Content/Internalism Space and Interfacism

Posted in artificial intelligence, interfaces, philosophy on December 29th, 2013 by Samuel Kenyon

Whenever a machine or moist machine (aka animal) comes up with a solution, an observer could imagine an infinite number of alternate solutions. The observed machine, depending on its programming, may have considered many possible options before choosing one. In any case, we could imagine a 2D or 3D (or really any dimensionality) mathematical space in which to place all these different solutions.

Fake example of a design/solution or analysis space.

Fake example of a design/solution or analysis space.

Of course, you have to be careful what the axes are. What if you chose the wrong variables? We could come up with dimensions for any kind of analysis or synthesis. I want to introduce here one such space, which illuminates particular spectra, offering a particular view into the design space of cognitive architectures. In some sense, it’s still a solution space—as a thinking system I am exploring the possible solutions for making artificial thinking systems.

Keep in mind that this landscape is only one view, just one scenic route through explanationville—or is it designville?

This photo could bring to mind several relevant concepts: design vs. analysis, representations, and the illusion of reality in reflections

This photo could bring to mind several relevant concepts: design vs. analysis, representations, and the illusion of reality in reflections

Content/Internalism Space

In the following diagram I propose that these two cognitive spectra are of interest and possibly related:

  1. Content vs. no content
  2. Internal cognition vs. external cognition
Content vs. Internalism Space

Content vs. Internalism Space

What the Hell is “Content”?

I don’t have a very good definition of this, and so far I haven’t seen one from anybody else despite its common usage by philosophers. One aspect (or perhaps container) of content is representation. That is a bit easier to comprehend—an informational structure can represent something in the real world (or represent some other informational structure). It may seem obvious that humans have representations in their minds, but that is debatable. Some, such as Hutto and Myin, suggest that human minds are primarily without content, and only a few faculties require content [1]:

Some cognitive activity—plausibly, that associated with and dependent upon the mastery of language—surely involves content. Still, if our analyses are right, a surprising amount of mental life (including some canonical forms of it, such as human visual experience) may well be inherently contentless.

And the primary type of content that Hutto and Myin try to expunge is representational. It’s worth mentioning that representation can be divorced from the Computational Theory of Mind. Nothing here goes against the mind as computation. If you could pause a brain, you could point to various informational states, which in turn compose structures, and say that those structures are “representations.” But they don’t necessarily mean anything—they don’t have to be semantic. This leads to aboutness…

Another aspect of content is aboutness. “Aboutness” is an easier to use word in place of the philosophical term intentionality; “intentionality” has a different everyday meaning which can cause confusion [2]. We think about stuff. We talk about stuff. External signs are about stuff. And we all seem to have a lot of overlapping agreements on what stuff means, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to communicate at all and there wouldn’t be any sense of logic in the world.

So does this mean we all have similar representations? Does a stop sign represent something? Is that representation stored in all of our brains, thus we all know what a stop sign means? And what things would we not understand without in-brain representations? For instance, consider some sensory stimulus that sets off a chain reaction resulting in a particular behavior that most humans share. Is that internal representation, or are dynamic interfaces, however complicated, something different?

Internal vs. External

This is about the prevailing cognitive science assumption that anything of interest cognitively is neural. Indeed, most would go even further than neural and limit themselves just to the brain. The brain is just one part of your nervous system. Although human brain evolution and development seem to be the cause of our supposed mental advantages over other animals, we should be careful not to discard all the supporting and/or interacting structures. If we take the magic glass elevator a bit down and sideways, we might want to consider our insect cousins in which the brain is not the only critical part of the nervous system—and insects can still operate in some fashion for days or weeks without their brains.

I’m not saying here that the brain focus is wrong; I’m merely saying that one can have a spectrum. For instance, a particular ALife experiment could be analyzed from the point of view of anywhere on that axis. Or you could design an ALife situation on any point, e.g. just by focusing on the internal controller that is analogous to a brain (internalist) vs. focusing on the entire system of brain-body-environment (externalist).


Since there has to be an “ism” for everything, there is of course representationalism. Another philosophical stance that is sometimes pitted against representationalism is direct realism.

Direct realism seems to be kind of sloppy. It could simply mean that at some levels of abstraction in the mind, real world objects are experienced as whole objects, not as the various mental middlemen which were involved in constructing the representation of that object. E.g., we don’t see a chair by consciously and painstakingly sorting through various raw sensory data chunks—we have an evolved and developed system for becoming aware of a chair as an object “directly.”

Or, perhaps, in an enactivism or dynamic system sense, one could say that regardless of information processing or representations, real world objects are the primary cause of information patterns that propagate through the system which lead to experience of the object.

My middle ground between direct and indirect realism would, perhaps, be called “interfacism,” which is a form of representationalism that is enactivism-compatible. Perhaps most enactivists already think that way, although I don’t recall seeing any enactivist descriptions of mental representation in terms of interfaces.

What I definitely do not concede is any form of cognitive architecture which requires veridical, aka truthful, accounts anywhere in the mind. What I do propose is that any concept of an organism can be seen as interactions. The organism itself is a bunch of cellular interactions, and that blob interacts with other blobs and elements of the environment, some of which may be tools or cognitively-extensive information processors. Whenever you try to look at a particular interaction, there is an interface. Zooming into that interface reveals yet more interfaces, and so on. To say anything is direct, in that sense, is false.

For example, an interfacism description of a human becoming aware of a glass of beer would acknowledge that the human as an animate object and the beer glass as an inanimate object are arbitrary abstractions or slices of reality. At that level in that slice, we can say there is an interface between the human and the glass of beer, presumably involving the mind attributed to the human.

