Extended Abstract for AISB 2017
underlying cognition and affect in natural and artificial
School of Computer Science, University of
This is a summary of some of the ideas in my invited talk for the Symposium on
"Computational modelling of emotion: theory and applications" at AISB 2017. A
deep understanding of human (or animal) minds requires a broad and deep
understanding of the types of information processing functions and information
processing mechanisms produced by biological evolution, and how those functions
and mechanisms are combined in architectures of increasing sophistication and
complexity over evolutionary trajectories leading to new species, and how
various kinds of evolved potential are realised by context-sensitive mechanisms
during individual development. Some aspects of individual development add
context-specific detail to products of the evolutionary history, partly because
evolution cannot produce pre-packaged specifications for complete information
processing architectures, except for the very simplest organisms. Instead, for
more complex organisms, including humans, different architectural layers develop
at different times during an individual's life, partly under the influence of
the genome and partly under the influence of what the individual has so far
experienced, learnt, and developed. This is particularly obvious in language
development in humans, but that is a special case of a general biological
pattern (identified in joint work with Jackie Chappell, partly inspired by
theories of Annette Karmiloff-Smith, among others). This paper complements a
paper presented in the Symposium on Computing and Philosophy at AISB 2017, which
develops more general ideas about evolution of information processing functions
and mechanisms, partly inspired by Turing's work on morphogenesis:
Biological organisms differ in many ways. Members of the same species can differ
according to their stage of development, according to the problems and resources
(including information) encountered during their development, according to
details of their genome, and details of previous development, growth, and
learning opportunities and also in details of their particular environments with
different threats, opportunities, resources, obstacles, competitors, helpers,
current needs, and so on.
Variations across species are even greater. Over billions of years, biological
evolution on this planet has produced a staggering variety of forms of life,
differing in physical size, change of size during the life of individuals, life
span, sensory apparatus, modes of development and motion, types of environment,
modes of interaction with the environment including conspecifics and other life
forms, food, prey, predators, forms of information storage, modes of
reproduction, and many more. All of these differences (most of which are
structural not numerical) can affect mechanisms, internal states or processes,
and externally visible forms of behaviour or expression, including affective
states and processes related to motivation, goals, plans, preferences, desires,
attitudes, values, hopes, ambitions, decisions, intentions, concerns, moods, and
other affective states and processes.
Is this an area that is susceptible of scientific study and accurate modelling,
or is there merely a hopelessly unstructured mess/tangle of special cases
understood in depth by some novelists, poets, playwrights counsellors and
therapists, but unfit to be the subject of scientific investigation?
A similar question might have been asked about chemistry centuries ago when
alchemists were faced with a tangled mess of special cases with no means of
expanding knowledge except by doing more experiments. But that situation was
changed by discoveries about the atomic structure of matter, including the
details summarised in the periodic table of the elements, along with advances in
chemical understanding based on many experiments and applications of new ideas
from quantum mechanics - producing explanations that were not possible in the
framework of Newtonian mechanics. Chemical reactions could not be explained by
Newton's laws of motion, but new explanatory theories emerged from information
about the structure of atoms related to the facts assembled in the periodic
table of physical elements, later elaborated by developments in quantum physics
able to explain chemical structures and mechanisms including some that are
crucial for biological evolution analysed in 1944 by
Since then, although huge gaps remain in our biological knowledge, there have
been tremendous advances based on theories in physics and chemistry about
possible structures and their interactions, often forming new structures
essential to processes of biological reproduction, growth and development.
In contrast, much (so-called) scientific study of minds has relied on
correlation-seeking experiments and the use of independently variable components
of vectors to describe complexity - which would be hopelessly inadequate even
for the study of complex molecules.
There is also a wide-spread assumption that all motivation needs to be thought
of in terms of the relative attractions (or repulsions) of various kinds of
reward (or punishment) with a common (positive or negative) utility measure.
This can be compared with the ancient assumption that all physical masses seek
the centre of the universe, which is hopelessly inadequate for the explanation
of known physical and chemical phenomena.
Even if there are reward mechanisms that explain some motives and preferences,
there is much they cannot explain. For example, if someone really enjoys doing
mathematical research only because doing it produces some reward (whether
chemical or psychological) then in principle he or she should be just as willing
to get the reward by doing something much easier than struggling with
mathematical problems - e.g. drinking some potion, or stepping into an
otherwise harmless machine. But nobody who really
enjoys doing mathematics
would swap the activity for one of its side-effects. Of course, there may be
such people for whom doing mathematics is not its own reward, but they still
want to do it, e.g. because they enjoy the admiration it produces in others, or
because it is a necessary condition for achieving some other goal, such as
getting into university, or a useful aid to attracting an intelligent mate.
