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Dizhechko Semyonovich: on 4/7/17 at 4:44am UTC, wrote Dear Sirs! Physics of Descartes, which existed prior to the physics of...

George Kirakosyan: on 4/4/17 at 9:05am UTC, wrote Hi dear Joscha. I have opened your article because of its meaningful...

Don Limuti: on 3/29/17 at 0:53am UTC, wrote Hi Joscha, A comprehensive essay on computation and agency. I do favor...

Joscha Bach: on 3/22/17 at 18:14pm UTC, wrote Dear Larissa, thank you so much for investing your time and attention to...

Larissa Albantakis : on 3/22/17 at 15:01pm UTC, wrote Dear Joscha, I enjoyed reading your essay a lot. Definitely gave me much...

Miles Mutka: on 3/19/17 at 15:41pm UTC, wrote The essay makes its points very clearly, although I disagree with most of...

Joscha Bach: on 3/19/17 at 5:43am UTC, wrote Conrad, thank you for your kind comment! Your remark ultimately seems to...

Joscha Bach: on 3/19/17 at 5:32am UTC, wrote Dear Willy, nation states are certainly agents, and those that invented...


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A meditating mathematician is developing a theory of conscious experience to help understand the boundary between the quantum and classical world.

January 29, 2023

CATEGORY: Wandering Towards a Goal Essay Contest (2016-2017) [back]
TOPIC: Minimal goal-directed systems by Joscha Bach [refresh]
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Author Joscha Bach wrote on Mar. 7, 2017 @ 16:36 GMT
Essay Abstract

How is it possible for a physical system to have goals? In the way we commonly use the notion, goals have qualities that are different from attractor states that characterize the dynamics of a system’s progression. Goals are part of the characterization of at least minimally intentional systems. Thus, our question cannot be extricated from: What is the minimal descriptive frame that allows us to describe a system as representing, choosing, committing to and pursuing goals? And when we can answer that: what processes and dynamics are necessary and sufficient for the genesis of such a system?

Author Bio

Joscha Bach is a cognitive scientist and AI researcher, specializing in cognitive architectures, Artificial General Intelligence, and models of motivation and decision making. He obtained his PhD from the Institute of Cognitive Science in Osnabrück, worked at Humboldt University of Berlin and the MIT Media Lab, and is currently affiliated with Harvard's Program of Evolutionary Dynamics in Cambridge, MA.

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Ines Samengo wrote on Mar. 7, 2017 @ 20:04 GMT
Bravo! I think you made an excellent job in pinning down the computational components required for agency and goal-directed behavior. In particular, you seem to have answered the question that you posed at the beginning: "What are the minimal requirements to construct a system that is capable of causal modeling, assigning preferences, and making decisions?" I buy all your arguments in this respect. I would like to ask you, however, if you believe that you have also provided arguments of why all these processes are so ubiquitously instantiated in the world we live in (if you believe they are. Why should observers naturally tend to develop encoding functions, prediction functions, preference functions, and decision functions. Or should they? I understood that these functions are required for goals to exist at all, but why do they so often develop naturally? If you believe to have explained this, could you just summarize it in a few keywords, so I can go back and spot them? If not, is it because you believe we still do not know the answer to that question, or because you preferred not to focus in that point in this limited-word essay?

Thanks for the good material! ines.

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Author Joscha Bach replied on Mar. 9, 2017 @ 21:44 GMT
Thank you for the friendly commentary, Ines!

I think that the ability of modeling the world and the needs of the system that attempts to maintain stability in that world are driven by the utility of developing that model, and enabled by evolution.

In other words, if you have the resources for adaptive regulation, via information processing that is general enough for universal computation, you will on average outperform all similar systems if you develop a model that allows for goal-directed action.

