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Agency in the Physical World
An International Request for Proposals

Theme and Example Questions

The foundational question targeted by this RFP is: What is “agency” and how do parts of the physical world attain it?

For working purposes we will define an “agent” as a system that can be described as having “ends” or “goals” and an ability to “act on the world” in order to further those goals. An agent will often be considered a single locus of such action and as making “decisions” amongst possible futures or outcomes. The behavior of a system containing an agent is better, or more easily, or more efficiently, understood by taking account of the agent’s goals.

For this RFP we solicit proposals tackling three basic questions, each with several sub-questions.

  • How do agents arise and function in the physical world?
    • What are the simplest agents? Can we “design” an explicitly-understood agent built from basic physical constituents?
    • How do we identify agents? Is there a way to look at a physical system and decide whether part of it is or isn’t an agent?
    • How are agents possible in theory in which the state (or statistical description) of a physical system evolves deterministically? That is, how does the deterministic evolution end up correlated with the “goals” of an agent?
    • Agents can apparently affect/influence the “future” but not the “past.” How is this related to other “arrows of time”?
    • Does agential behavior “emerge” from a more “fundamental” description, and is this emergence in a strong or weak sense? Or are agents (perhaps along with observers) to be considered prior to the world they describe and affect?
  • How are agents and agency used in, and related to, the understanding of physical systems?
    • Just as observers are often excised from the systems that they observe, many physics arguments assume that agents exist that supply causes that arise from “outside” the system. In what cases is this assumption problematic?
    • Are there germane differences in the capabilities that agents have, when they are included in descriptions of phenomena?
    • Is agency binary or on a continuum? If a continuum, how can “amounts” be compared or even quantified? Is there a hierarchy?
    • Why does the physical world appear (at least) to be “safe” for agency, avoiding causal paradoxes and constraints on free choice of experimental settings? Or is it rather that we have assumed these, and required our physical laws to conform?
  • What are the (inter)relationships between agency, intelligence, and consciousness?
    • Agency and intelligence:
      • What is intelligence, construed as broadly as we have construed agency?
      • Is intelligence a prerequisite for agency? What is added to intelligence to make agency?
      • Can we separate intelligence (as observing, learning, optimizing) from agency (acting, and perhaps formulating goals?)
    • Agency and consciousness:
      • Of the various things meant by “consciousness,” which are tied to agency and which may be separated from it?
      • Is some level of self-modeling or self-awareness necessary for agency?
      • Are all agents conscious (experience qualia) at some level? Or can we have agents without any sense of what it is “like” to be that agent?
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