Competency in Navigating Arbitrary Spaces as an Invariant for Analyzing Cognition in Diverse Embodiments

Entropy (Basel). 2022 Jun 12;24(6):819. doi: 10.3390/e24060819.


One of the most salient features of life is its capacity to handle novelty and namely to thrive and adapt to new circumstances and changes in both the environment and internal components. An understanding of this capacity is central to several fields: the evolution of form and function, the design of effective strategies for biomedicine, and the creation of novel life forms via chimeric and bioengineering technologies. Here, we review instructive examples of living organisms solving diverse problems and propose competent navigation in arbitrary spaces as an invariant for thinking about the scaling of cognition during evolution. We argue that our innate capacity to recognize agency and intelligence in unfamiliar guises lags far behind our ability to detect it in familiar behavioral contexts. The multi-scale competency of life is essential to adaptive function, potentiating evolution and providing strategies for top-down control (not micromanagement) to address complex disease and injury. We propose an observer-focused viewpoint that is agnostic about scale and implementation, illustrating how evolution pivoted similar strategies to explore and exploit metabolic, transcriptional, morphological, and finally 3D motion spaces. By generalizing the concept of behavior, we gain novel perspectives on evolution, strategies for system-level biomedical interventions, and the construction of bioengineered intelligences. This framework is a first step toward relating to intelligence in highly unfamiliar embodiments, which will be essential for progress in artificial intelligence and regenerative medicine and for thriving in a world increasingly populated by synthetic, bio-robotic, and hybrid beings.

Keywords: anatomical morphospace; basal cognition; physiology.