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Luis Patiño-Cuadrado wrote on Mar. 8, 2017 @ 09:09 GMT
Dear Joscha:

From the abstract of your essay, I gather that you credit computational processes for goal-oriented behavior -- including life and consciousness. Could you please explain to me briefly in terms of your essay why I feel fear, love, joy sadness? Have insights? Why I know I exist? Why I am not you?

Of course, I probably should read your whole essay, but you sound like a very bright person and would love to read just a brief explanation first.

Thank you. I would refer you to my essay, but it has not been posted yet.

All the best,


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Author Joscha Bach replied on Mar. 9, 2017 @ 21:57 GMT
Dear Luis, I think that affective states are configurations of cognition, given by modulators, such as arousal, valence, attentional focus, and our ability to deal with and assess the situation (coping potential, uncertainty). The modulators adapt us to the requirements of the situation at hand, so our cognition works differently when we are rewarded, aroused, focused etc. We perceive these differences as differences in action tendencies, and the "color" of our cognitive content as emotions.

Insights result from settling in a new model state for a given situation, i.e. from building a representation that lets you integrate and predict our observations better than before.

You don't know that you exist. What you perceive as "I" is a story that your brain tells itself, and that is created or re-created whenever you try to reflect on it. You are a fiction that your brain reinvents, usually many times in each minute.

If your self model gets dissociated from your short-term biography, body image, sense of perspective, and sense of agency, you may lose the feeling that you are different from any object in your mind, including me. This may happen in dreams, via meditation, or as a result of psychiatric disorder or the influence of drugs. You may lose the ability for self-differentiation before you lose the ability for self-identification. In this state, it may appear to you that you are "one with me" and every other object your self identifies with.

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sherman loran jenkins wrote on Mar. 8, 2017 @ 19:13 GMT

Any one interested in experiments with living agents, make friends with a slime mold. They are agents that have goals and the will to reach for them.

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Stefan Keppeler wrote on Mar. 9, 2017 @ 21:35 GMT
Dear Joscha,

I find it interesting how you argue that observers and other "causal systems implemented in a reversible substrate will have only a temporary existence" (within in the section "Reversible computational structures"). In the same section you also mention "ergodic systems". I think I understand what you write immediately before and after this point, but I fail to see how ergodicity enters the game. Could you expand on that?

Cheers, Stefan

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Author Joscha Bach replied on Mar. 10, 2017 @ 04:26 GMT
If you observe an organism for a period of time, each of the observed states has a nonzero probability of being observed again in the future. (This is admittedly not strictly true for the whole organism, because it may suffer injuries or form memories etc., but for large subsets of its functionality, it is a useful characterization.)

If a system revisits previous states, it must be either in a perfect loop, or it must perform irreversible state transitions.

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Stefan Keppeler replied on Mar. 10, 2017 @ 09:58 GMT
I see what you mean. Is it obvious that this is equivalent to some standard notion of ergodicity, see e.g. ergodicity or ergodic process?

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Anonymous replied on Mar. 13, 2017 @ 02:13 GMT
Dear Stefan, I think it is not, and you are right to point that out. I considered organismic regulation, for instance of body temperature, as a Markov process. If all states are recurrent and aperiodic, it is ergodic; once your states are transient, it usually means that the organism is in decay. I was unaware of the differences in understanding ergodicity in other contexts, such as dynamical systems and statistical mechanics, and I should have referenced and explained my thought more clearly. More importantly, even the Markov notion of ergodicity is not sufficient (or necessary) for the overall argument, and had no proper place here. Thank you for bringing that to my attention.

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Conrad Dale Johnson wrote on Mar. 11, 2017 @ 13:50 GMT
Joscha –

Excellent essay… this helps me think more clearly about several interesting issues. For example, your distinction at the beginning between mathematical, computational and computable is very helpful. I was also struck by your notion of fundamental physics as a causally closed layer of information processing, which can contain no information about the system that implements...

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Author Joscha Bach replied on Mar. 19, 2017 @ 05:43 GMT
Conrad, thank you for your kind comment!

