From collective government to communal inebriation

This week I will be giving a talk at the 84th Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, which will take place in Albuquerque, New Mexico, April 10-14.

From collective government to communal inebriation in ancient Teotihuacan, Central Mexico

Tom Froese

A simulation model of Teotihuacan’s hypothetical collective government has shown that a highly distributed network of leaders could have been effective at ensuring social coordination in the city by means of consensus formation. The model makes a strong prediction: it indicates that this collective mode of government would have been most effective in combination with large-scale communal rituals, especially rituals involving strong alterations of normal mental functioning. These communal rituals could have allowed the sociopolitical network as a whole to escape from the suboptimal behavioral configurations that otherwise tend to result from the interactions between self-interested individuals. In line with this prediction, recently there has been a growing recognition of the existence of communal rituals involving inebriation, even to the point of vomiting and loss of motor control. The current consensus holds that these rituals are based on a mildly alcoholic beverage made from maguey, today known as pulque. However, in accordance with the model’s strong prediction and based on iconographic and ethnographic evidence, I propose that in some cases the beverage was made more potent with the addition of powerful mind-altering substances, in particular delirium-inducing plants from the genus Datura, today known as toloache.

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Talk on self-optimization in life, mind, and society

Next week Wednesday, March 20, at 5pm I will participate in a discussion of complexity in the sciences, which will take place in the Colegio Nacional of Mexico. The event spans everything from physics to archaeology. I will make some links across disciplines and talk about “Self-optimization in life, mind, and society”.

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.

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.

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