FS4 Frontier Science: Evolution's use of construction kits

The Association for Science Education (ASE)
Annual conference at
The University of Birmingham
on Wednesday 6th to Saturday 9th January 2016

The final 2016 conference conference programme is here:

This Frontier Science session is about:
FS4: Evolution's Use of Construction Kits
Thursday 3-5pm in Poynting Physics Room S06
Small lecture rom top floor

This will be an interactive discussion of questions partly inspired by Alan Turing's work on Morphogenesis, published two years before he died. What might Alan Turing have done if he had lived 30-40 years longer?

What sort of school/university education would enable future graduates to contribute to the research project?

Biological evolution produced many novel construction kits for creating parts of animals and plants, e.g. massive tree trunks, protective shells, skin, hair, muscles, tendons, skeletons, etc.

What sorts of construction kits produced by biological evolution made possible evolution of minds, especially mathematical minds?
(Such as the minds of Euclid and his predecessors.)

Could similar artificial construction kits help us build robots with human intelligence?

If we understood more about such construction kits could that help us produce better educated humans, better able to live together and to solve hard problems?

What sorts of construction-kits in brains, or minds, enable a child to assemble new information? Does a child also have to create new construction kits for new kinds of learning? How can a brain do that?

Is there a way to introduce some of these ideas and questions, and later on relevant experience in building computer models, into schools without waiting for top down syllabus changes -- giving future leaders in science, medicine, technology and education a head start, a decade or more before a lumbering "official" educational system wakes up to the opportunity?

Expanded below, in The educational aims of the session.

Presenter: Aaron Sloman
Honorary professor of Artificial Intelligence and Cognitive Science
School of Computer Science, University of Birmingham

Time: 1500-1700 Thu 7th Jan
Place: Poynting Building: Physics Lecture Theatre S06
A short break before 4pm will allow people to leave to attend other sessions. We may end before 5pm, depending on how the discussion goes.

This file is
Also accessible as: goo.gl/UCAoM6

This is part of the Meta-Morphogenesis project, summarised here: goo.gl/9eN8Ks

See also the CogAff talks directory: goo.gl/piY2Lv
And this 1978 book, now freely available online:
   The computer revolution in philosophy: goo.gl/AJLDih

How to find the room

The Small Lecture Theatre is on the top floor of the Physics Poynting Building which is R13 in the Red Zone on the campus map. It has two entrances - one of which accesses the back of the room via some steps. There is a lift to enable disabled access which is to the right of the main entrance to the building.

The educational aims of the session

My presentation is based on the assumption that there are some very intelligent broad minded teachers of science, mathematics, computing and perhaps philosophy and humanities, who may be interested in a new way of thinking about evolution that could be fed into school teaching in the not too distant future in the hope of producing a new breed of scientists and thinkers who can address cross-disciplinary problems in science and engineering.

Our school system probably does not provide them any opportunity to build the new ideas formally into their teaching, but it may be relevant to informal discussions about evolution, life, mind, computing, and the future of AI, and in some cases discussions about careers. At the very least this will help to counter the mistaken impression, now being circulated widely, that learning about computing is relevant mainly for people who want to go into industry, possibly via Computing Science degree courses, or who just want to have fun building new apps.

There is a very much deeper reason for teaching computing: namely, our planet contains a very wide variety of information processing systems, including microbes and other organisms, ecosystems, social and economic systems, and perhaps most importantly for us, brains of humans and other animals. If teachers of relevant disciplines, e.g. biology, neuroscience, psychology and philosophy know nothing about forms of computation required for life, thought, perception, reproduction, and development, their pupils may not be properly prepared for research and teaching in these disciplines, just as most professionals in these disciplines have previously been unprepared, through no fault of their own. Likewise future researchers in those fields ignorant of a wide variety of forms of computation and modelling.

Increasingly, people who wish to go into areas of science that study those subjects will need to have personal experience of designing, building, testing, analysing, debugging and comparing working information processing systems, even if only fairly simple ones. Otherwise they will not know how to formulate or to evaluate and challenge new explanatory theories.

Meeting that need will, eventually, require broadening the variety of types of programming taught in schools, and integrating programming with education in several non-computing disciplines for the most able students -- the future leaders in science, industry, education, philosophy and other fields. At present the system is not ready for that, so I am merely trying to plant some seeds.

One aim of the talk will be to draw attention to capabilities of non-mathematicians that have mathematical content, insofar as they involve understanding and use of mathematical features of the environment, including partly built bird's nests, shoe-laces and children's construction kits. Even pre-verbal toddlers seem to acquire and use such mathematical knowledge, along with nest-building birds, elephants, and other intelligent animals. These competences make use of mathematical knowledge about arrangements of matter unreflectively -- not explicitly thought about or communicated. That comes later, but only (so far) in humans. What changes when a child becomes able to understand why it is that if you look past the left edge of a doorway you'll see more of the left side room if you move right, less if you move left, and can later tell someone else which way to move to see more of a hidden object. This uses mathematical reasoning about straight lines, that for most people is unconscious.

