Embodied Intelligence

20111119-181205.jpgWhy is an octopus smarter than a snail? Same family, same squishy body. Yet one is entirely predictable, the other spookily individual. Is it ‘in’ their bodies?

Having reflected on the ’embodied intelligence’ in a strawberry last week, I read that some Roboticists are moving on from the clever brain/dumb body ‘central processor’ model. Powerful chip-sets and nuts and bolts are being pushed aside by inherently ‘clever’ squishy limbs and appendages better adapted to their task.

Why pick up a fragile glass with a big clunky metal hand, when a rubber bag filled with coffee grounds, attached to a vacuum pump, morphs perfectly to the job?

Embodied intelligence is an interesting thought. Millions of years of evolution mean my leg swings naturally forward and lands in front of the other when I walk. The brain has very little to do. The ‘intelligence’ is largely designed in. Aquinas would recognise this – for him our bodies, like our emotions, are a full part of our ‘reason’.

The matter arising is, are octopuses smart because they evolved a big brain – for the joy of contemplation, communication, complex waving and changing colour? Or does an eight legged body (actually two ‘arms’ and six ‘legs’) mean high intelligence ’emerges’ as a bigger brain develops in response to increasing bodily complexity?

It’s all a bit simpler for a snail – A to B at a foot per minute. Perhaps that’s why they’re a bit simple. The surest predictor of animal brain size is body size. I wonder whether complexity of motor skills and sensory apparatus isn’t a big driver too.

What does it mean for us? First our intelligence is ’embodied’ in quick fingers, rapid eyes and sharp ears. Perhaps also what it means, is we aren’t Cartesian ‘ghosts in machines’. We aren’t software and hardware. We are completely integrated ‘wetware’ – like an octopus, as much arms and legs as big brains.

So if we want to build smarter tools and helpers, and understand ourselves better, inspiration from nature – not Fritz Lang – is the answer.


20111113-150850.jpgI’ve discovered Philosophy Now via Kindle. And a find it is too. This month’s edition delves into the Philosophy of Mind which I studied twenty odd years ago. What’s new? Quite a lot. But, also, quite a lot is not.

Neuroscience is the new 200lb gorilla on the scene. Is philosophy, contemplation and introspection irrelevant when you have brain scanners and MRI? The argument cuts both ways. Reductionism says its a simple case of describing something complex. I used to agree, now I’m less sure.

Before cosmology we harboured intuitive, and often mystical, beliefs to explain sun, moon and stars. Then telescopes were invented and we moved on to facts and evidence. Aristotle imagined ‘biles and humours’ drove the body, until medicine discovered intricate circulatory and nervous systems. Reductionists say we’ll get over our belief in ‘consciousness’, ‘intentions’ and ‘ideas’ once the science advances enough to describe ‘brain states’ better.

The alternate thesis – much more where Aquinas, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche might land – is that describing a TV’s wiring misses what’s on screen. The ’emergent phenomenon’ is a living feeling being, living a unique life, intimately connected to other living feeling beings, all equally unique but interdependent with each other.

It comes down to complexity in the end. A computer or iPhone full of data apparently weighs fractionally more than an empty one. But it is only fractionally more. I read the entire ‘weight’ of data contained in the Internet could easily be stored in the mass of a strawberry. But the ‘knowledge’ exists in myriad computers, data centres and browsers interlinked with myriad minds.

In one way a strawberry already contains a nearly perfect dataset to describe humans. In its DNA it describes carbon-based life, an oxygen rich atmosphere, the rise of flowering plants – and who knows, maybe, some clues to cultivation. It is already bursting with data, just of a ‘natural’ flavour.

And this is the point for me. Let’s imagine we could load the entirety of human culture, knowledge and experience into a strawberry and fire it into space. Billions of years on, when our planet has long since expired, suppose an alien civilisation finds it. From which would they learn more about living as a human being – reading the data locked in the atomic structure of the strawberry, or simply eating it?


In this age of austerity, a lot of people are leaving my organisation through voluntary redundancy. Voluntary redundancy can be quite a good way to part company, but inevitably for some when the moment of farewell comes it is hard. Different people deal with it in different ways. Some have a knees up, some have and make speeches. Some slip away quietly, others have a go at the ‘leadership’ which includes me.

I’ve noticed though that some people – especially those who are nearly or over 60 and who have worked for 25 to 30 years for us – get quite frantic. This manifests itself as an incredible drive to get things ‘fixed’ before they leave. This can be their overall legacy, a last piece of work or sometimes just a detail they feel they can’t rest until they’ve sorted. It reminds me of the ‘nesting’ stuff we did before our first child was born – objectively you need to focus on the big change coming in your life, but instead you fuss about cot sheets, wallpaper and in our case finishing building the kitchen.

