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The Great Debate: Unnoticed Connections

Information-processing in Robotics, Biology and Philosophy

Sponsored by
School of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Northumbria

Aaron Sloman, University of Birmingham, author Computer Revolution in Philosophy: Philosophy, Science and Models of Mind

7 8.30pm, Tuesday, 21st October 2008

Northumbria University Lecture Theatre CCE1 002
Newcastle Business School
University of Northumbria

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What can biologists, roboticists and philosophers learn from one another?

Aaron Sloman
There are deep connections between ideas developed in computer science, biology and philosophy that have not been widely understood. A central feature common to biological organisms is the acquisition, manipulation, and use of information. Since the development of electronic computers, computer science has made major advances in the study of forms of information-processing. However we have still understood only a small subset of the information processing problems and solutions produced by biological evolution. Despite major advances in tools and techniques for investigating biological systems, we still lack good theories about what they are doing, how they do it, and whether it is possible to replicate or model those chemical information-processing functions in digital electronic computing systems.

One of the major advances in computer science and software engineering has been the separation of virtual machines from physical implementation, allowing many different kinds of functionality to share the same physical basis. It is very likely that evolution also "discovered" the importance of that separation. Understanding what organisms do and how they do it may require us to shift the main focus of research on biological information-processing away from physical/chemical details towards investigation of the virtual machines used. That will require new ways of thinking about brains and other biological mechanisms.

Acknowledging the importance of virtual machines that process information and perform control functions has profound implications for philosophical investigations of the nature of causality, for it implies that events in virtual machines, can cause physical effects. Moreover, if engineers often find it useful to design and analyse complex systems in terms of the virtual machines involved rather than the specific physical mechanisms implementing them, the same could be true of biological and artificial systems that need to understand their own operations. From this viewpoint biological self-aware systems could to be construed as self-monitoring, self-modifying virtual machines that run on, but are different from, physical information-processing substrates. This has profound implications for several branches of philosophy, including, philosophy of mind, epistemology, philosophy of science and mathematics, and philosophical studies of free will. Questions about the nature of free-will are transformed in the context of virtual machines that are able to grow themselves ...

Come along, hear the arguments and have your say

Speaker: Aaron Sloman, University of Birmingham
Chair: Aidan Burton, Newcastle University



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