Another one of those updates

Quick note before I begin: it just so happens that as I wrote this post the disk on my G5 died. I don’t think I have lost anything major, as most of it is backed up. Some of the most recent pictures that I have taken may have gone, because I had failed to backup those in some time (a couple of months maybe). I am re-backing up what I have to a third disk to avoid having the just one copy that I have at this instant, and will seriously consider buying another disk to have more backups. On to the original post!

§0 There is little point in making up further excuses – all I have time for these days is making this sporadic updates to the blog after increasingly large periods of absence. As in previous posts, I’d like to recall what I have been up to lately and what the plans are – mostly for my own reference in two months from now when I start worrying about not having done enough.

§1 So first of all, I’m glad to be very involved in this upcoming ECAL, which increases in its promise to be quite exciting (e.g. the format, the organisation, the keynote speakers, the one-track session, the workshops and associated events, and of course, Lisbon). Here are some of the things I have become involved in.

§1.1 I had the honour of participating as part of the programme committee in the paper-reviewing process. This is one of the best research-related learning experiences. I have mentioned this previously in this blog. Even though the quality of the papers in my lot was rather poor, the experience was still a fruitful one. Attempting to get to the motivations of the contributions and be constructive as to how to meet the established claims, is something that I must practice more often, as it is all too easy to simply throw the towel and discard from merely pointing out the flaws. The obvious benefit of this practice is that one becomes increasingly aware of the need to step into the reviewer’s shoes (or any reader’s shoes for that matter) when writing.

§1.2 Which brings me to my second point… I submitted a paper which was accepted for a talk. The work follows on directly from the things I have been working on for the last two years: it deals with the analysis of a situated agent evolved to perform an associative learning task requiring re-learning. This work compliments well similar work and most importantly (which is the reason that I put all of the effort in) fills an important gap in my thesis.

§1.3 Even more exciting still have been the collaborations on two other papers that were also accepted.

§1.3.1 One of the collaborations arose from conversations about the meaning of autonomy with Tom and Nathaniel following from Life & Mind seminars. Our contribution points out two different dimensions in which autonomy should be approached: constitutive and behavioural. Pointing out that most progress in the artificial life sciences has been achieved towards the behavioural side of it, and less so on the constitutive aspects. We also point out the serious limitation of methodologies that assume the unit of agency a priori (such as evolutionary robotics) in advancing any further along the constitutive dimension.

§1.3.2 The other collaboration arose from discussions with Peter about his work, which is closely related to my own. The contribution explores situated agents evolved to learn about their sensori-motor configuration. The idea of the work is to provide a existence proof as well as to analyse successfully evolved systems that weren’t given a priori parameter-changing mechanisms for a variation of the visual inversion task. The work differs from previous work and my own in that what is being learned is not a feature of the environment, but a feature of the agent’s body.

§1.4 The workshop Eldan and I are organising is going well. We received some submissions, but not as many as we were hoping for. There are some plans to possibly merge with Andy’s workshop on Neuromodulation, given the relatedness of the topics. I’ll update on this soon.

§1.5 Finally, as regards ECAL, I’m also really looking forward to the associated-event / workshop on “Dynamical Approaches to Development” being organised by Rachel Wood and others, for which I was honoured to have been asked to participate as a commentator.

§2 On a different note, I have been picking up on my reading. I have recently finished reading James Gleick’s “Chaos: making a new science” and Eric Kandel’s “In search for memory”. Also read Charles Dicken’s “Great Expectations” (which I had been meaning to do since I was about 14 – but I think my English hadn’t been up to it until quite some time ago). Currently reading Alva Noe’s “Action in perception”. Have also been reading bits and pieces from Maggie Boden’s wonderful and relatively new book (which I really want to get but is too expensive!): “Mind as machine”. There are at least 10 more on the ‘hot’ queue awaiting..

§3 On the more administrative side of things, I have also been involved in a couple of projects.

§3.1 I have been taking a slightly more central role in the organising the Life and Mind seminars this summer term given that Tom is away in Sweden. Although very exciting it is such a time-consuming task. Unfortunately, I am most likely not going to be as involved from now on, for all the obvious reasons.

§3.2 I’m also very excited that Ezequiel has given me the opportunity to suggest, put on offer, and now that it has been taken up, co-supervise a thesis project for the EASy masters course. This is exciting work on the analysis of the dynamics of slight (and hopefully interesting) variations (mainly to the transfer function) to small (one and two coupled nodes) continuous-time recurrent neural networks.

§3.3 More in general, I reckon having moved to the Informatics building since I arrived from Indiana has been very beneficial because of increased interactions with people whose line of work I am interested in. Being next door to the EASy master’s lab has meant that some EASy students come and chat with me about their projects, I find this extremely interesting. I also run into people like: Anil Seth, Adrian Thompson, Thomas Nowotny, Phil Husbands, Mike Beaton, Ezequiel and Inman much more often. This is great too.

§4 That covers mostly what I have been up to for some time. What I’m getting busy with now is:

§4.1 My third and last annual review, for which I hope this post will serve as an initial step in getting that done.

§4.2 Generating a full-fleshed grant proposal, following from an accepted pre-proposal. More on this later, hopefully.

