Manuel is interested in any formal, ideally mathematical, definition of (or attempt to define) life and cognition. Specifically in questions regarding the differences between living and non-living systems, and cognitive and non-cognitive architectures. Are these distinctions meaningful? What theories can we develop to highlight such diversity? If there’s no real distintion, why do some organisms appear to be qualitatively different?

These interests are inevitably tied to the definition of agents and observers, with ideas partially inspired by autopoietic proposals in theoretical biology and cognitive science. What can we define as a system, or an agent, to be studied? How can we ensure that an observer’s (a scientist’s) influence on a system is not drastically changing the system itself, or its behaviour?

The origins of life

Manuel stayed for a short period at EON (ELSI Origins of life Network) at Tokyo Tech. There, he worked on theories of the origins of life (Ool), with a special interest for proposals attempting to link Ool to information and control theory. Is homeostasis enough to explain the differences between living and non-living systems? Does control theory provide the right language to study homeostasis? Can information theory be used to define a useful (intrinsic) notion of information for living systems? Can we ground these ideas into a phenomenological theory, thermodynamics, that allows us to derive a formulation of the statistical mechanics of living systems? For a brief overview: blogpost for EON. In his spare time: trying to figure out what life is all about.

The origins of cognition

Manuel works (minimal) models of cognition. Where does cognition come from and why is it potentially (evolutionarily) advantegeous? His approach mainly entails trying to link basic definitions of cognitive processes, in particular action and perception, to simple mathematical models of sensorimotor loops in the context of coupled agent-environment systems. During his PhD, he focused on a mix of information theoretic and dynamical systems derived approaches, combining ideas of uncertainty inherent in information and estimation theory, with an understanding of time-evolving trajectories and phase spaces in dynamical systems. Somewhat unsure about (but attracted by the idea of) a life-mind continuity thesis.

The role of observers

To study life and cognition, Manuel uses a mix of information theory, control theory, dynamical systems and thermodynamics. In all these approaches, observers play a fundamental role: entropy in both information theory and thermodynamics, observability properties in dynamical systems and the very definition of reference, or desired goal state, in control theory. Can we define observers in a way that unifies notions from all these different areas? Can we study intrinsic goals and motivations of a system, in an autopoietic sense, that specify and explain living and cognitive organisms?

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