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How the Body Shapes the Way We Think

Prof. Dr. Rolf Pfeifer

HENN Akademie, March 6, 2008

Some phenomena have to be recreated in order to understand them. This includes intelligence – something that still sounds somewhat astonishing. The astonishment emanates above all from the fact that we have long attempted to reduce intelligence to the processing of information, in other words to conceive it purely in algorithmic terms. This approach of “cognition as computation”, to which the conventional theory of artificial intelligence is attached and which is to some extent still contested today, goes back to an old prejudice about the nature of the mind.

For approximately two decades, New Artificial Intelligence research has been opposing this rationalistic way of looking at things with growing success. For it, intelligence is not an abstract achievement but characterises the behaviour of organisms in their environment. At the centre is the idea of the embodiment of cognitive performance. Intelligence therefore, emerges from interactive processes of the sensomotor system and morphology or rather the material properties of the body with the respective environment.

What is being examined here is how natural or artificial organisms move, how they solve problems or find vital resources. The principles, on which intelligent behaviour is based, should be tested by constructing free-moving robots, in order to understand these principles.

This again and again results in surprising insights, because the “intelligent design” of moving bodies enables behaviour to be controlled locally by “morphological computation”. For example, when walking, the brain ensures the correct physical posture. The forward motion of the leg, however, is largely performed by gravity, as soon as the leg muscles relax and the leg acts as a pendulum. On the other hand, when putting the foot down, in order to cope with the impact, the muscles are required to be very tense. In other words, it is as if the brain “delegates” part of the functionality – the forward swing of the leg and absorption of the impact – at least partially, to the material (tissue) properties of the body. This motion behaviour is in turn represented centrally and therefore influences the categories and functionality of “brains”. Intelligence not only controls but also needs a body.

Since 1987 Prof. Dr. Rolf Pfeifer has been professor at the Institute for IT of the University of Zurich and director of the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. Previously he worked as a postdoctoral fellow in the USA at Carnegie-Mellon University and Yale University and also as visiting professor at the Free University of Brussels, the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and the Beijing Open Laboratory for Cognitive Science.

Rolf Pfeifer
Prof. Dr.