acm - an acm publication


Anticipatory computing

Ubiquity, Volume 2000 Issue December, December 1 - December 31, 2000 | BY Mihai Nadin 


Full citation in the ACM Digital Library

My claim in 1988 (on the occasion of a lecture presented at Ohio State University where I served as the Eminent Scholar in Art and Design Technology, a chair endowed by the State of Ohio) was that anticipation lies at the foundation of the entire cognitive activity of the human being. Moreover, through anticipation, we humans gain insight into what keeps our world together as a coherent whole whose future states stand in correlation to the present state as minds grasp it. Minds exist only in relation to other minds; they are instantiations of co-relations.

For over 300 years -- since Descartes' major elaborations (1637, 1644) and Newton's Principia (1687) -- science has advanced in understanding what for all practical purposes came to be known as the reactive modality. Causality is experienced in the reactive model of the universe, to the detriment of any pro-active manifestations of phenomena not reducible to the cause-and-effect chain or describable in the vocabulary of determinism. It is important to understand that what is at issue here is not some silly semantic game, but rather a pragmatic horizon: Are human actions (through which individuals and groups identify themselves, i.e., self-constitute, cf. Nadin, The Civilization of Illiteracy, 1997) in reaction to something assumed as given, or are human actions in anticipation of something that can be described as a goal, ideal, or value? But even in this formulation (in which the vocabulary is as far as it can be from the vitalistic notions to which Descartes, Newton, and many others reacted), the suspicion of teleological dynamics -- is there a given goal or direction, a final vector? -- is not erased. Despite progress made in the last 30 years in understanding dynamic systems, it is still difficult to accept the connection between goal and self-organization, between ideal, or value, and emergent properties.

Minds Are Anticipations

The mind is in anticipation of events, that is, ahead of them -- this was my main thesis over ten years ago. What seemed inexplicable from a perspective of classical or relativist physics -- a vast amount of actions that seemed instantaneous, in the absence of a better explanation for their connectedness -- was coming into focus as constitutive of the human mind. Anticipatory cognitive and motoric scripts, from which in a given context one or another is instantiated, were advanced at that time as a possible description for how, from among many pro-active possible courses of action, one would be realized. Today I would call those possible scripts models and insist that a coherent description of the functioning of the mind is based on the assumption that there are many such models. Additionally, I would add that learning, in its many realizations, is to be understood as an important form of stimulating the generation of models, and of stimulating a competitive relation among them. In a subtle way, defense mechanisms -- from blinking to reflexes of all types -- belong to this family.

Observed phenomena and their descriptions are not independent of the assumptions we make. This applies to the perceptual control theory, as it applies to Kelly's perspective and to any other theory. Moreover, assumptions facilitate or hinder new observations. For those who adopted the view according to which a future state cannot affect a present state, anticipation makes no sense, regardless of whether one points to the subject in various religious schemes, in biology, or in the quantum realm. The situation is not unlike that of Euclidean geometry vs. non-Euclidean geometries. To see the world anew is not an easy task!

Anticipation of moving stimuli is recorded in the form of spike trains of many ganglion cells in the retina. It follows from known mechanisms of retinal processing; in particular, the contrast-gain control mechanism suggests that there will be limits to what kinds of stimuli can be anticipated. Researchers report that variations of speed, for instance, are important; variations of direction are not. Furthermore, since space-based anticipation and time-based anticipation have a different metric, it remains to be seen whether a dominance of one mode over the other is established. As we know, in many cases the meeting between a visual map (projection of the retina to the tectum) and an auditory map takes place in a process called binding. How the two maps are eventually aligned is far from being a matter of semantics (or terminology, if you wish). Synchronization mechanisms, of a nature we cannot yet define, play an important role here. Obviously, this is not control of imagination, even if those pushing such terms feel more forceful in the de facto rejection of anticipation.