I believe I first encountered that refutation of popular reward-based theories
of motivation in Ryle[8
]. There are similar objections to widely used
utility-based mathematical theories of decision making, such as theories based
on "payoff matrices" (criticised in my 1978 book [12
I suggest that evolution frequently made use of architecture-based
motive-generation mechanisms (ABM) that, unlike reward-based
allow new motives to be triggered by perceived opportunities or situations
without the individual having any ulterior
reward-motive. It suffices that
who had such mechanisms acquired useful knowledge that later
brought benefits that the individuals could not have predicted, or even thought
about. As a result they succeeded in life and produced offspring who were likely
to share the same motive-generators. So the ABM mechanisms trigger motives that
have been beneficial in one's ancestors, not motives whose achievements produce
some special pleasure-juice. These can be thought of as genetically programmed
reflexes comparable to genetically programmed physical protective
and feeding reflexes. (For more on the ABM theory see
How evolution is able to produce such changes is one of the many questions
addressed in the Turing-inspired Meta-Morphogenesis
2 CAN STUDY OF MINDS MIRROR STUDY OF MATTER?
Across all the variation in forms of life, are there any common principles? One
seems to be the ability to acquire and use information for purposes of control,
such as generating options for consideration, selecting options, working out
consequences of various options. There is also information-based control of
chemical and physical processes of reproduction, development and growth.
Information is used during interaction with inert physical features of the
environment and also during interaction with predators, prey, offspring and
other conspecifics - which often requires information about information, e.g.
using information about what something else wants or can perceive.
In many cases passive individuals are acted on by the environment, for instance
when seeds are dispersed by wind, or when seasonal or daily changes in
temperature or availability of light, air or water currents, or supply of
nutrients or dangers are out of the control of individuals and they can at most
resist, react to avoid or react to make use of (e.g. consume) contents of their
In more complex cases information about threats, opportunities, resources, and
obstacles can be acquired and put to use, either immediately or at a later time
when a need arises. Coping with threats from other organisms, may involve
purely physical avoidance or escape actions. But in some cases it requires
other-directed meta-cognition: inferring intentions, knowledge, reasoning
processes and choosing means of avoidance or escape accordingly.
So information of many kinds plays many different roles in living things, unlike
non living but interacting physical objects and processes, such as weather
features, geological features shaped by and shaping one another, including
tectonic motion, earthquakes, volcanoes, floods, tornadoes, other weather
patterns, seasonal changes caused by motion around the sun and tides caused by
rotation of the moon around the earth.
This notion of information is much older than the notion developed by Shannon
around 1948. Since Shannon, information is often discussed as if it were
primarily the content of messages, with senders and receivers. But sending and
receiving messages would be pointless if the message contents had no other use
than to be transmitted, received and stored.
The fundamental fact about information that is often ignored in discussions of
the nature of information is that it can be used in controlling what happens.
This can take many forms: in some cases information directly triggers a
response, e.g. a defensive reflex such as blinking or rapid withdrawal, or an
opportunity taken such as motion towards water, food, shelter or a mate, or use
of a body part to acquire or consume something edible. In other cases the
information can be stored for future use, e.g. information about where a
resource or a danger is located, or information encoded in a genome that is used
at a particular stage during during reproductive processes to control aspects of
development and growth of tissues and parts of new individuals. Other forms of
information in a genome can generate and control behaviours of organisms once
they are functional, e.g. controlling breathing, pumping of blood, digestion,
begging for food, following parents, and triggering new motives to be
acted on later (ABM).
of information could be ignored in Shannon's famous work on
] because he was working for a company (Bell Telephone
Company) providing information services, for whom the main problems were
reliable transmission and storage, not use of information. The use was the
concern of their customers.
In contrast, the novelist Jane Austen was very much concerned with ways in which
her characters could not only transmit, acquire and store information, but also
use it, as discussed in
She frequently referred to information, not in Shannon's sense, but in the much
older sense in which information is used, not merely transmitted or stored.
3 TWO MAIN VARIETIES OF INFORMATION USE
There are two fundamentally different roles that useful information can have, as
Hume noted in distinguishing "is" (information about what is the case) from
"ought" (information about what to do) in his argument that "ought" can
never be derived from "is". This distinction was elaborated by Elizabeth
] as a difference in "direction of fit".
For an information user there are some information contents (which we can
crudely label "desire-like information") whose role in an organism determines
what should be done to the world to make the world match the information
content, and other information contents (which we can crudely label
"belief-like information") whose role is such that the information should be
altered when there is a mismatch with how the world is. Both sorts are required
for intelligent, or purposeful action, or deliberate inaction.