Your remark ultimately seems to concern the "it from bit" debate. To me, it seems that information is much more elementary than the derived notions of "atomic and molecular physics" you mention. It is a bit unfortunate that we usually discuss information in the Shannon sense, i.e. as information about something, rather than in the computational sense, i.e. as atoms of state.

I tend to take a strong computationalist perspective, which embarrassingly requires the existence of a machine providing the necessary functionality for computing the universe. I don't understand how a "recursively self-sustaining process", as you seem to envision it, could pull the universe out of the swamp of non-existence all by itself, but I'd love to see it!

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Shaikh Raisuddin wrote on Mar. 13, 2017 @ 12:14 GMT
Joscha Bach,

Each word of a dictionary has its "physical correlate".

You need to rephrase definitions in terms of physicality.

For example, INTENTIONALITY is a state of matter caused by shortage or surplus of something physical. A balanced state of matter is unintentional.

A heterostatic system alone can acquire intentionality.

The fact "Physics is Behavioural Science of Matter", can help us correlate material properties with mental concepts.

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Joe Fisher wrote on Mar. 14, 2017 @ 16:23 GMT
Dear Dr. Joscha Bach,

Please excuse me for I have no intention of disparaging in any way any part of your essay.

I merely wish to point out that “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955) Physicist & Nobel Laureate.

Only nature could produce a reality so simple, a single cell amoeba could deal with it.

The real Universe must consist only of one unified visible infinite physical surface occurring in one infinite dimension, that am always illuminated by infinite non-surface light.

A more detailed explanation of natural reality can be found in my essay, SCORE ONE FOR SIMPLICITY. I do hope that you will read my essay and perhaps comment on its merit.

Joe Fisher, Realist

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Satyavarapu Naga Parameswara Gupta wrote on Mar. 16, 2017 @ 09:58 GMT
Nice essay Joscha Bach,

Your ideas and thinking are excellent for eg…

How is it possible for a physical system to have goals? In the way we commonly use the notion, goals have qualities that are different from attractor states that characterize the dynamics of a system’s progression.

I propose another answer for that direct...

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Willy K wrote on Mar. 19, 2017 @ 05:22 GMT
Dear Bach

Along with Alicea’s essay dealing with the Law of Requisite Variety, your essay on Conant’s Good Regulator Theorem seem tailor made for me to understand the functioning of those two crucial cybernetics principles. I believe the two laws are both essential for me to take my own essay further in its development. Thanks so much for putting it in the right perspective.

You go on to state, “The same is often even true for coordinated groups of agents, i.e. organization of agents can implement supervenient causal structures that realize all criteria of agency by themselves”. I suspect that the model that I have built for social systems (Constitutional nation state) may be an instance of what you are describing.

I give the highest rating to your essay since it is a scientifically rigorous write up, besides being so clearly relevant for my own effort. Please do let me know if my interpretation in the above paragraph is incorrect. Cheers!

Warmest Regards, Willy

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Author Joscha Bach replied on Mar. 19, 2017 @ 05:32 GMT
Dear Willy, nation states are certainly agents, and those that invented their constitutional codes clearly understood that laws are a part of a normative software that is animating a golem, made from individuals not unlike individuals are made from cells. I think you are clearly onto something!

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Miles Mutka wrote on Mar. 19, 2017 @ 15:41 GMT
The essay makes its points very clearly, although I disagree with most of it. The Abstract promises discussion of attractors, but I saw none in the text itself.

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Member Larissa Albantakis wrote on Mar. 22, 2017 @ 15:01 GMT
Dear Joscha,

I enjoyed reading your essay a lot. Definitely gave me much food for thought. Can I ask you something about the concept of reversible computers? Is it required that every micro process in the system is reversible, or only that the state of the computer as a whole is reversible? In other words can there be an AND logic gate in the computer as long as some other gates keep track of the state of the inputs to the AND gate, or is no AND operation allowed?

