Being There: Putting Brain, Body, and the World Together Again, by Andy Clark

Being There by Andy ClarkOf all the books I’ve ever read that related to artificial intelligence, robotics, cognitive science, neural networks, and the brain, I’m pretty sure this is my favorite. Usually, for me, these books are about filling in the blanks in terms of how other researchers see the world. I get frustrated because I feel that their assumptions are wrong, their view is too narrow, or they lack imagination. I need to know about their view, but it’s not one I share.

With Being There, on the other hand, I felt I’d finally found my intellectual home. I probably agreed with 90% of it, and felt that Clark and I were coming at the problem—how human intelligence works—from the same angle: that without considering the body and environment, studying the mind and brain won’t get you very far. At the time this was still a minority, emerging idea in opposition to the ‘top down’ approaches to intelligence that had dominated AI for decades. Clark (now at the University of Edinburgh) previously taught at COGS at the University of Sussex, a world center for this way of thinking about the problem, so he was ideally placed to tell the story: it’s now become mainstream.

Clark starts by giving us an introduction to ‘the new robotics’, describing what were then (1997) relatively new approaches to building intelligent machines. These were successful because they weren’t focussed on the idea of planning: where a robot would map the environment, detect obstacles, plan a route, and then start to move. This traditional AI approach was very slow and unreliable because by the time the machine had decided on it’s strategy and started to implement it, the world might well have changed. It would then have to start planning again. Instead, the approach pioneered by Rod Brooks (discussed in an earlier blog) showed the effect of concentrating on just letting the machine get on with it and seeing what happened: potholes, obstacles, etc. could be dealt with at the time. Can’t move forward: move backwards or sideways. Foot not supporting weight: put your weight on your other feet. In other words, use the environment to do your planning for you.

But don’t get the idea that this is a book about robotics. The bulk of the book is a description of how the behavior of most biological species is inextricably linked to their physicality and their environment. From babies learning to walk against the force of gravity (leg weight affects behavior), to slime molds coming together to follow temperature and chemical gradients towards better nutrients: he gives lots of great examples.

One of the ideas I found the most interesting when I read this the first time is how we organize our environment to make life easier for our minds. (The environment doesn’t just control us, we control it.) For instance, we put all the spices in the same place, which means we only have to remember the location of one thing, not several. We put a letter on the table on the way to the front door to remind us to post it. And if we get Alzheimers and lose our memories, we find we can still function well as long as we stay in our longstanding homes that act as external memories. He calls this scaffolding, and once the idea gets in your head you see it everywhere: in informational devices like books and computers, conveyor belts, ergonomic design. In the end, he even links this idea up with language.

The book is not really straight pop science: it’s a little more academic than that. But it’s a very good and fairly easy read nonetheless. I found it particularly striking because I had tried to read one of Clark’s earlier books with MIT Press: Associative Engines. There I found sentences the length of paragraphs and paragraphs that filled pages. I don’t know whether he found a great editor, took a writing class, or what, but there were no such problems here. For students and scholars, not only does he have citations (that can be ignored if that’s not your thing) but he also is really good about giving credit where credit’s due within the main text. Reading this book is the equivalent of taking an engaging but easy starter course in this approach to cognitive science, neuroscience, philosophy, and machine intelligence. It’s rich and satisfying.

In a short review like this it’s not possible to do this book justice. All I can say is that those who find my blog interesting should go out of their way to read it.

*** Must read