Sussex Robot Opera on Sky News

On Monday Kit Bradshaw of Sky News Swipe interviewed some of us involved with the recent robot operas at the University of Sussex (see

The report is due to air this weekend on Sky News at the following times (UK):

  • Friday: 2130
  • Saturday: 1030, 1430 & 1630
  • Sunday: 1130, 1430 & 1630

(Subject to cancellation if there are breaking news stories or other big events).

You will also be able to view it from Friday evening on the Swipe YouTube channel:

I hope one particular bit didn’t get left on the cutting room floor.  When Kit asked the robot “How did it feel to sing in a robot opera?”, the robot replied “Hmm.  Well I’m sure it was wonderful for the other performers and the audience, but not for me.  I’m not conscious, so nothing feels like anything for me.  In fact, I don’t even understand the words I am saying right now!”

Descartes, Conceivability, and Mirroring Arguments

Yesterday, as part of a panel on machine consciousness, I saw Jack Copeland deliver a razor-sharp talk based on a paper that he published last year with Douglas Campbell and Zhuo-Ran Deng, entitled “The Inconceivable Popularity of Conceivability Arguments“.  To give you an idea of what the paper is about, I reproduce the abstract here:

Famous examples of conceivability arguments include: (i) Descartes’ argument for mind-body dualism; (ii) Kripke’s ‘modal argument’ against psychophysical identity theory; (iii) Chalmers’ ‘zombie argument’ against materialism; and (iv) modal versions of the ontological argument for theism. In this paper we show that for any such conceivability argument, C, there is a corresponding ‘mirror argument’, M. M is deductively valid and has a conclusion that contradicts C’s conclusion. Hence a proponent of C—henceforth, a ‘conceivabilist’—can be warranted in holding that C’s premises are conjointly true only if she can find fault with one of M’s premises. But M’s premises—of which there are just two—are modeled on a pair of C’s premises. The same reasoning that supports the latter supports the former. For this reason a conceivabilist can repudiate M’s premises only on pain of severely undermining C’s premises. We conclude on this basis that all conceivability arguments, including each of (i)—(iv), are fallacious.

It’s a great paper, but I’m not sure the mirroring move against Descartes works, at least not as it is expressed in the paper.  Although the text I quote below is from the paper, I composed this objection while listening to (and recalling) the talk.  I apologise if the paper itself, which I have not read carefully to the end, blocks or anticipates the move I make here (please let me know if it does).

First, the paper defines CEP as the claim that conceivability entails possibility:
(CEP) ⬦cψ→⬦ψ
Descartes then is quoted:
“I know that everything which I clearly and distinctly understand is capable of being created by God so as to correspond exactly with my understanding of it. Hence the fact that I can clearly and distinctly understand one thing apart from another is enough to make me certain that the two things are distinct, since they are capable of being separated, at least by God… [O]n the one hand I have a clear and distinct idea of myself, in so far as I am simply a thinking, non-extended thing; and on the other hand I have a distinct idea of a body, in so far as this is simply an extended, non-thinking thing. And accordingly, it is certain that I am really distinct from my body, and can exist without it.”(Cottingham, Stoothoff, & Murdoch, 1629, p. 54)
Then it is claimed that Descartes uses CEP:
“Setting φ, ψ, and μ as follows:
φ: Mind=Body
ψ: MindBody
μ: (MindBody),
we get:
D5. ¬(Mind=Body)
Here Descartes uses a (theistic) version of CEP to infer that it is possible for mind and body to be distinct. From this he infers they are actually distinct. Why does he think he can make this move from mere possibility to actuality? Presumably because he is assuming D3, or something like it, as a tacit premise (Robinson, 2012).”
But that reasoning is questionable.  Surely none of D1-4 are equivalent to CEP.  So what the authors must mean is that one of D1-4 (i.e., D2) relies on CEP.  But in the quoted passage, Descartes does not appeal to (or argue for) CEP.  Rather, he argues for a more restricted claim, one that more closely resembles D2 in structure, in that it infers specifically the possibility of distinctness from the conceivability of distinctness.  That is, rather than CEP, it seems to me that Descartes argues for, and uses, CDEPD (Conceivability of Distinctness Entails Possibility of Distinctness) :
(CDEPD) ⬦c(φψ) (φψ)
It is prima facie possible to hold CDEPD without holding CEP.  Further, there are arguments (such as the one Descartes puts forward in the quoted passage), that support CDEPD that do not prima facie support CEP.  That is, one can accept what Descartes says in the quoted passage, but, it seems, reject any attempt at an analogous (dare I say “mirroring”?) argument:
Hence the fact that I can clearly and distinctly understand one thing as being the same as another is enough to make me certain that the two things are the same, since they are capable of being ?, at least by God.
What could we put in place of the question mark to yield a proposition that is true?  To yield a proposition that is implied by what Descartes says in Meditations or elsewhere?  To yield a proposition that is required for Descartes’s conceivability argument to proceed?
There seems to be an asymmetry here between the conceivability of difference and the conceivability of sameness that allows Descartes to get by with CDEPD, rather than having to employ CEP.
Why does this matter?  It matters because the mirroring argument the authors make against Descartes effectively says:  “Descartes helped himself to CEP, so we can do the same.  Only instead of applying the CEP to a proposition about the conceivability of differences, we will apply it to a proposition about the conceivability of sameness.”  If what I have said above is right, then it is possible that Descartes was not helping himself to CEP in general, but to a more restricted claim about propositions involving distinctness, CDEDP.  Thus a mirroring argument would not be able to help itself to CEP, and thus would not be able to derive the required, contrary conclusion that way.  Further, there is no way to derive such a contrary conclusion using CDEDP instead.  So the mirroring argument against Descartes’s conceivability argument fails.
I have not yet checked to see if there are similar moves that Kripke and Chalmers can make to “break the mirror” in their respective cases.

