Context: W. R. Ashby’s work on homeostasis as the basic mechanism underlying all kinds of physiological as well as cognitive functions has aroused renewed interest in cognitive science and related disciplines. Researchers have successfully incorporated some of Ashby’s technical results, such as ultrastability, into modern frameworks (e.g., CTRNN networks). Problem: The recovery of Ashby’s technical contributions has left in the background Ashby’s far more controversial non-technical views, according to which homeostatic adaptation to the environment governs all aspects of all forms of life. This thesis entails that life is fundamentally “heteronomous” and it is conceptually at odds with the autopoiesis framework adopted by Ashby’s recent defenders as well as with the primacy of autonomy in human life that most of the Western philosophical tradition upholds. The paper argues that the use of computer simulations focused on the more conceptual aspects of Ashby’s thought may help us recover, extend and consequently assess an overall view of life as heteronomy. Method: The paper discusses some computer simulations of Ashby’s original electro-mechanical device (the homeostat) that implement his techniques (double-feedback loops and random parameter-switching). Results: First simulation results show that even though Ashby’s claims about homeostatic adaptivity need to be slightly weakened, his overall results are confirmed, thereby suggesting that an extension to virtual robots engaged in minimal cognitive tasks may be successful. Implications: The paper shows that a fuller incorporation of Ashby’s original results into recent cognitive science research may trigger a philosophical and technical reevaluation of the traditional distinction between heteronomous and autonomous behavior. Constructivist content: The research outlined in the paper supports an extended constructionist perspective in which agency as autonomy plays a more limited role.
Franchi S. (2016) General homeostasis, passive life, and the challenge to autonomy. In: Müller V. C. (ed.) Fundamental issues of artificial intelligence. Springer, Cham: 285–300. https://cepa.info/5718
The paper argues that the conception of life as generalized homeostasis developed by W. R. Ashby in Design for a Brain and his other writings is orthogonal to the traditional distinction between autonomy and heteronomy that underlies much recent work in cellular biology, evolutionary robotics, ALife, and general AI. The distinction is well-entrenched in the Western philosophical canon but it fails to do justice to Ashby’s conception of life. We can assess the philosophical and technical viability of the general homeostasis thesis Ashby advocated, the paper argues, through the construction of virtual cognitive agents (i.e. simulated robots in a physically plausible environment) that replicate the architecture of Ashby’s original homeostat through a Ctrnn-like network architecture, whose outline implementation is then discussed.