Form, function and the matter of experience


W. (Pim) F.G. Haselager

Artificial Intelligence/Cognitive Science, Nijmegen Institute for Cognition and Information, University of Nijmegen, Montessorilaan 3, 6525 HR, Nijmegen, THE NETHERLANDS; Pos-graduation Cognitive Science and Philosophy of Mind, Philosophy Department, UNESP, Av. Hygino Muzzi Filho 737, Marília, SP, 17525-900, BRAZIL



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The notion of Umwelt (e.g. von Uexküll 1936/2001; 1937/2001) has gained currency in the domain of robotics. Do robots have an Umwelt? Are robots to be conceived of as subjects that truly experience their perceiving and acting upon the world? Or are they merely artificially signaling or behaving as if they do?

Initially, it may have seemed that work in robotics, also known as nouvelle AI, has better chances of dealing constructively with the question of subjective experience than traditional AI because of the embodied embeddedness of its systems. This embodied embeddedness, properly self-organized and dynamically coupled, might be enough to ground the flow of information to such an extent that genuine feeling, volition and intentionality would arise.

However, it has been argued (in two recent papers on von Uexküll; Ziemke & Sharkey 2001; Emmeche 2001) that embodied embeddedness, though important, is not sufficient for establishing the presence of an Umwelt. Systems, it is claimed, need to be alive in order to be able to have an Umwelt. Autopoiesis, the self-producing and self-maintaining property of cells, is characteristic of living systems and is considered to be indispensable in order for a system to have an Umwelt.

I will argue that the relation, that is claimed to exist, between being alive and having an Umwelt is not obvious and in need of considerable clarification. Moreover, I will suggest that the focus on autopoiesis, interpreted as a sharpening of constraints on the matter of implementations can be seen not as in opposition to, but rather as a consequence of the aims of nouvelle AI and its views on the function, form and matter of robotic systems.

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