind. I cast doubt on this prospect by reviewing past revolutions in cognitive robotics, specifically the shift toward embodied cognition in the 90s and the recent emphasis on the enactive approach. I argue that despite claims to the contrary, these revolutions did not manage to overcome the fundamental problem of meaning, which was first identified following the various theoretical and practical problems faced by Good Old-Fashioned AI. Similarly, even after billions of dollars of investment, today’s commercial computational systems simply do not understand anything in the way that humans or, so I argue, even the simplest living creatures do. I therefore propose a paradigm shift in how to conceptualize the overall vision and goals of the synthetic method: we should stop aiming to replicate human understanding with AI, and instead focus on helping humans better realize their potential via human-computer interfaces, including robotic systems.

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Seminar at Hokkaido University

Next week I will be visiting Hokkaido University, Sapporo, in order to continue my collaborations with Prof. Shigeru Taguchi on enactive and phenomenological approaches to cognitive science.

As part of my visit, I will give a seminar on “schizophrenia as a disorder of affectivity” on Thursday evening, January 17. Details below:

Summer school “Introduction to Enactivism” in Hokkaido, Japan

Next August I will be one of three instructors in a summer school on enactive philosophy of mind and cognitive science in beautiful Hokkaido, Japan! The other instructors are Shigeru Taguchi (phenomenology) and Masatoshi Yoshida (neuroscience), so this will be a truly interdisciplinary experience.

We are looking for motivated students to join us in this enactive summer school!

Title and abstract below. For more details please see the course website:

Introduction to Enactivism: Moving to Know, Knowing to Move

The aim of this course is to give an introduction to enactivism by lectures and experimental practices. Enactivism is a philosophical view on cognition and experience that Francisco Varela and other scholars developed. According to this view, cognition and experience are not just passive processes, but a kind of ”making up” of reality through our action.

In this course, students can examine to what extent the enactive view of experience is convincing by discussing in the classroom and doing experimental practices using special instruments and devices.

Schedule: 05/Aug/2019 – 09/Aug/2019
Level: Graduate
Language: English

Talk on the cognitive science of cave art

I have been invited by the social anthropologists of the National School of Anthropology and History of the North of Mexico to visit them in Chihuahua.

I am excited by this opportunity to discuss the enactive approach to social interaction and to see how it can be put into a mutually informing relationship with anthropology.

The problem of meaning in AI: Still with us after all these years

I was invited to give a talk at the “Programs, minds and machines” workshop, which will be hosted jointly by the Mathematics and the Philosophy Research Institutes of UNAM, August 6-9, 2018.

The problem of meaning in AI: Still with us after all these years

Tom Froese

In recent years there has been a lot of excitement about the possibilities of advanced artificial intelligence that could rival the human mind. I cast doubt on this prospect by reviewing past revolutions in cognitive robotics, specifically the shift toward situated robotics in the 90s and the shift toward a dynamical approach in the 00s. I argue that despite claims to the contrary, these revolutions did not manage to overcome the fundamental problem of meaning that was first identified in the context of various theoretical and practical problems faced by Good Old-Fashioned AI. Even after billions of dollars of investment, today’s computers simply do not understand anything. I argue for a paradigm shift in the field: the aim should not be to replicate the human mind in autonomous systems, but to help it realize its full potential via interfaces.

An artificial life approach to the origins of the genetic code

I have been invited to give a talk at the “Special workshop: The Earth, Life and Artificial Life”, sponsored by ELSI, which will take place next Friday, July 27, as part of the International Conference on Artificial Life in Tokyo.

The title and abstract are as follows:

An artificial life approach to the origins of the genetic code

Tom Froese

A growing number of artificial life researchers propose that making progress on the problem of the origins of life requires taking seriously life’s embodiment: even very simple life-like systems that are spatially individuated can interact with their environment in an adaptive manner. This behavior-based approach has also opened up new perspectives on a related unsolved problem, namely the origin of the genetic code, which can now be seen as emerging out of iterated interactions in a community of individuals. Thus, artificial life demonstrates that the dominant scientific strategy of searching for the conditions of Darwinian evolution should be broadened to consider other possibilities of optimization.

Is there room for intrinsic normativity in a synthetic system?

