Does a robot have an Umwelt?


Abstract
It is argued that the notion of Umwelt is relevant for contemporary discussions within theoretical biology, biosemiotics, the study of Artificial Life, Autonomous Systems Research and philosophy of biology. Focus is put on the question of whether an artificial creature can have a phenomenal world in the sense of the Umwelt notion of Jakob von Uexküll, one of the founding figures of biosemiotics. Rather than vitalism, Uexküll's position can be interpreted as a version of qualitative organicism. A historical sketch of Autonomous Systems Research (ASR) is presented to show its theoretical roots and fruitful opposition to traditional AI style robotics. It is argued that these artificial systems are only partly 'situated' because they do not in the full sense of the word experience an Umwelt. A deeper understanding of truly situated autonomous systems as being a kind of complex selforganizing semiotic agents with emergent qualitative properties must be gained, not only from the broad field of theoretical biology, but also from the perspective of biosemiotics in the Uexküll tradition. The paper is thus an investigation of a new notion of autonomy that includes a qualitative aspect of the organism. This indicates that the Umwelt concept is not reducible to purely functional notions.
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