Arguing from a formal system to existence is quite different from the reverse argumentation (from existence to formalism). Arguing from computation can take place only within the confines of this particular experience: the more constrained a mechanism, the more programmable it is (as Robert Rosen pointed out in Life Itself: A Comprehensive Inquiry into the Nature, Origin, and Fabrication of Life, New York: Columbia University Press, 1991, p. 238). Albeit, reaction is indeed programmable, even if at times it is not a trivial task. Pro-active characteristics make for quite a different task. The most impressive success stories so far are in the area of modeling and simulation. To give only one example: Chances are that your laptop (or any other device you use) will one day fall. The future state -- stress, strain, depending upon the height, angle, weight, material, etc. -- and the current state are in a relation that most frequently does not interest the user of such a portable device. It used to be that physical models were built and subjected to tests (this applies, for instance, to cars as well as to photo cameras). We can model, and thus to a certain point anticipate, the effects of various possible crashes through simulations based on finite-element analysis. That anticipation itself, in its full meaning, is different in nature from such simulations passes without too much comment. The kind of model we need in order to generate anticipations is a question to which we shall return.

A Rapidly Expanding Area of Inquiry

An exhaustive analysis of the database of the contributions to fundamental and applied research of anticipation reveals that this covers a wide area of inquiry. In many cases, those involved are not even aware of the anticipatory theme. They see the trees, but not yet the forest. More telling is the fact that the major current directions of scientific research allow for, or even require, an anticipatory angle. The simulation mentioned above does not anticipate the fall of the laptop; rather, it visualizes -- conveniently for the benefit of designers, engineers, production managers, etc. -- what could happen if this possibility were realized. From this possibilistic viewpoint, we infer to necessary characteristics of the product, corresponding to its use (how much force can be exercised on the keyboard, screen, mouse, etc.?) or to its accidental fall. That is, we design in anticipation of such possibilities. Or we should! I would like to mention other examples, without the claim of even being close to a complete list.

An Example from Genetics

But more than Rosen, whose work belongs rather to the meta-level, it was genetics that recovered the terminology of heredity. Having done so, it established a framework of implicit anticipations grounded in the genetic program. Of exceptional importance are the resulting medical alternatives to the fix-it syndrome of healthcare practiced as automobile repair (including the new obsession with spare parts and artificial surrogates). Genetic medicine, as slow in coming as it is, is fundamentally geared towards the active recognition of anticipatory traits, instead of pursuing the reactive model based on physical determinism. Although there is not yet a remedy to Huntington's disease, myotonic dystrophy, schizophrenia, Alzheimer's disease, or Parkinson's disease, medical researchers are making progress in the direction of better understanding how the future (the eventual state of diagnosed disease) co-relates to a present state (the unfolding of the individual in time). In the language of medicine, anticipation describes the tendency of such hereditary diseases to become symptomatic at a younger age, and sometimes to become more severe with each new generation.

We now have two parallel paths of anticipation: one is that of the disorder itself, i.e., the observed object; the other, that of observation. The convergence of the two paths is of interest to those actively seeking to transcend the identification of genetic defects through the genetic design of a cure. After all, a cure can be conceived as a repair mechanism, related to the process of anticipation.

Art, Simulacrum, Fabrication

That art (healing was also seen as a special type of art not so long ago), in all its manifestations, including the arts of writing (poetry, fiction, drama), theatrical performance, and design -- driven by purpose ( telos) and in anticipation of what it makes possible -- incorporates anticipatory features might be accepted as a metaphor. But once one becomes familiar with what it means to draw, paint, compose, design, write, sing, or perform (with or without devices), anticipation can be seen as the act through which the future (of the work) defines the current condition of the individual in the process of his or her self-constitution as an artist. What is interesting in both medicine and art is that the imitation can result only in a category of artifacts to be called simulacrum. In other words, the mimesis approach (for example, biomimesis as an attempt to produce organisms, i.e., replicate life from the inanimate; aesthetic mimesis, replicating art by starting with a mechanism such as the one embodied in a computer program) remains a simulacrum. Between simulacra and what was intended (organisms, and, respectively, art) there remains the distance between the authentic and the imitation, human art and machine art. They are, nevertheless, justified in more than one aspect: They can be used for many applications, and they deserve to be valued as products of high competence and extreme performance. But no one could or should ignore that the pragmatics of fabrication, characteristic of machines, and the pragmatics of human self-constitution within a dynamic involving anticipation are fundamentally different.