Moreover, in both cases there is always the possibility of an organism not being
in a position to determine whether the information item does or does not match
reality - e.g. whether some belief is true, or whether some desire or goal has
been satisfied. This can generate a new second order
information state, which specifies that an information gap needs to be bridged.
That new state can trigger action to fill the information gap - which may
either be done relatively simply (e.g. by looking, sniffing, touching, etc.) or
by engaging in some sort of information-gathering research, e.g. to find out
whether food is available nearby and if so where it is.
As these examples show, there can be many processes by which combinations of
belief-like and desire-like information states can generate actions to determine
whether the belief-like states actually fit the world or actions to make the
world fit the desire-like states. A rich theory of varieties of cognition and
affect can be based on the implications of this distinction as pointed out (by
Sloman, Chrisley and Scheutz) in
] (building on ideas developed by
The time scales involved and the scale of action required to bridge these
information gaps (finding out whether X is true, or making X true) can vary
enormously according to the complexity of the information specification and the
amount of effort involved in checking whether X fits the facts or making X fit
Things get even more
complex if individuals can have a large and changing collection
of desire-like and belief-like information states, unlike a simple thermostat
which has a target temperature and a sensor providing information about the gap
between the current and target states, along with a mechanism for turning on or
turning off a heat generator or heat remover. It is often assumed that all
desire-like information states are concerned with achievement or maximisation of
some measurable reward or utility, but life is far too complex for that:
organisms have many different needs at different stages of development and at
different times and places, often needs that coexist and conflict, e.g. a need
to approach a source of food when energy stores are low and a need to avoid
detection by a dangerous predator or rival. The assumption that these needs can
be compared on a common scale are as misguided as the assumption that
strength of materials and fuel energy of materials can be compared on a common
Many discontinuities in physical forms, behavioural capabilities,
environments, types of information acquired, types of use of information
and mechanisms for information-processing are still waiting to be discovered.
As organisms became more complex with more complex collections of biological
needs and capabilities (crudely indicated in Figure 1
the information processing requirements, including both processing of
information about what is the case (belief-like information) and information
about what should be done (desire-like information) became increasingly complex,
involving not only immediate choices between different possible movements, but
comparisons involving various time scales and various locations in which actions
can be performed.
As a result, evolution produced not only huge variations in physical forms and
physical behavioural capabilities, but also huge variations in types of
information acquired and used and variations in mechanisms for acquiring storing
and using information - leading to further problems of control of those
mechanisms - e.g. whether to think about where to get the next meal or how to
avoid the approaching predator, or where to find a mate, or what to do to
improve one's information processing abilities or physical abilities of various
In the case of humans, this led to a vocabulary that referred to varieties of
information state (mental state) and processes in which such states change,
in addition to a vocabulary referring to varieties of physical state and
However, in the case of the physical sciences the "ordinary" vocabulary was
found to be in need of fundamental expansion to cover states, processes and
mechanisms that were previously unknown but provided vastly superior
understanding of the physical world than our ancestors had, especially during
the last few centuries.
In contrast the sciences of mind are still, to a large extent, like the ancient
alchemist science, in a state that is groping towards adequate explanatory
concepts and mechanisms. I do not believe that current theories are any more
than a pale shadow of the theories required for deep characterisations and
explanations of mental phenomena, both in humans, in other animals and in future
AI has begun to change this, during the last half century or so, but we still
have a long way to go, both in understanding and in solving the problems.
Current proposals for information processing architectures and mechanisms are
still grossly inadequate in comparison with the complexity of the phenomena to
be explained. However, there are separate strands of progress in various
subfields, such as vision, language, planning, finding formal mathematical
proofs and various aspects of motor control. Completeness and integration seem
to be a long way off. A very useful survey of recent attempts to explain
affective phenomena in humans, or human like machines can be found
In my presentation I'll offer some conjectures, and evidence, relating to
required forms of explanation, including required information processing
architectures for explaining minds of various kinds, how they develop, and how
4 VARIATIONS IN EPIGENETIC TRAJECTORIES
The description given so far is very abstract and allows significantly different
instantiations in different species, addressing different sorts of functionality
and different types of design, e.g. of physical forms, behaviours, control
mechanisms, reproductive mechanisms, etc. In particular at one extreme the
reproductive process may produce individuals whose genome exercises a standard
pattern of control during development, leading to "adults" with only minor
At another extreme, instead of the process of development from one stage to
another being fixed in the genome, it can be created during development through
the use of two or more levels of design in the genome, allowing different
environments to cause different choices in going from the initial design to the
adult form so that at intermediate stages not only are there different
developmental trajectories due to different environmental parameters, there are
also selections among the intermediate level patterns to be instantiated. For
example, for the same species, in one environment development may include much
learning concerned with protection from freezing, whereas in another environment
individuals may vary more in the ways they seek water during dry seasons, where
the differences in adults come partly from the influence of the environment in
selecting genetically available patterns to instantiate during development of
individuals. E.g. one group may learn and pass on information about where the
main water holes are, and in another group individuals may learn and pass on
information about which plants are good sources of water (with nutrients).
