Andy Clark


Professor of Philosophy and Chair In Logic And Metaphysics at The University Of Edinburgh In Scotland, Director Of The Cognitive Science Program At Indiana University In Bloomington, Indiana, One of the Founding Members oftThe CONTACT Collaborative Research Project

Author Quotes

A proper question to press, however, is this: since no other species on the planet builds as varied, complex and open-ended designer environments as we do (the claim, after all, is that this is why we are special), what is it that allowed this process to get off the ground in our species in such a spectacular way? And isn't that, whatever it is, what really matters? Otherwise put, even if it's the designer environments that make us so intelligent, isn't it some deep biological difference that lets us build-discover-use them in the first place? This is a serious, important and largely unresolved question. Clearly, there must be some (but perhaps quite small) biological difference that lets us get our collective foot in the designer environment door ? what can it be? One possible story locates the difference in a biological innovation for widespread cortical plasticity combined perhaps with the extended period of protected learning called "childhood". Thus "neural constructivists" such as Steve Quartz and Terry Sejnowski depicts neural (especially cortical) growth as experience ? dependent, and as involving the actual construction of new neural circuitry (synapses, axons, dendrites) rather than just the fine-tuning of circuitry whose basic shape and form is already determined. One upshot is that the learning device itself changes as a result of organism-environmental interactions ? learning does not just alter the knowledge base for a fixed computational engine, it alters the internal computational architecture itself. The linguistic and technological environments in which human brains grow and develop are thus poised to function as the anchor points around which such flexible neural resources adapt and fit.

It's always helpful to look outside of the web for your inspiration, to places where you might not at first expect to find a solution. The world is a collage of inspiration, from newspapers, magazine publishing, and advertising to product design, architecture and the fine arts.

Whatever matters about mind must depend solely on what goes on inside the biological skin-bag, inside the ancient fortress of skin and skull.

According to EXTENDED, the actual local operations that realize certain forms of human cognizing include inextricable tangles of feedback, feed-forward, and feed-around loops: loops that promiscuously criss-cross the boundaries of brain, body, and world. The local mechanisms of mind, if this is correct, are not all in the head. Cognition leaks out into body and world.

Language works its magic not (or not solely) by means of translation into appropriate expressions of ?Mentalese? or the ?Language of Thought? but by something more like a coordination dynamics in which words and structured linguistic encodings act to stabilize and discipline (or ?anchor?) intrinsically fluid and context-sensitive modes of thought and reason.

Why shouldn?t [Searle?s] Chinese Room, or Block?s Chinese population, actually have real, and qualitatively rich, mental states? Our discomfort, I suggest, flows not from the bedrock idea that the right formal structure could guarantee the presence of such states so much as from a nagging suspicion that the formal structures that will be implemented will prove too shallow.

All this adds interesting complexity to those evolutionary psychological accounts which emphasize our ancestral environments. For we must now take into account an exceptionally plastic evolutionary overlay which yields a constantly moving target, an extended cognitive architecture whose constancy lies mainly in its continual openness to change. Even granting that the biological innovations which got this ball rolling may have consisted only in some small tweaks to an ancestral repertoire, the upshot of this subtle alteration is a sudden, massive leap in cognitive-architectural space. For our cognitive machinery is now intrinsically geared to transformation, technology-based expansion, and a snowballing and self-perpetuating process of computational and representational growth. The machinery of contemporary human reason thus turns out to be rooted in a biologically incremental progression while simultaneously existing on the far side of a precipitous cliff in cognitive-architectural space.

Much of what matters about human-level intelligence is hidden not in the brain, nor in the technology, but in the complex and iterated interactions and collaborations between the two.

Without language, we might be much more akin to discrete Cartesian ?inner? minds, in which high-level cognition relies largely on internal resources. But the advent of language has allowed us to spread this burden into the world. Language, thus construed, is not a mirror of our inner states but a complement to them. It serves as a tool whose role is to extend cognition in ways that on-board devices cannot. Indeed, it may be that the intellectual explosion in recent evolutionary time is due as much to this linguistically-enabled extension of cognition as to any independent development in our inner cognitive resources.

As our worlds become smarter, and get to know us better and better, it becomes harder and harder to say where the world stops and the person begins.

