Artificial social agents in a world of conscious beings

I forgot to mention in the update posted earlier today that fellow PAICSer, Steve Torrance, will also be a keynote speaker at the 2nd Joint UAE Symposium on Social Robotics.  Here are his title and abstract.logo

Artificial social agents in a world of conscious beings.

Steve Torrance


It is an important fact about each of us that we are conscious beings, and that the others we interact with in our social world are also conscious beings. Yet we are appear to be on the edge of a revolution in new social relationships – interactions and intimacies with a variety of non-conscious artificial social agents (ASAs) – both virtual and physical. Granted, we often behave, in the company of such ASAs as though they are conscious, and as though they are social beings. But in essence we still think of them, at least in our more reflective moments, as “tools” or “systems” – smart, and getting smarter, but lacking phenomenal awareness or real emotion.

In my talk I will discuss ways in which reflection on consciousness – both natural and (would-be) artificial – impacts on our intimate social relationships with robots. And I will propose some implications for human responsibilities in developing these technologies.

I will focus on two questions: (1) What would it take for an ASA to be conscious in a way that “matters”? (2) Can we talk of genuine social relationships or interactions with agents that have no consciousness?

On question (1), I will look at debates in the fields of machine consciousness and machine ethics, in order to examine the range of possible positions that may be taken. I will suggest that there is a close relation between thinking of a being as having a conscious phenomenology, and adopting a range of ethical attitudes towards that being. I will also discuss an important debate between those who take a “social-relational” approach to phenomenological and ethical attributions, and those who take an “objectivist” approach. I will offer ways to resolve that debate. This will help provide guidance, I hope, to those who are developing the technologies for smarter ASAs, which possibly may have stronger claims to be taken as conscious. On (2), I will suggest that, even for ASAs that are acknowledged not to be conscious, it is possible that there could be a range of ethical roles that they could come to occupy, in a way that would justify our talking of “artificial social agents” in a rich sense, one that would imply that they had both genuine ethico-social responsibilities and ethico-social entitlements.

The spread of ASAs – whether or not genuinely conscious, social or ethical – will impose heavy responsibilities upon technologists, and those they work with, to guide the social impacts of such agents in acceptable directions, as such agents increasingly inter-operate with us and with our lives. I will thus conclude by pointing to some issues of urgent social concern that are raised by the likely proliferation of ASAs in the coming years and decades.

Radical Sensorimotor Enactivism- A Rapproachment of Cognitive and E-Approaches to Conscious Perception (via Predictive Processing)

The next E-Intentionality meeting will be April 15th in Pevensey 2A2 from 12:00-12:50. The speaker will be Adrian Downey, on the topic: “Radical Sensorimotor Enactivism- A Rapproachment of Cognitive and E-Approaches to Conscious Perception (via Predictive Processing)”. Abstract:

Where conscious perception is concerned, enactive and ecological approaches (E-approaches) are considered to be dichotomous with cognitivism. I argue that my own theory of conscious perception, which I label Radical Sensorimotor Enactivism (RSE), has the conceptual and empirical resources to combine these traditionally opposed views into a unified framework for the study of conscious perception. In this paper I explain how, and why, the cognitivist theory of Predictive Processing (PP) plays an essential role in this unification. Although PP is often taken to provide an overall conceptual framework for the study of mind, I argue that RSE (not PP) provides such a framework, whilst noting that PP forms an important sub-set of the RSE approach.

RSE is an anti-representational version of the sensorimotor enactive theory of perceptual consciousness. Sensorimotor enactivism takes organisms to come into direct perceptual contact with the environment when they possess sensorimotor knowledge. They become conscious of these perceptual states when the organism attends to them, because attention is taken to be both necessary and sufficient for consciousness. I argue that attention should be construed adverbially [Mole, 2011]. Adverbial theories of attention are generally thought to cohere with empirical theories of attention known as ‘biased competition’. I explain that RSE fits best with the ‘biased affordance competition’ framework [Anderson, 2014] because this framework (unlike ‘biased competition’) does not require representation. Having provided a conceptual clarification of attention which does not require representation, we thus arrive at RSE.

PP explains perception as constituted by expectancies as to how sensory stimulation will be modified with movement, and these expectancies are taken to be brain-based. It thus matches exactly the description of sensorimotor knowledge, and so should be taken to provide an operationalisation of it [Seth, 2014]. Furthermore, PP can be used to explain attention (and so, consciousness) because PP is compatible with Anderson’s framework [Clark, 2015], and it is mathematically compatible with competition theories [Spratling, 2008]. Therefore, PP can be used to study and explain the brain’s role in conscious perception on the RSE framework. PP does not, however, on its own explain consciousness, because RSE takes brain, body, and environment to be constitutive of conscious perception.

The biggest benefit of endorsing RSE is that it combines the key aspects of both ecological and cognitivist approaches to conscious perception. E-approaches are generally considered to provide good phenomenological accounts of conscious perception which respect the fact that conscious organisms are embodied and embedded in a world. They are, however, thought to provide only descriptive (as opposed to mechanistic) explanations of consciousness, and ones which ignore the undoubtedly key role played by the brain. Cognitivist theories are thought to provide such explanations, but they do so at the expense of phenomenological adequacy, and they largely ignore embodiment and embeddedness. In combining both approaches, RSE avails of the positives of both, and so provides a promising overall conceptual framework for the study of conscious perception.

Audio (.mp3, 6.6MB, discussion only)

Upcoming dates:

  • April 15: Pevensey 2A2 (Adrian Downey)
  • April 29: Pevensey 2A2 (Simon Bowes TBC)