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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Special issue on ALIFE and society published

The organizers of 2016 edition of the International Conference on the Synthesis and Simulation of Living Systems (ALIFE VX) have edited a special issue of the journal Artificial Life by inviting extended versions of selected conference papers.

Emphasis was placed on papers related to the conference theme of “Artificial Life and Society”.

Here is a preprint of the editorial introduction:

ALife and Society: Editorial Introduction to the Artificial Life Conference 2016 Special Issue

Jesús M. Siqueiros-García, Tom Froese, Carlos Gershenson, Wendy Aguilar, Hiroki Sayama and Eduardo Izquierdo

Artificial life (ALife) research is not only about the production of knowledge, but is also a source of compelling and meaningful stories and narratives, especially now when they are needed most. Such power, so to speak, emerges from its own foundations as a discipline. It was Chris Langton in 1987 who said that “By extending the horizons of empirical research in biology beyond the territory currently circumscribed by life-as-we-know-it, the study of Artificial Life gives us access to the domain of life-as-it-could-be […]” [1]. The very notion of life-as-it-could-be opened up many possibilities to explore, and released the study of life from its material and our cognitive constraints. The study of life did not have to be limited to carbon-based entities, DNA or proteins. It could also be about general and universal processes that could be implemented and realized in multiple forms. Moreover, while ALife was about biology at the beginning, its rationale and methods are now shared by many other domains, including chemistry, engineering, and the social sciences. In other words, the power to envision and synthesize “what is possible” beyond “what is” has transcended disciplinary boundaries. It also produces the material for the exploration of narratives about how things can be in principle and not only about their current state of being.

Artificial Life XV in 2016, Cancun, Mexico

Next year’s International Conference on the Synthesis and Simulation of Living Systems (Artificial Life XV) will take place in beautiful Cancun, Mexico, July 4-8, 2016. I am part of the local organizing team, helping to make the first Alife conference in Latin America a memorable event.

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For more information see the conference website: http://xva.life

New paper: The past, present, and future of artificial life

Frontiers in Robotics and AI As part of the inauguration of the new section on “Computational Intelligence” of Frontiers in Robotics and AI we wrote this introduction to the field of artificial life.

The past, present, and future of artificial life

Wendy Aguilar, Guillermo Santamaría-Bonfil, Tom Froese and Carlos Gershenson

For millennia people have wondered what makes the living different from the non-living. Beginning in the mid-1980s, artificial life has studied living systems using a synthetic approach: build life in order to understand it better, be it by means of software, hardware, or wetware. This review provides a summary of the advances that led to the development of artificial life, its current research topics, and open problems and opportunities. We classify artificial life research into 14 themes: origins of life, autonomy, self-organization, adaptation (including evolution, development, and learning), ecology, artificial societies, behavior, computational biology, artificial chemistries, information, living technology, art, and philosophy. Being interdisciplinary, artificial life seems to be losing its boundaries and merging with other fields.

DOI: 10.3389/frobt.2014.00008

Motility at the Origin of Life: Its Characterization and a Model

The conference paper I presented with Nathaniel Virgo and Takashi Ikegami at the 2011 European Conference on Artificial Life was selected for a special issue of the journal Artificial Life dedicated to showcasing the best work of that conference. Our expanded paper has finally become available.

Motility at the Origin of Life: Its Characterization and a Model

Tom Froese, Nathaniel Virgo and Takashi Ikegami

Due to recent advances in synthetic biology and artificial life, the origin of life is currently a hot topic of research. We review the literature and argue that the two traditionally competing replicator-first and metabolism-first approaches are merging into one integrated theory of individuation and evolution. We contribute to the maturation of this more inclusive approach by highlighting some problematic assumptions that still lead to an impoverished conception of the phenomenon of life. In particular, we argue that the new consensus has so far failed to consider the relevance of intermediate time scales. We propose that an adequate theory of life must account for the fact that all living beings are situated in at least four distinct time scales, which are typically associated with metabolism, motility, development, and evolution. In this view, self-movement, adaptive behavior, and morphological changes could have already been present at the origin of life. In order to illustrate this possibility, we analyze a minimal model of lifelike phenomena, namely, of precarious, individuated, dissipative structures that can be found in simple reaction-diffusion systems. Based on our analysis, we suggest that processes on intermediate time scales could have already been operative in prebiotic systems. They may have facilitated and constrained changes occurring in the faster- and slower-paced time scales of chemical self-individuation and evolution by natural selection, respectively.