(Another) joint paper with Aaron Sloman published

Screenshot 2017-06-13 16.25.17The proceedings of EUCognition 2016 in Vienna, co-edited by myself, Vincent Müller, Yulia Sandamirskaya and Markus Vincze, have just been published online (free access):  

In it is a joint paper by Aaron Sloman and myself, entitled “Architectural Requirements for Consciousness“.  Here is the abstract:

This paper develops, in sections I-III, the virtual machine architecture approach to explaining certain features of consciousness first proposed in [1] and elaborated in [2], in which particular qualitative aspects of experiences (qualia) are proposed to be particular kinds of properties of components of virtual machine states of a cognitive architecture. Specifically, they are those properties of components of virtual machine states of an agent that make that agent prone to believe the kinds of things that are typically believed to be true of qualia (e.g., that they are ineffable, immediate, intrinsic, and private). Section IV aims to make it intelligible how the requirements identified in sections II and III could be realised in a grounded, sensorimotor, cognitive robotic architecture.

Roles for Morphology in Computation



From Pfeifer, Iida and Lungarella (2014)

Tomorrow I’m giving an invited talk in Gothenburg at the Symposium on Morphological Computing and Cognitive Agency, as part of the The International Society for Information Studies Summit 2017 (entitled — deep breath — “DIGITALISATION FOR A SUSTAINABLE SOCIETY: Embodied, Embedded, Networked, Empowered through Information, Computation & Cognition!”).  Here’s my title and abstract:

Roles for Morphology in Computation

The morphological aspects of a system are the shape, geometry, placement and compliance properties of that system. On the rather permissive construal of computation as transformations of information, a correspondingly permissive notion of morphological computation can be defined: cases of information transformation performed by the morphological aspects of a system. This raises the question of what morphological computation might look like under different, less inclusive accounts of computation, such as the view that computation is essentially semantic. I investigate the possibilities for morphological computation under a particular version of the semantic view. First, I make a distinction between two kinds of role a given aspect might play in computations that a system performs: foreground role and background role. The foreground role of a computational system includes such things as rules, state, algorithm, program, bits, data, etc. But these can only function as foreground by virtue of other, background aspects of the same system: the aspects that enable the foreground to be brought forth, made stable/reidentifiable, and to have semantically coherent causal effect. I propose that this foreground/background distinction cross-cuts the morphological/non-morphological distinction. Specifically, morphological aspects of a system may play either role.

The Symposium will be chaired by Rob Lowe, and Gordana Dodig Crnkovic, and the other speakers include Christian Balkenius, Lorenzo Magnani, Yulia Sandamirskaya, Jordi Vallverdú, and John Spencer (and maybe Tom Ziemke and Marcin Schroeder?).

I’m also giving an invited talk the next day (Tuesday) as part of a plenary panel entitled: “What Would It Take For A Machine To Have Non-Reductive Consciousness?”  My talk is entitled “Computation and the Fate of Qualia”.  The other speakers are Piotr Bołtuć (moderator), Jack Copeland, Igor Aleksander, and Keith W. Miller.

Should be a fantastic few days — a shame I can’t stay for the full meeting, but I have to be back at Sussex in time for the Robot Opera Mini-Symposium on Thursday!