Learning (Human and Machined-Based)

Learning -- to mention yet another example -- is by its nature an anticipatory activity: The future associates with learning expectations and a sui generis reward mechanism. These are very often disassociated from the context in which learning takes place. That this is fundamentally different from generating predictive models and stimulating competition among them might not be totally clear to the proponents of the so-called computational learning theory (COLT), or to a number of researchers of learning -- all from reputable fields of scientific inquiry but captive to the action-reaction model dominant in education. It is probably only fair to remark in this vein that teaching and learning experiences within the machine-based model of current education are not different from those mimicked in some computational form. Computer-based training, a very limited experience focused on a well defined body of information, can provide a cost-efficient alternative to a variety of training programs. What it cannot do is to stimulate and trigger anticipatory characteristics because, by design, it is not supposed to override the action-reaction cycle.

Motion Planning

Animation and robot motion planning, as distant from each other as they appear to some of us, share the goal of providing path planning, that is, to find a collision-free path between an initial position (the robot's arm or the arm of an animated character) and a goal position. It is clear that the future state influences the current state and that those planning the motion actually coordinate the relation between the two states. In predictive programs, anticipation is pursued as an evaluation procedure among many possibilities, as in economics or in the social sciences. The focus changes from movement (and planning) to dynamics and probability. A large number of applications, such as pro-active error detection in networks, hard-disk arm movement in anticipation of future requests, traffic control, strategic games (including military confrontation), and risk management prompted interest in the many varieties under which anticipatory characteristics can be identified.

Aspects of Anticipation

Expectation, Prediction, Forecast

The practical experience through which humans constitute themselves in expectation of something -- rain (when atmospheric conditions are conducive), meeting someone, closing a transaction, etc. -- has to be understood as a process of unfolding possibilities, not as an active search within a field of potential events. Expectation involves waiting; it is a rather passive state, too, experienced in connection with something at least probable. Predictions are practical experiences of inferences (weak or strong, arbitrary or motivated, clear-cut or fuzzy, explicit or implicit, etc.) along the physical timeline from past to the future. Checking the barometer and noticing pain in an arthritic knee are very different experiences; so are the outcomes: imperative prediction or tentative, ambiguous foretelling. To predict is to connect what is of the nature of a datum (information received as cues, indices, causal identifiers, and the like) experienced once or more frequently, and the unfolding of a similar experience, assumed to lead to a related result. It should be noted here that the deterministic perspective implies that causality affords us predictive power. Based on the deterministic model, many predictive endeavors of impressive performance are successfully carried out (in the form of astronomical tables, geomagnetic data, and calculations on which the entire space program relies). Under certain circumstances (such as devising economic policies, participating in financial markets, or mining data for political purposes), predictions can form a pragmatic context that embodies the prediction. In other words, a self-referential loop is put in place.

Not fundamentally different are forecasts, although the etymology points to a different pragmatics, i.e., one that involves randomness. What pragmatically distinguishes these from predictions is the focus on specific future events (weather forecasting is the best known pragmatic example, that is, the self-constitution of the forecaster through an analytic activity of data acquisition, processing, and interpretation, whose output takes very precise forms corresponding to the intended communication process). These events are subject to a dynamics for which the immediate deterministic descriptions no longer suffice. Whether economic, meteorological, geophysical (regarding earthquakes, in particular), such forecasts are subject to an interplay of initial conditions, internal and external dynamics, linearity, and nonlinearity (to name only a few factors) that is still beyond our capacity to grasp, moreover to express in some efficient computational form. Although forecasts involve a predictive dimension, the two differ in scope and in the specific method. A computer program for predicting weather could process historic data (weather patterns over a long period of time). Its purpose is global prediction (for a season, a year, a decade, etc.). A forecasting algorithm, if at all possible, would be rather local and specific: Tomorrow at 11:30 am. Dynamic systems theory tells us how much more difficult forecasting is in comparison with prediction.