Progress in replicating such human and animal capabilities in AI and robotics, and explaining them in psychology and neuroscience has been very slow. That's partly, I think, because we don't yet understand what needs to be explained. More examples will be presented in the talk.

In 2011 I was asked to contribute to a book celebrating Turing's centenary the following year. One of the things I read was his amazing paper on The Chemical basis of Morphogenesis published in 1952, two years before he died. That led me to ask what he would have done if he had lived another 30 or 40 years. My tentative answer was the Meta-Morphogenesis (M-M) project: an attempt to understand all the important transitions in information-processing capabilities and mechanisms between the very earliest living or pre-biotic entities several billion years ago and the huge variety now on the planet, including many intelligent species, such as crows, elephants, dolphins, squirrels, orangutans and humans.

It's possible that attempting to identify intermediate forms of information processing in organisms that were distant ancestors of organisms now on earth may provide new clues about the types of information processing in current systems, that can't be found by more direct study. I'll try to explain how.

All the ideas coming out of this research are gradually being assembled on a rather messy web site dedicated to the M-M project.

I hope to interest some broad minded teachers and others interested in education, and discuss possible ways in which ideas like these could be informally made available for teachers and learners who want to explore beyond the standard disciplinary boundaries -- perhaps eventually producing some of the leading thinkers, including scientists and engineers, of the future, who will not get the required foundation from current syllabus structures, but who have the abilities and motivation to go further in non-school time. I see no reason why this should not begin in primary schools alongside the forms of programming already being taught to some very young children. See

Overview of the background to the talk

The Meta-Morphogenesis project was inspired by Turing's work on morphogenesis published in 1952, two years before he died. What would he have worked on if he had lived longer?

Studying evolved biological construction kits and information-processing mechanisms they build may help us understand evolution of minds and extend our ability to design intelligent, human-like robots.

More on the Turing-Inspired Meta-Morphogenesis project

Since Turing discussed the possibility of intelligent machines in 1950 there have been many outstanding achievements in artificial intelligence, robotics and computational cognitive science -- including logical and algebraic theorem provers and proof checkers. Yet we don't know how to give a machine visual perception and spatial reasoning abilities found in pre-verbal human toddlers, and many other animals, e.g. weaver birds, shown here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6svAIgEnFvw

Although computers can perform logical and algebraic reasoning and can even discover new mathematical theorems and prove them, current robots and mathematical reasoning systems cannot match the forms of spatial intelligence found in many non-human animals (e.g. crows, squirrels, elephants, and many more).

These include the cognitive abilities apparently required for the discovery of the truths and proofs in Euclidean geometry leading up to Euclid's Elements, published about 2.5 thousand years ago.

Can we understand what's missing in current AI but present in human toddlers and other animals and how it evolved? Perhaps those forms of mathematical spatial reasoning require new forms of computation?
Some examples:

Related information

A workshop/tutorial to be presented at SGAI in Cambridge, December 2014
Evolved construction kits for building minds.

First steps towards a general theory of evolved construction kits:

Background: The Turing-Inspired Meta-Morphogenesis project

About the Speaker: Aaron Sloman
Honorary professor of Artificial Intelligence and Cognitive Science School of Computer Science, University of Birmingham

Over half a century ago he completed a degree in mathematics and physics, at Cape Town University, then came to Oxford, intending to do research in mathematics. Instead he was seduced by philosophy and did a DPhil in philosophy of mathematics, attempting to explain how mathematical knowledge differs from other kinds of knowledge. Around 1969 he was introduced to Artificial Intelligence and soon after that began trying to work out how it might be possible to design a baby robot that could grow up to be a mathematician, as he had done. He has been trying to understand himself ever since, with the help of artificial intelligence and what he could learn from other disciplines including biology and psychology. The problems proved much harder than he had anticipated and it does not seem that they will be solved in the foreseeable future, despite impressive, but narrowly-focused, successes of Artificial Intelligence. He officially retired in 2002 but remained an honorary professor tolerated as a full time researcher and trouble-maker in the School of Computer Science here in Birmingham. During the recent Alan Turing centenary year the research took a new direction, which he will describe today.

Personal web site: http://www.cs.bham.ac.uk/~axs

Installed: 22 Sep 2015
Last updated: 25 Oct 2015; 26 Dec 2015

Maintained by Aaron Sloman
School of Computer Science
The University of Birmingham