I was invited to give a keynote talk at the workshop “The Synthetic Approach to Biology and the Cognitive Sciences (SA-BCS 2018): Developing an Epistemology for the Synthetic Sciences of Life and Cognition“, which will take place as part of ALIFE 2018 in Tokyo on July 25.

Here are the title and abstract of my contribution:

Is there room for intrinsic normativity in a synthetic system?

Tom Froese

Enactivism rejects the standard hypothesis of cognitive science, according to which all cognition involves the unconscious manipulation of mental representations, and instead replaces it with a dynamical systems account. And yet enactivism also resists purely dynamical approaches that see no role for any kind of subjectivity, because it appeals to the role of our lived phenomenology and claims that living beings behave with respect to intrinsic norms directed at maintaining their self-produced viability. So far, this middle way seems to be philosophically unsatisfactory: at best it allows us to claim that acting in accordance with experience or norms just is identical to a certain kind of dynamic pattern. But this turns subjectivity into a mysterious difference that makes no difference with respect to the unfolding of those patterns, which remain completely determined by the dynamical laws alone. This calls for deeper epistemological reflection about how it could be possible for subjectivity to play a role in an objective world, while avoiding a regression to the untenable positions of either representationalism or eliminativism. This debate has implications for the synthetic method, especially regarding longstanding discussions about the relative merits of software, hardware, and wetware.

Talk on water processions and pulque inebriations

A Teotihuacan Mini-Symposium will take place in San Juan Teotihuacan next Monday, July 2. I am going to present the latest advances of my modeling attempts regarding the ancient city’s hypothetical collective sociopolitical network. Here are the title and abstract:

Water processions and pulque inebriations: Simulating the effects of communal ritual on social coordination

Tom Froese

In previous work I simulated a sociopolitical network of the hypothesized collective government of early Teotihuacan based on the distribution of Three-Temple Complexes. Given that actors make decisions and change relationships with others primarily in self-interested ways, it was found that network-wide coordination of decisions is nearly impossible to achieve. However, it was also demonstrated that this social coordination problem is consistently overcome when actors occasionally participate in communal rituals, particularly of the chaotic form in which people’s normal social constraints are temporarily bracketed and replaced by spontaneous, and often intoxicated, individualized behaviors. These fiesta-like rituals allowed network-wide social coordination to arise in a self-organized manner. Yet a type of ritual much more prominently depicted in murals, processions, involves exactly the opposite: highly organized and conventionalized movements that are executed by several individuals in synchrony. In this talk I will compare the extent to which these types of ritual could have facilitated social coordination. The results suggest that processions may have been less effective as long as the sociopolitical network consisted of highly modular clusters of actors, which suggests that they only became an important ritual form after Teotihuacan became a more integrated city.

New paper on iterated learning at the origins of life

Jorge, Nathaniel and I have published an extension of our iterated learning approach to the origins of the genetic code in the Proceedings of the Artificial Life Conference 2018. We unexpectedly found that the most likely sequences in which amino acids get incorporated into the emerging genetic codes in our simulation model exhibit a remarkable overlap with the sequence predicted in the literature based on empirical considerations.

We will present this work at the ALIFE conference in Tokyo as part of the special session on “Hybrid Life: Approaches to integrate biological, artificial and cognitive systems”.

An iterated learning approach to the origins of the standard genetic code can help to explain its sequence of amino acid assignments

Tom Froese, Jorge I. Campos, and Nathaniel Virgo

Artificial life has been developing a behavior-based perspective on the origins of life, which emphasizes the adaptive potential of agent-environment interaction even at that initial stage. So far this perspective has been closely aligned to metabolism-first theories, while most researchers who study life’s origins tend to assign an essential role to RNA. An outstanding challenge is to show that a behavior-based perspective can also address open questions related to the genetic system. Accordingly, we have recently applied this perspective to one of science’s most fascinating mysteries: the origins of the standard genetic code. We modeled horizontal transfer of cellular components in a population of protocells using an iterated learning approach and found that it can account for the emergence of several key properties of the standard code. Here we further investigated the diachronic emergence of artificial codes and discovered that the model’s most frequent sequence of amino acid assignments overlaps significantly with the predictions in the literature. Our explorations of the factors that favor early incorporation into an emerging artificial code revealed two aspects: an amino acid’s relative probability of horizontal transfer, and its relative ease of discriminability in chemical space.

Figure 2

Illustration of the architecture of the genetic system of one of our hypothetical protocells.

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