The Ego Tunnel by Thomas Metzinger
One of the keynote speakers at ASCS 2009 this year was Thomas Metzinger. He presented a hypothesis from his book The Ego Tunnel, that our sense of having a soul or self stem from cognitive systems for physical self-represention. These systems are activated during normal waking life and misaligned during phantom limb or out-of-body experiences. These representations along with sensory feedback (e.g. proprioceptive, visual) create the phenomenenology of embodiment and location in reality. To give the audience a sense of how these representations function, Metzinger showed videos of Qped, a starfish-shaped self-modelling robot that has a nascent sense of self.
Qped 'starfish' continuous self-modelling robot.Video
Animals sustain the ability to operate after injury by creating qualitatively different compensatory behaviors. Although such robustness would be desirable in engineered systems, most machines fail in the face of unexpected damage. We describe a robot that can recover from such change autonomously, through continuous self-modeling. A four-legged machine uses actuation-sensation relationships to indirectly infer its own structure, and it then uses this self-model to generate forward locomotion. When a leg part is removed, it adapts the self-models, leading to the generation of alternative gaits. This concept may help develop more robust machines and shed light on self-modeling in animals. Video of robot, article
When the robot has a limb cut off, it reconfigures itself self-image and then learns a new gait to compensate.
This self-representation is present at birth, e.g. even congenital amputees can report phantom limb pain. It is not learnt through experience, but developed in-utero and presumably comes 'online' at some point during pregnancy. Perhaps this is when abortion becomes repugnant? Will self-modelling robots become the first contenders for robot rights?