Best regards,


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Author Joscha Bach replied on Mar. 22, 2017 @ 18:14 GMT
Dear Larissa, thank you so much for investing your time and attention to read this!

You can implement an AND gate in a reversible system if you keep track of the history, i.e. for a single binary AND, you will have two garbage bits (one is not enough, because 0 has three possible predecessor states). For instance, in a Fredkin gate, for A&B, you get the garbage outputs !A&B and A (some "recycling" is usually possible later on).

If you want to implement your reversible computer in hardware to deal with the Landauer limit, the implementation will of course matter, but from a logical perspective, it is irrelevant whether you store an UNDO record separate from your AND gate or use some kind of Fredkin logic.

If we treat the universe as a reversible computation, we might be interested in identifying a minimal structure that can yield reversibility, such as a reversible cellular automaton rule. An interesting property of any deterministic finite cellular automaton is that must eventually enter a periodic state (even if the period is 1). Once we are in the loop, we can always find a reversible rule that completely describes the behavior of the automaton. Thus, if we leave a cellular automaton universe alone for long enough, it will become reversible, even if it did not start out this way! Of course, it is not clear that this has any similarity to our universe, especially since we don't know that our universe is periodic.

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Don Limuti wrote on Mar. 29, 2017 @ 00:53 GMT
Hi Joscha,

A comprehensive essay on computation and agency.

I do favor the computational method in that it can produce a program that can be observed and evaluated.

You have a statement that I question: "Mathematics is the realm of all possible specifications, computation is the realm of implementations." This makes mathematics the foundation of computation. My problem with accepting your thesis is that mathematics is axiomatic. Some have no problem with a point as being a dimensionless object. Some (like myself) find this nuts but useful. My feeling is that when mathematics is postulated as the foundation of reality, we enter a new realm that is interesting but is not reality. Any thoughts you have on this appreciated.

And I believe you are solving real problems that will enlighten the future. And computational methods and demonstrations are very useful.

Please visit my essay (and be as critical as you like....really).

Thanks for a very good essay,

Don Limuti

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George Kirakosyan wrote on Apr. 4, 2017 @ 09:05 GMT
Hi dear Joscha.

I have opened your article because of its meaningful title. It should be comprehensible to everybody to start study of subject from its possible simplest forms and properties. You have emphasized this important methodological point, which shows the serious approach to the theme. Meantime, it is possible to see in the contest many our advanced thinker-brothers, who immediately rushed to explain, let me say, - how these or other decisions arise in the brains of important leaders of our society! Unfortunately, I am not so enough specialist to say some useful for you remarks. I can say only that your essay seems corresponding to scientific approach, as there are definitions, criterion, as well description on the methodology. You have touched to observer’s important role that is the close to me dealt. You say; “Thus, a goal has complex prerequisites, it does not just entail the tendency of a system to increase the probability of an reaching a state!” I see here that you well realized whole complicity of the question. This, mainly, has pushed me to go a little bit side in my essay (I hope you will open it and you can say some words in my page.) I see yours work as properly written and meaningful - interesting that deserves to study and to a good support that I will do now!

Best wishes!

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Dizhechko Boris Semyonovich wrote on Apr. 7, 2017 @ 04:44 GMT
Dear Sirs!

Physics of Descartes, which existed prior to the physics of Newton returned as the New Cartesian Physic and promises to be a theory of everything. To tell you this good news I use spam.

New Cartesian Physic based on the identity of space and matter. It showed that the formula of mass-energy equivalence comes from the pressure of the Universe, the flow of force which on the corpuscle is equal to the product of Planck's constant to the speed of light.

New Cartesian Physic has great potential for understanding the world. To show it, I ventured to give "materialistic explanations of the paranormal and supernatural" is the title of my essay.

Visit my essay, you will find there the New Cartesian Physic and make a short entry: "I believe that space is a matter" I will answer you in return. Can put me 1.


Dizhechko Boris

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