Our expectations, predictions, and forecasts co-constitute our pragmatics. That is, they participate in making the world of our actions. There is formative power in each of them. Although expecting, predicting, and forecasting good weather will not bring the sun out, they can lead to better chances for a political candidate in an election. Indeed, we need to distinguish between categories of events to which these forms of anticipation apply. Some are beyond our current efforts to shape events and will probably remain so; others belong to the realm of human interaction. Recursion would easily describe the self-referential nature of some particular anticipations: expected outcome = f(expectation). That such cases basically belong to the category of indeterminate problems is more suspected than acknowledged. Mutually reinforcing expectations, predictions, and forecasts are the result of more than one hypothesis and their comparative (not necessarily explicit) evaluation. This model can be relatively efficiently implemented in genetic computations.

Plans, Design, Management

Plans are the expression of well or less well defined goals associated with means necessary and sufficient to achieve them. They are conceived in a practical experience taking place under the expectation of reaching an acceptable, optimal, or high ratio between effort and result. Planning is an active pursuit within which expectations are encoded, predictions are made, and forecasts of all kind (e.g., price of raw materials and energy sources, weather conditions, individual and collective patterns of behavior, etc.) are considered. Design and architecture as pragmatic endeavors with clearly defined goals (i.e., to conceive of everything that qualifies as shelter and supports life and work in a "sheltered" society: housing, workplace, various institutions, leisure, etc.) are particular practical experiences that involve planning, but extend well beyond it, at least in the anticipatory aesthetic dimension. Every design is the expression of a possible future state -- a new chip, a communication protocol, clothing, books, transportation means, medicine, political systems or events, erotic stimuli, meals -- that affects the current state -- of individuals, groups, society, etc. -- through constitution of perceived and acknowledged needs, expectations, and desires. The dynamics of change embodied in design anticipations is normally higher than that of all other known human practical experiences.

Policy, management, and prevention (to name a few additional aspects or dimensions of anticipation) involve giving advance thought, looking forward, directing towards something that as a goal influences our actions in reaching it. All these characteristics are part of the dictionary definitions of anticipation. The various words (such as those just referred to) involved in the scientific discourse on anticipation, i.e., its various meanings, pertain to its many aspects; but they are not equivalent.

Since the time my book ( Minds -- Anticipation and Chaos, 1991) was published, and even more after its posting on the World Wide Web (, I have faced colleagues who were rather confused. They wanted to know what, in my opinion, anticipation is; but they were not willing to commit themselves to the subject. It impressed them; but it also made them feel uneasy because the solid foundation of determinism, upon which their reputations were built, and from which they operate, seemed to be put in question. In addition, funding agencies have trouble locating anticipation in their cubbyholes, and even more in providing peer reviews from people willing to jump over their shadow and entertain the idea that their own views, deeply rooted in the paradigm of physics and machines, deserve to be challenged. My research at Stanford University -- which constituted the basis for this report -- provided a stimulating academic environment, but not many possible research partners. Students in my classes turned out to be far more receptive to the idea of anticipation than my colleagues. The summary given in this section stands as a testimony to progress, but no more than that, unless it is integrated in the articulation of research hypotheses and models for future development.

The broader picture that results from the examination of what actually defines the field of inquiry identifiable as anticipation -- in living systems and in machines -- is at best contradictory. To be candid, it is also disconcerting, especially in view of the many so-called anticipation-based claims. But this should not be a discouraging factor. Rather, it should make the need for foundational work even more obvious. It is with this understanding in mind that I have undertaken this preliminary overview (which will eventually become my second book on the subject of anticipation).

Mihai Nadin is chair of Computational Design at the University of Wuppertal, Germany. His book The Civilization of Illiteracy is posted on the Gutenberg Project or can be downloaded from the Computational Design Web site.


Leave this field empty