The Problem of Meaning in AI and Robotics: Still with Us after All These Years

Fittingly published in the 10-year anniversary of the publication of “enactive AI“, here is a critical retrospective piece that at the same time marks a significant departure into new, largely unexplored directions. Exciting times!

The Problem of Meaning in AI and Robotics: Still with Us after All These Years

Tom Froese and Shigeru Taguchi

In this essay we critically evaluate the progress that has been made in solving the problem of meaning in artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics. We remain skeptical about solutions based on deep neural networks and cognitive robotics, which in our opinion do not fundamentally address the problem. We agree with the enactive approach to cognitive science that things appear as intrinsically meaningful for living beings because of their precarious existence as adaptive autopoietic individuals. But this approach inherits the problem of failing to account for how meaning as such could make a difference for an agent’s behavior. In a nutshell, if life and mind are identified with physically deterministic phenomena, then there is no conceptual room for meaning to play a role in its own right. We argue that this impotence of meaning can be addressed by revising the concept of nature such that the macroscopic scale of the living can be characterized by physical indeterminacy. We consider the implications of this revision of the mind-body relationship for synthetic approaches.

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Book review of Fuchs’ Ecology of the Brain

In our group’s seminars we read Thomas Fuchs’ (2018) Ecology of the Brain: The Phenomenology and Biology of the Embodied Mind by Oxford University Press. Here is the review that I wrote based on our discussions.

Book Review: Ecology of the Brain: The Phenomenology and Biology of the Embodied Mind

Tom Froese

Fuchs (2018) book starts with a wake-up call. We are facing social and ecological crises that threaten the flourishing of future generations. Ideally, therefore, the sciences of the mind should help us to better understand on what basis a person can take responsible action, and thereby contribute to empowering people in their capacity to make a difference. Yet mainstream human neuroscience confronts us with the hypothesis that our self, free will, consciousness, and hence also our conscience, are nothing but internal fictions fabricated by patterns of nervous activity.

Fuchs’ book is a valuable reminder of the high price of this sort of reductionism, which realizes the ideal of naturalizing the mind at the cost of leaving no theoretical room for people to genuinely make a difference for others in the world. It is a scientific worldview that implicitly legitimizes todays widespread sense of isolation and apathy. A key motivation for Fuchs is to shore up resistance against this encroachment upon our personal lifeworld, but he wisely refrains from overplaying this appeal to our conscience. The book’s main contribution lies in demonstrating that doing justice to the complexities and ambiguities of human existence actually leads to a more mature cognitive science and a more coherent philosophy of mind.