Autopoietic approach to cultural transmission
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Non-representational cognitive science is a promising research field that provides an alternative to the view of the brain as a “computer” filled with symbolic representations of the world and cognition as “calculations” performed on those symbols. Autopoiesis is a biological, bottom-up, non-representational theory of cognition, in which representations and meaning are framed as explanatory concepts that are constituted in an observer’s description of a cognitive system, not operational concepts in the system itself. One of the problems of autopoiesis, and all non-representational theories, is that they struggle with scaling up to high-level cognitive behaviour such as language. The Iterated Learning Model is a theory of language evolution that shows that certain features of language are explained not because of something happening in the linguistic agent’s brain, but as the product of the evolution of the linguistic system itself under the pressures of learnability and expressivity. Our goal in this work is to combine an autopoietic approach with the cultural transmission chains that the ILM uses, in order to provide the first step in an autopoietic explanation of the evolution of language. In order to do that, we introduce a simple, joint action physical task in which agents are rewarded for dancing around each other in either of two directions, left or right. The agents are simulated e-pucks, with continuous-time recurrent neural networks as nervous systems. First, we adapt a biologically plausible reinforcement learning algorithm based on spike-timing dependent plasticity tagging and dopamine reward signals. We show that, using this algorithm, our agents can successfully learn the left/right dancing task and examine how learning time influences the agents’ task success rates. Following that, we link individual learning episodes in cultural transmission chains and show that an expert agent’s initial behaviour is successfully transmitted in long chains. We investigate the conditions under which these transmission chains break down, as well as the emergence of behaviour in the absence of expert agents. By using long transmission chains, we look at the boundary conditions for the re-establishment of transmitted behaviour after chain breakdowns. Bringing all the above experiments together, we discuss their significance for non-representational cognitive science and draw some interesting parallels to existing Iterated Learning research; finally, we close by putting forward a number of ideas for additions and future research directions.