Human-beer interface

Human-beer interface

But, if we zoom into the interface, there will be more interfaces.

Zooming in to the human-beer interface reveals more interfaces.

Zooming in to the human-beer interface reveals more interfaces.

And semantics will probably require links to other things, for instance we don’t just see what is in front of us—we can be primed or biased, or hallucinate, or dream, etc. How sensory data comes to mean anything at all almost certainly involves evolutionary history and ontogeny (life history) and current brain states at least as much as any immediate perceptual trigger. And our perception is just a contraption of evolution, so we aren’t really seeing true reality ever—it’s a nonsensical concept.

I think interfacism is possibly a good alternate way to look at how cognition, be it wide or narrow—at any given cognitive granularity, there is no direct connection between two “nodes” or objects. There is just an interface, and anything “direct” is at a level below, recursively. It’s also compatible with non-truthful representations and/or perception.

Some might say that representations have to be truthful or that there are representations, for instance in animal behaviors, because there is some truthful mapping between the real world and the behavior. With an interface point of view we can throw truth out the window. Mappings can be arbitrary. There may be consistent and/or accurate mappings. But they don’t necessarily have to be truthful in any sense aside from that.

[1]D. D. Hutto and E. Myin, Radicalizing enactivism: basic minds without content. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2013.
[2]D. C. Dennett, Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking. W.W. Norton & Company, 2013.

Image credits
Figures by Samuel H. Kenyon.
Photo by Dimosthenis Kapa

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What is a Room?

Posted in artificial intelligence, interfaces on February 5th, 2013 by Samuel Kenyon

We all share the concept of rooms. I suspect it’s common and abstract enough to span cultures and millennia of history.

a room

a room

The aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity. (One is unable to notice something because it is always before one’s eyes.)

Rooms are so common that at first it seems silly to even talk about rooms as an abstract concept. Yet, the simple obvious things are often important. Simple human things are often also quite difficult for computers and artificial intelligence.

Is there a such thing as a room? It seems to be a category. Categories like this are probably the results of our minds’ development and learning.

Read more »

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Enactive Interface Perception and Affordances

Posted in artificial intelligence, interfaces on November 14th, 2011 by Samuel Kenyon

I just published version 2 of my Enactive Interface Perception essay over on Science 2.0.

It’s now called “Enactive Interface Perception and Affordances”.

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Embedded Systems Expo 2011: A Few Notes

Posted in artificial intelligence, interfaces, robotics on September 28th, 2011 by Samuel Kenyon

Today I was at the 2011 Embedded Systems Conference / DesignCon exposition. I typically attend technology expos in Boston, keeping an eye out for devices and software that I might be able to use in my job. But of course, I’m also interested in what embedded systems technology will enable in the near future.
There wasn’t anything mind-blowingly cool, but I will mention a few things that may be of interest to my readers.

First, IBM had an instantiation of Watson there, which was housed in a large black monolith that would be menacing if not for the colorful touch screen. Yes, Watson can run on a computer that IBM actually sells, which is the IBM Power 750 server.

IBM Watson

I started playing Jeopardy against this Watson, but lost interest when I found that there wasn’t any voice recognition (to get a question right after winning the buzz, the software would tell you the answer, at which time you would honorably press a button to confirm or not).

I also experienced NLT’s new (samples became available in June 2011) 3D display. This is an LCD module which does not require glasses to see the 3D, and although I only stared at it for less than a minute, it did work and I did not have to be in a very specific location relative to the screen. I’d like to try an actual application that made use of mixed 3D/2D. That is part of what’s supposedly unique about this 3D LCD, is that it can mix 2D and 3D and it’s all at the same resolution. This is due to their HDDP (horizontally double-density pixel) tech. NLT also claims their LCD reduces cross talk (when your brain’s visual system mixes right and left eye information).


Speaking of display tech, I also played with Uneo’s Force Imaging Array System and 3D-Touch Module. The force array was not combined with a screen, and I’m not sure exactly what the killer app(s) would be—they claim it could be used for some unspecified medical, automotive, industrial apps. But I tried it and it works, and they told me that they would have one with even higher resolution soon (the current one has 2500 elements).

The 3D-Touch module was embedded in a tablet, and that also worked pretty well. The example app was of course a paint program, where you can see how your finger’s pressure affects the brush width as you paint. This doesn’t use the array—instead it uses sensors at the corners of the screen. That means you should be able to add it to any existing screen—it doesn’t have to be layered into the display stack. I certainly could imagine this being useful, at least occasionally, in various apps on my phone. Uneo has demoed it with Android devices so far but plans on getting support from the other mobile OSes.

Uneo 3D Touch example (photo from Uneo)

Microsoft was there. Nothing amazingly new…they had the Xbox 360 Wireless Speed Wheel, which ships in October as far as I know. It seems like such an obvious controller that I was surprised that it didn’t come out until 2011.

Xbox 360 Wireless Speed Wheel (stock photo)

They had a Kinect there, of course, and that’s always fun to play with—I spent about 10 minutes chopping flying fruit with my sword-hands. For those that are excited by this prospect, Fruit Ninja is available as of last month. For those living under rocks, Kinect is a super massively best selling controller for the XBox 360 which tracks the movement of your body as input for games. When it came out, people immediately started hacking it and using the sensor for robot applications. Microsoft didn’t like that at first, but now they’ve given in and offer a legit SDK (Software Development Kit) for it.

Fruit Ninja Kinect (stock screenshot)

I was pleased to see that one attendee teleconned in with a VGo telepresence robot. Note this photo is of the back of robot.

VGo robot in use at ESC 2011

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