University of Birmingham > Talks@bham > Artificial Intelligence and Natural Computation seminars > Discussion of some themes in Piaget's two books on Possibility and Necessity

Discussion of some themes in Piaget's two books on Possibility and Necessity

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It is not widely known that shortly before he died Jean Piaget and his collaborators produced a pair of books on Possibility and Necessity, exploring questions about how two linked sets of abilities develop:

(a) The ability to think about how things might be, or might have been, different from the way they are.

(b) The ability to notice limitations on possibilities, i.e. what is necessary or impossible.

I believe Piaget had deep insights into important problems for cognitive science that have largely gone unnoticed, and are also important for research on intelligent robotics, or more generally Artificial Intelligence (AI), as well as for studies of animal cognition and how various animal competences evolved and develop.

The topics are also relevant to understanding biological precursors to human mathematical competences and to resolving debates in philosophy of mathematics, e.g. between those who regard mathematical knowledge as purely analytic, or logical, and those who, like Immanuel Kant, regard it as being synthetic, i.e. saying something about reality, despite expressing necessary truths that cannot be established purely empirically, even though they may be initially discovered empirically (as happens in children).

It is not possible in one seminar to summarise either book, but I shall try to present an overview of some of the key themes and will discuss some of the experiments intended to probe concepts and competences relevant to understanding necessary connections.

In particular, I hope to explain: (a) The relevance of Piaget’s work to the problems of designing intelligent machines that learn the things humans learn. (Most researchers in both Developmental Psychology and AI/Robotics have failed to notice or have ignored most of the problems Piaget identified.) (b) How a deep understanding of AI, and especially the variety of problems and techniques involved in producing machines that can learn and think about the problems Piaget explored, could have helped Piaget describe and study those problems with more clarity and depth, especially regarding the forms of representation required, the ontologies required, the information processing mechanisms required and the information processing architectures that can combine those mechanisms in a working system—especially architectures that grow themselves.

That kind of computational or “design-based” understanding of the problems can lead to deeper clearer specifications of what it is that children are failing to grasp at various stages in the first decade of life, and what sorts of transitions can occur during the learning. I believe the problems, and the explanations, are far more complex than even Piaget thought.

The potential connection between his work and AI was appreciated by Piaget himself only very shortly before he died.

An expanded, growing, abstract for the talk will be available here:


Piaget, Jean, et al., Possibility and Necessity Vol 1. The role of possibility in cognitive development, University of Minnesota Press, Tr. by Helga Feider from French in 1987, (Original 1981)

Piaget, Jean, et al., Possibility and Necessity Vol 2. The role of necessity in cognitive development, U. of Minnesota Press, Tr. by Helga Feider from French in 1987, (Original 1983)

This talk is part of the Artificial Intelligence and Natural Computation seminars series.

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