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'Lifelike' Algorithms

BMBF Collaborative Research Project "Embodied Information"

FU Freie Universitaet Berlin (Institue of Philosophy) and KHM Academy of Media Arts Cologne (Media Science Department)

'Lifelike' Algorithms - Temporal Indexibility and Notational Plasticity

Dr. Gabriele Gramelsberger, Institute for Philosophy, Freie Universität Berlin

Research Background

Developments in information technology are currently cumulating in the vision of ‘Ambient Intelligence (AmI)’: adaptive, sensitive, ‘intelligent’ objects, which are embedded into the environment invisibly and imperceptibly, for the purpose of collecting information about the condition of their surroundings and harmonizing them with our needs. Prerequisites for the development of ‘intelligent objects’ include progress in microelectronics, in the field of wireless communication and sensor networks (RFID Radio Frequency Identification), as well as new findings in material sciences, especially in polymer research, but also in the technology of microsystems and nanotechnology: for example, to build tiny, integrable sensors that can record and interpret a wide variety of environmental parameters. These developments are leading to a comprehensive informatization of the world, which is increasingly enhanced by ‘intelligent objects’. This informatization creates a new interface between us and the world by changing the constitution of technically producible objects; coating them with an ‘information-sensitive layer’. This opens up a broad field of applications: Concepts like the adaptive control of the indoor climate — sensors control the room temperature on the basis of the current body temperature of a person —and intelligent, automatic systems for garden irrigation are being developed in scientists’ laboratories, but also “fast, broadband interfaces directly between the human brain and machines, ... wearable sensors and computers [to] enhance every person’s awareness of his or her condition, environment, chemical pollutants ..., software agents ...” (Rocco/Bainbridge 2002: 5).

Project Goals

The demands placed on the technological developments outlined above, namely to realize sensory and actuary control and monitoring mechanisms embedded in objects, to make possible a situated, adaptive and autonomous form of ‘(ambient) intelligence’, requires a new way of dealing with information and information-handling processes (algorithms). As such, this new approach is oriented on structural aspects of biological objects (cells, organism, brain), in order to achieve a modellable understanding of environmental adaptation, flexibility and stability: the machine imitates organisms and in this sense is ‘brought to life’. Other experiments, however, are attempting to use the organisation of matter directly as a structure for information processing (computers made of biomolecules). The two domains are still separate from each other, but in the blueprints of technology visionaries the convergence of both forms of 'embodied information' is already on the agenda. 

The core of this project is thus the philosophical investigation of algorithms as a basic conceptual figure of a potential convergence. If information technology is understood to be a technology of culture, as an applied science of the externalization of the mind, convergence is possible only through an algorithmic approach. The ‘operative script’ of the algorithm allows abstract things to be made visible and introduced to the world as manageable (symbolic) objects. Aestheticisation and operability enter into a powerful liaison, which, by delegating the algorithms from paper into the machine of the computer, creates an extracorporeal form of the  mind characterized by autonomy and convertibility. The autonomy is inherent in the operability of the algorithms, manifested by their delegation into the machine object, while the convertibility is based on the (numerical) logic of the computer as well as the software, which is ultimately conveyed in machine language. Autonomy and convertibility turn the algorithm into another kind of currency, determining the key role of information technology as the ‘circulator of modern society’.


Dr. Gabriele Gramelsberger
Institute for Philosophy
Freie Universitaet Berlin
Habelschwerdter Allee 30
D-14195 Berlin

Tel: ++49 (0)30 838 54509
Fax: ++49 (0)30 838 56430
Email: gab[at]zedat.fu-berlin.de

Silberlaube (Habelschwerdter Allee 45)
Room JK25/221C