The University of Sussex

Computation, dynamics and sensory-motor development

Julie Rutkowska

Outside Piagetian theory, sensory-motor coordinations are often relegated to the domain of 'mere' motor skill, but their development shares important features with that of cognitive structures. This paper focusses on early action, to assess the prospects for an account of development that is based on a system's initial mechanisms and processes of interaction with its environment without prespecification of stable patterns of organization that will be acquired. A truly epigenetic account proves elusive, with empirical findings increasingly being taken to indicate preadaptation and strong domain-specific constraints on infant abilities. Despite this, evidence can be marshalled for variability, which is compatible with a general-purpose process of internally motivated and structured organizational change. However, the mechanisms underlying this process are obscure. Clarification is sought by considering current attempts to understand sensory-motor coordination through the construction of artificial agent-environment systems. Disappointingly, such approaches often share a need to incorporate an explicit bias towards the recurrent behaviour patterns that will come to have functional significance for the systems they aim to explain. Synchronic systems in this vein exploit predesigned sensory-motor connections with the environment. Their diachronic counterparts feature designer specification of acceptable outcomes for activity in the form of problem-specific fitness functions or goal-like value schemes that are credited to evolution. Neither computational nor dynamical systems concepts provide an automatic escape from this problem, but most promising may be robotics approaches informed by dynamical systems theory that challenge mainstream views of information and information-processing.

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