Archive for the ‘Perception’ Category

According to a recent New York Times article, military pilots of unmanned Predator drones, who operate the drones from Las Vegas, over 7,500 miles away from where the drones are flying, experience more fatigue than actual pilots flying manned planes. The reason? Sensory isolation.

Since drone pilots operate remotely, they rely entirely upon cameras mounted on the planes to guide the planes through their environment. Unlike pilots who fly manned planes, who are embodied in the very situation that they’re operating within, drone pilots experience “significantly increased fatigue, emotional exhaustion and burnout”, according to the article. This overwhelmingly showcases the importance of taking into account the embodiment of perception and awareness.

Perhaps due to the predominance of a disembodied paradigm, these results may seem anti-intuitive. Shouldn’t the pilots who operate remotely, thousands of miles from harms way, have it easy? It turns out that reliable, healthy perception and cognition rely heavily upon sensory cues which can’t be abstracted from the conditions of lived, physical embodiment. Basically, it’s difficult to perceive the environment unless you’re actually in it.

That’s a powerful lesson. Understanding perception, or building a computer or robot which perceives, necessitates embodying the subject into the environment.

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Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961) was a French philosopher and phenomenologist. He continues to be credited as the most influential figure in the development of a philosophical understanding of the importance of the body and corporeality.

His most central work in this regard is The Phenomenology of Perception. Through a phenomenological examination of perception, Merleau-Ponty argued for the significance of the body in perception and conception, which was in opposition to Cartesian dualism– the view that there is a fundamental schism between the mind and body.

Merleau-Ponty instead posited that the body is entailed by perception rather than an object of it. Through this discovery, he breaks down the subject/object dichotomy and concludes that the traditional notion of the Cartesian “cogito” must be replaced by what he refers to as the “body-subject”.

His particular brand of phenomenology was influenced by the desire to refute what he viewed to be the two most misguided tendencies within Western philosophy: empiricism, the view that knowledge comes entirely from sense impressions, and idealism, the metaphysical view that the world is constructed from the mind alone. Thus, his work is fundamental in rearticulating the relationship of the mind– or subject, to the world– or to objects. Ultimately, he argued that knowledge must be constituted of practical, lived and active exposure to the world.

Merleau-Ponty was also a trained psychologist, having lectured extensively on child psychology, development and education. Unfortunately, his life was cut short by a sudden stroke at the early age of 53.

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Rodney Brooks

Rodney Brooks

Rodney Brooks is a Professor of Robotics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and he also the directs the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. Unquestionably, Brooks is the figurehead and principle leader of the embodied robotics movement.

Since his work was first published in 1986, Brooks has brought forth a new era in artificial intelligence. Instead of focusing on symbolic processing, which classical artificial intelligence was modeled on, he prioritized robotic architectures which were biologically-inspired. That meant focusing on sensorimotor and perceptual abilities– the capabilities an intelligent agent needs to interact successfully with the real world.

Brooks was also the first to point out that programming and embodying sensorimotor intelligence was far more challenging than programming basic symbolic reasoning skills. Thus, he argued that complex intelligence must ultimately be built out of those sensorimotor capabilities rather than from symbolic reasoning systems.

His classic article on this subject is titled Elephants Don’t Play Chess. His canonical books include the insightful Flesh and Machines, as well as Cambrian Intelligence. He is also a great popularizer of the subject, and has been featured in motion picture documentaries such as in Fast, Cheap and Out of Control.

Some of his new work is in developing low cost robots that will empower workers and evolve the world’s labor markets.

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Although it’s a segment within a discussion about political framing, in this video clip George Lakoff discusses how embodiment comes to frame our ideas and perception through conceptual metaphor.

Within, he discusses how every word, in every language, is defined relative to a frame.

He also theorizes about the embodied source of certain well studied conceptual metaphors: “More is UP” and “Affection is Warmth”, the latter of which is also discussed in a recent study which we reported on here.

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Donna Haraway

Donna Haraway

Donna Haraway is currently a professor of the History of Consciousness and Feminist Studies at the University of California at Santa Cruz. She began her career studying Zoology and Philosophy, and eventually earned her Ph.D. in Biology from Yale in 1972.

Haraway’s most central contribution to the study of embodiment comes at an intersection between her diverse scholarship in the history of philosophy, the science of biology and feminist epistemology. A critic of the traditional notion of objectivity as ‘a view from nowhere’, Haraway instead proposes that objectivity must be situated knowledge. In her own words, from Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective:

I am arguing for the view from a body, always a complex, contradictory, structuring, and structured body, versus the view from above, from nowhere, from simplicity.

Utilizing the metaphor of knowledge as vision, she argues that a nuanced understanding of vision and perception reveals that an object of sight (and likewise, an object of knowledge) cannot be conceptually or empirically removed from an embodied, structured and filtered context– from a situated point of view.

Her contributions to epistemology are paramount, but she is also acclaimed for her deconstructions of the masculinized metaphors and narratives which direct the science of primatology. She is also a major critic of essentialism, and is famous for her “Cyborg Manifesto”, wherein she utilizes the metaphor of the cyborg to fog traditional demarcations, dichotomies, conceptual divisions and social constructions regarding gender and race.

As a proponent of the power of technology to liberate, she is a constant contributor to cyberculture.

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In this recent NY Times article, we get asked: “What happened to all of those early promises of having cogent robots, fully or partially integrated into our society, helping us out with all of our daily tasks?” Where are our robot maids, like in The Jetsons? Robots to dramatically and obnoxiously warn us of impending dangers, such as in Lost in Space? Robot pets? It’s already just about 8 years after Stanley Kubrick’s ominous prediction of 2001, so where are they?

‘Artificial intelligence’ has become a radical misnomer with the focus more on the ‘artificial’ rather than the ‘intelligence’. Cutting edge roboticists at the MIT robotics laboratory have an astute answer. Quite simply, early models of artificial intelligence took it for granted what seem to us to be simple bodily tasks, motor functions and perceptive abilities. It turns out that those are actually the most difficult kinds of abilities to program.

If cognition is fundamentally embodied, then it’s no surprise that intelligence hasn’t emerged in robots. Before you can have real, versatile intelligence, you have to master simple motor tasks in non-structured environments. It turns out our ability to do things like reach and grab for objects or walk through a changing environment has more to do with higher cognition than anything else. And so far, we can’t even put together a robot with the same motor capabilities of a newborn; or a cockroach, for that matter.

On the bright side, there’s also no foreseeable danger of assassin terminators taking over the world, either.

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Over at Edge, a video interview and written transcript have been posted of Alva Noë discussing many of the philosophical problems concerning consciousness, and how a paradigm shift toward an embodied understanding of mind might help to resolve those problems.

Within it, Noë notes that most modern cognitivist research about consciousness and experience within neuroscience and classical cognitive science are actually just recycling many of the old problems of consciousness within a new framework. In other words, although the framework has changed, the same ways of understanding– the same paradigms– are still in place.

He uses the metaphor of a dancer to refocus instead on the importance of movement, action and the environment in the making of consciousness. He also ponders the mysteries of pictorial paradoxes about reference and meaning, and again discusses how an embodied approach offers answers.

Alva Noë is a professor of Philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley.

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