All of these things may happen automatically because of patterns and
meta-patterns picked up by earlier generations and instantiated in cascades
But it seems that evolution has found ways of providing even richer
developmental variation, by allowing the information gathered by young
individuals not merely to select and use pre-stored design patterns, but to
create new patterns by assembling fragments of information during early
development and using newer, more abstract processes to construct new abstract
patterns, partly shaped by the environment, but with the power to be used across
variations in that environment.
This was called "Representational Re-description" by Karmiloff-Smith in
]. The best known example of this is the way in which
children develop (rather than learn) new languages through cooperation with
conspecifics, illustrated most dramatically by Nicaraguan deaf children who
produced a new sign language because their sign language teachers had had
deprived childhoods because they had not learnt sign languages early
Only such a mechanism with cascading alternations between data-collection and
abstraction formation (by instantiating higher level previously evolved
abstractions, not by forming statistical generalisations) could account for both
the diversity of human languages and the power of each one, all supported by a
common genome interacting with widely varying developmental environments.
I agree with Karmiloff-Smith that this process is not
restricted to language development, but occurs throughout childhood (and beyond)
in connection with many aspects of development of information processing.
An early version of this idea, crudely depicted in Figure 2
was presented in [4
], though there are many details still
to be developed.
Figure 2: The varieties of developmental trajectory proposed
by Chappell & Sloman.
Later processes can be triggered by delayed genome products interacting with
information acquired at earlier stages.
(Chris Miall helped with the original diagram.)
This is very different from a form of learning or development that uses a
for repeatedly finding patterns at different levels of
abstraction, e.g. using statistical generalisations.
Instead, on this model, the genome encodes increasingly abstract and powerful
creative mechanisms developed at different stages of evolution, that are
"awakened" (a notion also used by Kant[6
in individuals only when
their time is ready, so that they can build on what has already been learned or
created in a manner that is tailored to the current environment.
5 CHANGING DEVELOPMENTAL TRAJECTORIES
As living things become more complex, increasingly varied types of information
are required for increasingly varied uses. The processes of reproduction
normally produce new individuals that have seriously under-developed
physical structures and behavioural competences. Self-development requires
physical materials, but it also requires information about what to do with the
materials, including disassembling and reassembling chemical structures at a
microscopic level and using the products to assemble larger body parts, while
constantly providing new materials, removing waste products and consuming
energy. Some energy is stored and some is used in assembly and other processes.
The earliest organisms can acquire and use information about (i.e. sense) only
internal states and processes and the immediate external environment, e.g.
pressure, temperature, and presence of chemicals in the surrounding soup, with
all uses of information taking the form of immediate local reactions, e.g.
allowing a molecule through a membrane.
Some of the changes in types of information
, types of use of
and types of biological mechanism for processing information
have repeatedly altered the processes of evolutionary morphogenesis that produce
such changes: a positive feedback process. A familiar example is the influence
of mate selection on evolution in intelligent organisms, since mate selection is
itself dependent on previous evolution of new cognitive mechanisms. This is a
process with multiple feedback loops between new designs and new requirements
(niches), as suggested in [15
]. Compare also the author's
presentation at the Computing and Philosophy symposium at this conference.
As Figure 1
suggests, evolution constantly produces new organisms that
may or may not be larger than predecessors, but are more complex both in the
types of physical action they can produce and also the types of information and
types of information-processing required for selection and control of such
These ideas, and those in [7
] suggest that one of the effects of
biological evolution was fairly recent production of extremely, but not totally,
abstract construction kits that come into play at different stages in
development, that produce much more rapid changes in variety and complexity of
information processing across generations than ever before. This idea is fairly
familiar as regards the role of a common genetic inheritance in enabling hugely
varied languages to be developed by humans in different cultures. This pattern
can be generalised to other aspects of development, as suggested in Figure
. (There are loose connections with Chomsky's ideas on
evolution and development of language. I don't think he ever realised that human
language evolution and development must be a special case of something deeper
and more general.)
There is still much work to be done regarding the space of possible information
processing architectures capable of supporting diverse kinds of variety among
humans and other animals. I suggest that within a century or two our ideas about
how human minds work, and the requirements for modelling them in intelligent
machines, will have changed at least as much as our ideas about physics and
chemistry have changed since the time of Galileo. Some suggestions, regarding
mechanisms and architectures can be found in
] (compare [24
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Expanded version of summary in the Symposium proceedings
Some annotated extracts are available
File translated from
On 15 Jan 2018, 21:25.