Work in progress!

How does subjective experience evolve and what new capabilities does it enable? How easy will it be to engineer conscious machines? Might we end up building them by accident, in the pursuit of other functional goals?

Modern scientific theories of consciousness, proposed by the likes of Dennett, Meztinger and others, propose that subjectivity arises via self-simulation. While autonomous control may always involve some form of self-representation, the suggestion is that conscious systems take this further. By representing itself as a situated agent — with all kinds of opportunities for action, both overt and covert, at its disposal — the organism bootstraps itself over evolutionary time to new levels of self-monitoring, self-reflection and self-configuration. On this view subjectivity evolves hand-in-hand with the kind of deliberative, hyper-plastic behaviour characteristic of humans.

This emerging understanding of consciousness as key to unlocking powerful new forms of autonomy is now influencing the next generation of generative AI. Recent advances are impressive, but fall far short of human capabilities. Some researchers are now looking to theories of subjectivity in the search for machine architectures that will enable human-style flexible reasoning. If our theories of consciousness are right, these endeavours may lead to machines that attribute rich inner lives to themselves in the same way that humans do.

This two-day symposium will bring together cognitive scientists, biologistis, philosophers, computer scientists, roboticists and neuroscientists interested in the science, evolution and engineering of subjectivity and deliberative action.

Possible topics

We invite contributions with a close fit to the themes of the symposium. The following list of topics is not intended to be exhaustive.

Active inference




Covert action, privacy and mental affordances

How much of our subjective lives can be understood in terms of covert action? Can pain and other first-person “feelings” be understood in terms of affordances for self-attribution? What are the consequences of these actions, if they are covert – perhaps the ability to influence downstream overt action? Is covertness key to understanding our everyday intuition that consciousness is profoundly “private”? Will intelligent machines try to convince us of a Hard Problem?

Behavioural flexibility and free will

What kinds of behaviours require subjectivity? To what extent can “free will” — understood as a form of deliberative, considered action with the potential for explicitly represented aspiration and regret — be separated from subjective experience?

Niche construction and the evolution of subjectivity

What were the key moments in hominin evolution that drove the development of subjectivity and deliberative action? What is the nature of the evolutionary niche — what is the “environment” to which consciousness is a response?

Animal consciousness

All living organisms exhibit flexible goal-directed behaviour. What are the behavioural criteria that characterise the kind of flexibility unique to conscious organisms?

Control theory and cybernetics