My body is an electronic virgin. I incorporate no silicon chips, no retinal or cochlear implants, no pacemaker. I don't even wear glasses (though I do wear clothes). But I am slowly becoming more and more a Cyborg. So are you. Pretty soon, and still without the need for wires, surgery or bodily alterations, we shall be kin to the Terminator, to Eve 8, to Cable... just fill in your favorite fictional Cyborg. Perhaps we already are. For we shall be Cyborgs not in the merely superficial sense of combining flesh and wires, but in the more profound sense of being human-technology symbionts: thinking and reasoning systems whose minds and selves are spread across biological brain and non-biological circuitry? I believe, to be clear, that it is above all a scientific truth, a reflection of some deep and important facts about (a whiff of paradox here?) our special, and distinctively human nature. And certainly, I don't think this tendency towards cognitive hybridization is a modern development. Rather, it is an aspect of our humanity which is as basic and ancient as the use of speech, and which has been extending its territory ever since.

As users of words and texts, we command an especially cheap and potent means of off-loading data and ideas from the biological brain onto a variety of external media.

One useful way to understand the cognitive role of many of our self-created cognitive technologies is as affording complementary operations to those that come most naturally to biological brains. Thus consider the connectionist image of biological brains as pattern-completing engines. Such devices are adept at linking patterns of current sensory input with associated information: you hear the first bars of the song and recall the rest, you see the rat's tail and conjure the image of the rat.

Brains, it has recently been argued, are essentially prediction machines. They are bundles of cells that support perception and action by constantly attempting to match incoming sensory inputs with top-down expectations or predictions. This is achieved using a hierarchical generative model that aims to minimize prediction error within a bidirectional cascade of cortical processing. Such accounts offer a unifying model of perception and action, illuminate the functional role of attention, and may neatly capture the special contribution of cortical processing to adaptive success. This target article critically examines this ?hierarchical prediction machine? approach, concluding that it offers the best clue yet to the shape of a unified science of mind and action.

Our imaginative (intrinsic) capacities do indeed support ?synthetic transformations? in which components retain their shapes but are recombined into new wholes, but lack the ?analytic? capacity to decompose an imagined shape into wholly new components. This is because the latter type of case (but not the former) requires us to first undo an existing shape interpretation.

Cognitive technologies are best understood as deep and integral parts of the problem-solving systems that constitute human intelligence. They are best seen as proper parts of the computational apparatus that constitutes our minds. If we do not always see this, or if the idea seems outlandish or absurd, that is because we are in the grip of a simple prejudice: the prejudice that whatever matters about mind must depend solely on what goes on inside the biological skin-bag, inside the ancient fortress of skin and skull. But this fortress has been built to be breached. It is a structure whose virtue lies in part in it's capacity to delicately gear its activities to collaborate with external, non-biological sources of order so as (originally) to better solve the problems of survival and reproduction. Thus consider a brief but representative example. Take the familiar process of writing an article for a newspaper, an academic paper, a chapter in a book. Confronted, at last, with the shiny finished product the good materialist may find herself congratulating her brain on its good work. But this is misleading. It is misleading not simply because (as usual) most of the ideas were not our own anyway, but because the structure, form and flow of the final product often depends heavily on the complex ways the brain cooperates with, and depends on, various special features of the media and technologies with which it continually interacts.

Precise, single-digit movements actually require more [brain] activity than some multidigit whole hand actions (such as grasping an object).

Computational engines of that broad class prove extremely good at tasks such as sensorimotor coordination, face recognition, voice recognition, etc. But they are not well-suited to deductive logic, planning, and the typical tasks of sequential reason. They are, roughly speaking, "Good at Frisbee, Bad at Logic:" a cognitive profile that is at once familiar and alien. Familiar, because human intelligence clearly has something of that flavor. Yet alien, because we repeatedly transcend these limits, planning family vacations, running economies, solving complex sequential problems, etc., etc. A powerful hypothesis, which I first encountered in work by David Rumelhart, Paul Smolensky, John McClelland and Geoffrey Hinton, is that we transcend these limits, in large part, by combining the internal operation of a connectionist, pattern-completing device with a variety of external operations and tools which serve to reduce various complex, sequential problems to an ordered set of simpler pattern-completing operations of the kind our brains are most comfortable with.

Quotes are empty and meaningless. It is how they are used that gives them purpose, how the person repeating those words gives them meaning. Good quotes do not offer the author immortality. Instead, they give the author limitless rebirths on the tongues of the masses.

