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Capturing Social Embeddedness: a constructivist approach - Bruce Edmonds
2 Constructivism and AI
Constructivism, broadly conceived, is the thesis that knowledge can not be a passive reflection of reality, but has to be more of an active construction by an agent. Although this view has its roots in the ideas of Kant, the term was first coined by Piaget  to denote the process whereby an individual constructs its view of the world. Extrapolating from this is Ernst von Glasersfeld's `radical constructivism'  which approaches epistemology from the starting point that the only knowledge we can ever have is so constructed. In cybernetics it was used by Heinz Von Foerster , who pointed out that an organism can not distinguish between perceptions of the external world and internally generated signals (e.g. hallucinations) on a priori grounds, but retains those constructs that help maintain the coherence of the organism over time (since those that do not will have a tendency to be selected out).
There is not enough room to survey this rich philosophical position. So for the purposes of this paper I will list some the aspects of constructivism that are relevant for my purposes here*1:
models are developed with respect to the needs and goals of the agent, particularly with respect to its attempts to control its own actions and that of its environment;
- models*2 that an agent builds do not necessarily reflect the structure of agent's environment (as viewed by an external observer) - rather the models are merely compatible with the environment and the agent's interactions with that environment;
models are built up as a result of active interaction with its environment rather than as a result of passive observation and reasoning - in fact, the models may well require interaction with the environment in order to function as action selection mechanisms;
it emphasises the bottom-up approach to modelling, with a tendency away from a priori considerations;
Constructivism has been taken up by some researchers in artificial intelligence and artificial life (e.g. [10, 29, 31]) as an approach to building and exploring artificially intelligent agents from the bottom up. Here, instead of specifying an architecture in detail from a priori considerations, the mechanisms and cognition of agents are developed using self-organisational and evolutionary mechanisms as far as possible. For this approach to be viable the agents must be closely situated in its target environment, since it is the serendipidous exploitation of features of its environment and the strong practical interaction during development which makes it effective. This is in contrast to what might be called an `engineering approach' to artificial agents, where the agents are designed and set-up first and then let loose to interact with other such agents in order to achieve a specified goal. Constructivism in AI can be seen as an approach which subsumes the work of Rodney Brooks , but instead of the development of the organism happening through an analysis, design and test cycle done by human designers based on their knowledge, the development is achieved via self-organisational and evolutionary processes acting on an agent situated in its environment.
This paper is constructivist in three different ways.
- Firstly, the approach to characterising social embeddedness is through properties of our models of the systems we are investigating, rather than some aspect of an external independent reality, because I claim that a useful characterisation of social embeddedness has to take into account the modelling framework.
- Secondly, the exhibited model is built in a constructivist AI style, in that the content and development of an agent's cognition is specified as loosely as possible, where the internal models are grounded in their effect upon the agent in conjunction with other agent's actions. The meaning of the agent's communication is not fixed beforehand by the programmer, so the effect of such communication and action is grounded  in its use in practice and in the language-games that the agents appear to play .
- Lastly, constructivism is posited as a sensible explanation of the observed behaviour of the agents in the model described and hence, by analogy, as a possible explanation for other social situations.
Capturing Social Embeddedness: a constructivist approach - Bruce Edmonds - 30 OCT 98
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