What is Embodied Cognition? Can Machines have Minds?

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The term embodied cognition is the name for the idea that a mind can only be created by interacting in real-time with a real/physical environment. This term is often used in discussions about whether machines and AIs can have minds or consciousness if they don’t possess embodied cognition.

There is a lot of theory available to read about embodied cognition, which you can find here (wiki). This article will just try to explain the basics in an easy-to-understand format and go over some related aspects that I think are very interesting to think about.

What is Embodied Interaction?
What is Consciousness? Can it ever be scientifically explained?

The Basics of the Theory

According to Andy Clark, a well-known contemporary philosopher, the human mind and our mental abilities have been developed through our brain’s intimate connection with the physical world we live in (our bodies and the environment). And following this line of reasoning, many thinkers claim that an intelligent machine or computational system cannot have consciousness as we do, just by the fact that they are not embodied cognition.

In this argument, the real world provides the constraints and feedback that make the functions of our minds possible; such as consciousness, perception, and intelligence. It can be hypothesized that our abilities, such as consciousness, have developed in order for us to be able to make decisions in real-time. If we did not have that need, perhaps we would not need consciousness either. If for example consciousness was evolved through adaptation in evolution, then it’s very possible that it was evolved for a reason, and not just by chance.

And regarding machines and AIs for example, if they do not exist in the physical world, and do not need to make real-time decisions that affect the environment, do they need to “develop” consciousness? Or perhaps the question is; do we have a reason to aim to create consciousness in machines (if we now could)?

Embodied Cognition vs Computationalism

One important implication of the theory of embodied cognition is that it challenges computationalism.

The idea of computationalism is that our mind is like a computer and that everything that we are can exist in the shapes of 1’s and 0’s. This would mean that if we can figure out the computational grounds of the human mind, then we could create that in machines as well. And those machines would also then possess the consciousness and abilities as humans do. Computationalism does not embrace the idea of embodied cognition being needed for consciousness or intelligent minds.

Extended Mind Thesis & Embodiment

One very interesting related theory is the extended mind thesis, which was introduced by Andy Clark and David Chalmers in The Extended Mind, 1998.

What is the extended mind thesis?

It’s the theory that the mind doesn’t just exist in the brain, but extends to the physical world. This means that objects in the world can be part of a cognitive process (such as our minds) and function as an extension of our minds. For example diaries or a mobile phone. It concerns objects that store information, such as our brains do with memory. It also includes the theory that an individual’s identity can be determined by their environment.

For me, this is an extremely interesting idea since I’ve always used diaries to keep memories and technical gadgets to help me in my day-to-day activities. I’m not sure though that I’ve ever experienced my diaries as a part of my “self”, but I have felt my smartwatches as parts of myself. I’ve felt that something has been missing when I’ve taken off my watch and almost feel like the functionalities of being able to tell the time (clock) and my activity, as natural parts of my left arm now. This is from the daily use of smartwatches (like Fitbit and Apple Watch), for years.

A part of me ponders over if perhaps it’s too early to tell if gadgets such as smartwatches affect our cognition deeply, because it may be something that will only show after decades of integrated daily use.

And further, I also associate this theory with transhumanism and cyborgs. If we in the future learn to integrate technology into our physical bodies, with functionalities, then how would those implants affect our self-perception and identity? In my thoughts, it feels natural that such implants would become a part of our identity of ourselves, and also possibly include the functionalities of such implants.

Regardless, this is a fascinating theory to think about!

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