- Series: MIT Press
- Paperback: 168 pages
- Publisher: A Bradford Book; 58042nd edition (February 7, 1986)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0262521121
- ISBN-13: 978-0262521123
- Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.4 x 8 inches
- Shipping Weight: 5.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 30 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #337,217 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Vehicles: Experiments in Synthetic Psychology 58042nd Edition
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The small and cheerful book at hand, by a well-known researcher on the brain from Tübingen, has exploited the virtues of the style with unprecedented consistency, originality and aptness. His thought experiments are not analytic efforts to extract what principles lie behind an imagined observation but are instead synthetic constructions. They are little toys of the mind, devised out of simple if fictional components, entirely functionally described...[A] crisp, cogent book full of intellectual delights.(Philip Morrison Scientific American)
About the Author
Valentino Braitenberg was a director of the Max Planck Institute of Biological Cybernetics and Honorary Professor of Information Science at the University of Tübingen, Germany.
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Yet despite VB’s defense of philosophy and frequent recourse to it, I felt nonetheless that the book has an excessively reductionist streak. The formula “uphill analysis and downhill synthesis” is repeated often: here uphill and downhill refer to ease of doing something. VB is suggesting that it’s easier to build something that exhibits certain organism-like behaviors (synthesis) than to figure out what structures and circuits cause those behaviors in the organism (analysis). He seems to infer from this, though, that nothing more than this behavioristic approach is needed to explain consciousness.
E.g., in Vehicle 12 he likens the automaton’s behavior to a logistic map, an example of deterministic chaos (albeit without using this terminology). He then claims that this vehicle exhibits free will, because an observer isn’t able to predict its behavior. Anticipating a philosophical objection that this isn’t really free will even though it may look like it, VB replies:
“[W]hoever made animals and men may have been satisfied, like myself, a creator of vehicles, with something that for all intents and purposes looks like free will to anyone who deals with his creatures. This at least rules out the possibility of petty exploitation of individuals by means of observation and prediction of their behavior. Furthermore, the individuals themselves will be unable to predict quite what happens in their brains in the next moment. No doubt this will add to their pride, and they will derive from this the feeling that their actions are without causal determination. [@69].”
This response, and the entire vehicle program, seem not to account for internal experience. Even if I can't see your inner life, where does my inner mental life come from? Is it reasonable for an individual to assume that no one but himself or herself has such an inner life, i.e. that he or she is uniquely situated among humans? Another objection is that inner experience for each of us generally doesn’t consist in making predictions about what our brains will do, but rather to consider what *we* will do.
Question also whether free will and unpredictability are really the same. We often associate free will not only with simple actions like moving our limbs, but with actions based on moral and ethical principles that we feel we have freely chosen. In that context, my own feeling of free will might be tied to my ability to predict that in certain range of circumstances I will behave in a consistent manner. Suppose I continually find myself in situations where I am being offered bribes, or money in exchange for betraying someone: it certainly wouldn’t be a source of pride if I felt my actions in those circumstances were unpredictable from one moment to the next. I don’t mean here to analyze the free will/determinism controversy in all its glory, much less to resolve it: but simply to suggest that it’s treated too glibly in this book, as is the book’s inherent behaviorism.
Braitenberg vehicles realized as actual devices seem like good way to promote discussion about these more philosophical topics, especially in a college classroom. But the book neither describes physical realizations of vehicles, nor treats the philosophy in more than a summary way. Despite the author’s obvious imagination and wit, I was more disappointed with this clever book than I’d expected.
I know of no other book that combines such intellectual stimulation with a tone of warmth, wit, and charm. I think Braitenberg has produced a book that deserves to be a classic for the centuries, and not just for our time.
The author deliberately never talks about "life". The style is something like this:
"Imagine we connected some wires and sensors and motors in this arrangement, and created several vehicles with variants of this construction. We can see that some would swarm aggressively, or lurk in the shadows, or do other things that appear superficially lifelike."
You read this, and your like ..ok that sort of lifelike, but even cursory observation would betray the simple logic. But he goes on.
"Imagine we had some wires, that when used, heat up and change conductivity" (or something like that, I forget exactly how he describes it)
And so on and so on, he adds layers of complexity, until it's clear that the resulting agents would have behavior so complicated that we could never fully characterize it. He covers topics like learning, memory and object recognition, and demonstrates that not only are they possible. They're very likely to come into existence on their own if the circumstances are right.
I've built many robots, which would fall into the book's early chapters in terms of complexity of autonomous behavior. I bought this to learn about methods for advanced autonomous behavior. And this book delivers on that goal, but it is also so much more! The first chapter is so concise and lovely, it is almost poetic. The humor and creativity remind me of Stanislaw Lem. The rich, elegant, density and brevity remind me of The Old Man and the sea. This book covers the workings of autonomous robotics for the novice to the advanced roboticist, but it is also sophisticated literature for anyone. The author is actually a Neurologist!
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