I was talking to a thoughtful and clever person at work about this today and I advanced my emergent theory of the ‘sands of time double whammy’. I believe our brains are Bayesian probability engines. Everything we do, see and think in some way gets incorporated into our brain so that we act and react based on a quasi-instinctive, but highly tuned estimation of the ‘thing to do’ in any situation based on the vast experience dataset we carry in our heads. So why the ‘double whammy’?

My theory (constructed in a thoroughly Bayesian fashion through a blend of unremembered facts, data, experience and sources) is that our perception of time over duration is relative – and related to how long we’ve been alive. My thesis is that the reason summer holidays seemed endless when I was little is bacause 6 weeks when you’ve only lived a few hundred weeks is a significant proportion of your total life. 6 weeks when you’ve lived several thousand weeks is much less – hence it feels like it passes faster.

Of course we could argue about the stimuli, as an adult you’re busier as a child you have days and days doing the same things. But it seems to me – and I’ve observed in others – as you age the passage of time accelerates. A Bayesian brain which logs everything is hardly going to ignore hard earned experience so new experiences and today must compete for salience with old and the many yesterdays.

That’s half the ‘whammy’. The other half is the ‘sands of time problem’. At 40 something I can still reassure myself I have a good chance of living as long again as I have lived so far. A good chance. But I know that’s becoming increasingly untenable. Within the next 5 years the odds of doubling my life so far will diminish rapidly.

So how will I feel when I am nearly 60, potentially leaving a life’s work, time running faster and faster and the end looming closer and closer? As I said to two different people today, come find me with a gun and shoot me if I’m still working flat out in an Executive job when I’m in my middle fifties.

Not that I’d be too old, just that my days will be racing away and the sands of my time pouring through my hourglass. If I’m still trying to please my boss, make my end of year targets and conjure up another organisation change I need to move on and get a life before the end of life gets me.


There’s a line which sticks with me from the recent remake of War of the Worlds. It sounds like Morgan Freeman who says it at the end of the film as the Martians have been vanquished not by armies or modern weapons, but by a simple virus.

He says words to the effect of the hubris and arrogance of ‘them’ to believe they could win their place on earth in a moment when others had fought for theirs through millions of years of struggle to be the fittest.

A similar thought came to me this morning talking to my partner today about our lives. It’s easy to feel that there are big changes we can make which would make our lives even happier. New job, move house, a bigger garden, less work, more money. But I’m increasingly convinced that happiness, flourishing and fulfilment are the product of many small things – not things you can confidently and sustainably change directly by conjuring up big changes.

Of course we could win the lottery, have our house destroyed by fire or worst of all have one of us die. Big things could happen bad or good and we would evolve – or not – like viruses, dinosaurs or finches beaks. What I’m starting to believe is ‘the good life’ evolves from myriad small choices, chances, modifications and improvements and not big leaps in the dark.

We concluded this morning that we shouldn’t rule out the possibility of one of us making a big change, but we equally shouldn’t forget that our life has evolved to a pretty good state.

Like those Martians beware the hubris and arrogance which says you can conquer life or design a better one – evolution is infinitely more powerful.


White light can be made from red, green and blue – just like in the Trinitron TV we had when I was a kid. Talking to a good friend this morning it came to us that finding a good balance in life needs you to get the RGB balance right.

We were comparing notes on our ‘re-entry’ into work after summer holidays and as Autumn is upon us wondering where the eudaemonia was going to come from in the short dark days of winter. Work is going to be tough. We live in an age of austerity. Home as family men is going to ask a lot of us too. I said if you think of it as spotlights (think of the Flickr logo) you have to get some balance between the work spot (red) and the home spot (green). I certainly had that balance wrong pre the summer and my life went red.

But to get to white, well-being and eudaemonia you need a blue spot too – and that’s the spot which is purely and uniquely for you. For most of my 20s I got nearly all I needed in my life from the red spot – work gave me money, laughs, sex and an international life. In my 30s I built a home: I found a partner and dog, mortgage and a family followed with the many joys and responsibilities they bring. In my 40s I have come to realise if I don’t do a few things for me I begin to get frayed and transactional. It is a truism that to really love others you have to start with yourself.

So we concluded this morning that the pure white light of fulfilment, flourishing, eudaemonia and just keeping the show on the road requires a spot of blue – some things you do just for you. It’s easy to feel guilty about that – a moment for a cuppa, a walk around the block in the sunshine, indulging a hobby or interest you don’t share with anyone else. I think you shouldn’t and you mustn’t.

Happiness and well-being are emergent phenomena I’m increasingly convinced. You can’t approach them directly and doing one thing or set of things however well won’t deliver them. Like the white light from an RGB monitor you need the red of work, the green of home and crucially the spot of blue for you.