Consider this famous exchange between the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman and the historian Charles Weiner. Weiner, encountering with a historian?s glee a batch of Feynman?s original notes and sketches, remarked that the materials represented ?a record of [Feynman?s] day-to-day work.? But instead of simply acknowledging this historic value, Feynman reacted with unexpected sharpness: ?I actually did the work on the paper,? he said. ?Well,? Weiner said, ?the work was done in your head, but the record of it is still here.? ?No, it?s not a record, not really. It?s working. You have to work on paper and this is the paper, Okay?? (from Gleick, 1993, 409) Feynman?s suggestion is, at the very best, that the loop into the external medium was integral to his intellectual activity (the ?working?) itself. But I would like to go further and suggest that Feynman was actually thinking on the paper. The loop through pen and paper is part of the physical machinery responsible for the shape of the flow of thoughts and ideas that we take, nonetheless, to be distinctively those of Richard Feynman. It reliably and robustly provides a functionality which, were it provided by goings-on in the head alone, we would have no hesitation in designating as part of the cognitive circuitry. Such considerations of parity, once we put our bio-prejudices aside, reveal the outward loop as a functional part of an extended cognitive machine. Such body- and world-involving cycles are best understood, or so I shall argue, as quite literally extending the machinery of mind out into the world?as building extended cognitive circuits that are themselves the minimal material bases for important aspects of human thought and reason. Such cycles supersize the mind.

The conjecture, then, is that one large jump or discontinuity in human cognitive evolution involves the distinctive way human brains repeatedly create and exploit various species of cognitive technology so as to expand and reshape the space of human reason. We, more than any other creature on the planet, deploy non-biological elements (instruments, media, notations) to complement (but not, typically, to replicate) our basic biological modes of processing, creating extended cognitive systems whose computational and problem-solving profiles are quite different from those of the naked brain. Human brains maintain an intricate cognitive dance with an ecologically novel, and immensely empowering, environment: the world of symbols, media, formalisms, texts, speech, instruments and culture. The computational circuitry of human cognition thus flows both within and beyond the head. Such a point is not new, and has been well-made by a variety of theorists working in many different traditions. I believe, however, that the idea of human cognition as subsisting in a hybrid, extended architecture (one which includes aspects of the brain and of the cognitive technological envelope in which our brains develop and operate) remains vastly underappreciated. We simply cannot hope to understand what is special and distinctively powerful about human thought and reason by merely paying lip-service to the importance of this web of surrounding technologies. Instead, we need to work together towards a much more detailed understanding of how our brains actively dovetail their problem-solving activities to a variety of non-biological resources, and of how the larger systems thus created operate, change, interact and evolve. In addition it may soon be quite important (morally, socially, and politically) to publicly loosen the bonds between the very ideas of minds and persons and the image of the bounds, properties, locations and limitations of the basic biological organism .

Explicit ?thinking about thinking? appears to be a good candidate for a distinctively human capacity and one that might be directly dependent upon language for its very existence. To formulate a thought in words (or on paper) is to create an object available to ourselves and to others, and, as an object, it is the kind of thing we can have thoughts about. . . . The process of linguistic formulation thus creates the stable attendable structure to which subsequent thinkings can attach.

The neural representation of worldly events may be less like a passive data structure and more like a recipe for action. The driving force, once again, is computational economy. If the goal of perception and reason is to guide action (and it surely is, evolutionarily speaking), it will often be simpler to represent the world in ways rather closely geared to the kinds of actions we want to perform.

Human thought and reason is born out of looping interactions between material brains, material bodies, and complex cultural and technological environments. We create these supportive environments, but they create us too. We exist, as the thinking things we are, only thanks to a baffling dance of brains, bodies, and cultural and technological scaffolding.

To unravel the workings of these embodied, embedded, and sometimes extended minds requires an unusual mix of neuroscience, computational, dynamical, and information-theoretic understandings, ?brute? physiology, ecological sensitivity, and attention to the stacked designer cocoons in which we grow, work, think, and act. This may seem a daunting prospect, but there is cause for optimism. In learning, development, and evolution, trade-offs among neural control, bodily morphology, action, and the canny use of environmental resources and opportunities are regularly and reliably achieved.

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Professor of Philosophy and Chair In Logic And Metaphysics at The University Of Edinburgh In Scotland, Director Of The Cognitive Science Program At Indiana University In Bloomington, Indiana, One of the Founding Members oftThe CONTACT Collaborative Research Project