Computer simulations as opaque thought experiments, evolutionary robotics as a tool of scientific inquiry
The use of computer models is pervasive in science. Novel forms of simulation models (evolutionary simulations, individual-based models, embodied agent simulations, etc.) have become increasingly acceptable in biology and cognitive science. They bring new power for exploring complex systems and slippery ideas such as emergence, autonomy and autopoiesis. They also bring new epistemological problems. In particular, what is the role of a computer model when it cannot produce in principle any information that was not programmed into it? What can the study of an artificial system say about the natural counterpart? When are realism and validation desirable features of a model? Can simple (minimal) models be useful for guiding complex empirical research (say on human cognition)?
These questions have worried me and my colleagues Seth Bullock and Jason Noble during the time when we were finishing our DPhils at Sussex. Together we have investigated several aspects of these problems from a pragmatic, neo-Kuhnian perspective. From this viewpoint, simulation models do not need to be realistic to be useful, but they do need to conform to certain design and methodological constraints so that they may be put to scientific use.
Similar ideas apply in particular to the use of Evolutionary Robotics as a tool of scientific inquiry. The use of such models (using real or simulated robots) is not straightforward that of a traditional model. Instead, they function as epistemic tools that help us question assumptions, prove concepts and develop intuitions. The conclusions derived from their good use can be as rigorous as a mathematical theorem. Inman Harvey has coined the very descriptive phrase “Philosophy of mind with a screwdriver” to describe this use of evolutionary robotics.
Di Paolo, E. A., Noble, J. & Bullock, S. (2000). Simulation models as opaque thought experiments. Artificial Life VII: The Seventh International Conference on the Simulation and Synthesis of Living Systems, Reed College, Portland, Oregon, USA, 1-6 August, 2000.
Harvey, I., Di Paolo, E. A., Tuci, E., Wood, R., Quinn, M., (2005). Evolutionary robotics: A new scientific tool for studying cognition. Artificial Life, 11(1/2), pp. 79 – 98.
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Di Paolo, E. A., (2000). A field in search of maturity. Kuenstilche Intelligenz, 1/00, pp. 41 – 42.