§4.3 Marking NSAI programming projects. Not much to say here. I think I would be slightly more enthusiastic if I had not my thesis to write. More generally as regards the teaching of the seminars for NSAI this last summer term, what happened to attendance!?? and how worried should I get about it? I don’t feel like I did such an awful job – I brought as much excitement as I generally assign to the topics covered, which is a lot! I encouraged them to discuss as much as possible. The class was on the early side of things, at least for students in England: 9am (if they only knew I used to get taught mathematics and physics at 7.30am in college in Venezuela on two hours lectures). When I asked the students and some colleagues of mine, most would say that this was the reason.. but I’m not convinced. I would like to hear honest feedback from my students, I will ask around if a form can be sent around for it – to see what went wrong.

§5 The important thing ahead is thesis writing – which I am now more anxious than ever to dedicate my full attention to.

§6 One thing I hope to do more of, which does not reflect at all in what I have been doing, is increasing my interactions with the biologists. I had the chance to meet with some of them working on learning and memory in the pond snail Lymnaea stagnalis the other day regarding the grant proposal that we are putting together, and it dawned on me the difficulty of crossing the gap between the two fields. Although extremely daunting, I hope to overcome this gap in the following years of my career in a way that doesn’t entail me ending up as the “computer scientist that’s programming for the biologists” configuration – which is what seems to happen very often. I want the high levels of abstraction, the enactive, evolutionary, and dynamical systems approach to feed into work in learning and memory in Biology, without having to model every detail of two particular cells, for example.

§§ On a final note (and although this should be a research-mostly blog), I can’t help to mention that I have been extremely worried about my home country lately. The direction it has been taken towards during the last 9 years has been, in my opinion, an extremely inappropriate one. But what has happened during these last months has just been absolutely unacceptable. This has nothing to do with left, right, up or down political positions; and everything to do with one men seeking full control of all powers. Venezuela has fallen into the depths of a totalitarian regime and this is no secret: if you happen to like his line of thinking, great; if you don’t, then you must leave. I won’t go into it in any detail here because I fear the few readers that might be interested in the rest of my blog will simply not care. What I will mention is what is most frustrating for me. First, that I don’t know what I can do to make the situation better – I go absolutely blank when I try to think of things to do. The other thing is that I would be much happier dedicating my full attention to the things that interest me (my scientific research) and not the political sanity of my country (which is every day less mine!).

This post is all over the place: from the technicalities of hard disk failure, through paper-writing, paper-reviewing and teacher-assisting, all the way up to political nonsense. There it is.

ps. many many thanks to our mac administrator Christian for all his excellent support in the disk situation, as usual.

ps2. I didn’t manage to make space in my ECAL paper for the acknowledgments… very cheeky I know. So,

Acknowledgments. I would like to thank Peter Fine for proof reading and making suggestions to improve the English of the last version. If it were not for him (and Inman of course) the paper would read more like this blog! Also thanks to Hiroyuki Iizuka for words of encouragement about the value of the contribution when in doubt.


One thought on “Another one of those updates

  1. Hi Eduardo,
    I am also interested in “working with biologists” in the future, but only have 2nd hand knowledge of the gap. To me it seems the underlying problem is that some biologist feel that Alife models aren’t realistic enough. The Alifers (at least myself) get the feeling that biologists don’t understand abstractions very well.
    I don’t have examples of biologists thinking Alife is not realistic enough in memory, so for now I’ll just leave it as “an impression”.
    I do have a few examples of biologists seemingly not understanding abstraction.
    The first is mild and not too funny: A biologist at CWRU asked either Sean or Barry to change the symbols representing the two bases in the his model’s genotype from {0,1} -> {A,B} because the four bases in DNA are represented as letters, not numbers. (Fair enough and important as a mneumonic I guess.)
    The second is a little more entertaining. (I may get some of the details of what and when wrong. Sorry!) A PhD I know gave a presentation (perhaps a thesis proposal) at CWRU on his agents back when he was doing his thesis. The agents were controlled by biologically inspired, hand designed neural networks. The body was moved by thrusters on its sides and drawn as a circle. In the room was at least one biologist who seemed bored by the entire thing.
    The next time this PhD gave a very similar presentation (perhaps an update on thesis progress) the body was the outline of an abstract insect. This time the biologist sat up, paid attention, and asked questions.
    Maybe just a coincidence! 🙂
    Finally, I recently read “Creatures of Accident” by Wallace Arthur published in 2006. Wallace Arthur is a fairly well known Irish biologist. In the book he writes about the evolution of animal complexity (defined as the number of cell types). He hypothesizes that complexity will arise any where/time life exists (and gives an outline of a mechanism). He goes on to say that if life exists on other planets it will also probably be multicellular with specialized cells for specialized functions.
    The sad part comes in when he says that the only way to test this hypothesis is to travel to other life bearing planets and check. Too bad there isn’t a practical way to do that right now! No where does he mention the possibility of simulating on a computer the evolution of life. 😦
    Ok, the last example is not of a biologist not understanding abstraction, but of a biologist not thinking of alternative, realistic ways to test a hypothesis. It wasn’t realistic to him at least.
    Anyway, to me it seems that Alife is the “nonsense” babbling child of biology. I have a feeling that someday much of Alife will be accepted back into the biology family (department). Right now there is a little information flow back and forth, though still mostly from biology to Alife. (How often does an Alifer get invited to keynote at a Blifer conference?)
    The idea that Blifers don’t realize the full possibilities of using abstract models to ask questions is exciting. It means there is an empty niche to fill. On the other edge of the double-edge sword, if the Blifers don’t acknowledge or understand what an abstract model is saying, then that is depressing rather than exciting.

    Talk to you later,

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