Ambient Smart Environments and the Thesis of the Extended Mind

According to the Thesis of the Extended Mind (TXM), some genuinely mental operations can be partly constituted by activities involving material tools, artefacts, and devices (Clark & Chalmers, 1998). When the fit is right, and certain conditions met, such external resources and human biological cognition can form an integrated system – an ‘extended mind’. The TXM literature has explored how technologies including laptops, smartphones, navigation systems etc., can extend (or not) various mental processes, including cognition, affect, narrative self and memory, and willpower: processes fundamental to forming and maintaining stable identities. TXM sees individual human cognition, agency, and identity in a fundamentally more open, malleable, and porous way.

As Chalmers (2019) notes, however, the focus of TXM arguments thus far has been technology requiring sensorimotor interaction, which is to say, technology that requires intentional bodily interactions, like the swiping of a phone screen. In this work, we’re interested in ambient smart environments: environments infused with smart technology that operate without intentional sensorimotor interaction. Such systems have been said to ‘precede the user’, both epistemically and pragmatically; they operate automatically, in the background, without conscious user input (White & Hipólito, 2024).

We argue that ambient smart environments present a difficult class of cases for TXM, and that the classical formulation of TXM fails to capture the fluid, anticipatory, and multi-dimensional nature of ambient systems. We then argue for a reconception of TXM, adopting the active inference framework, which casts cognition as a process of uncertainty minimisation. This reformulation allows TXM to make sense of ambient technology, but it also provides an account of the extended mind that is more fluid and transient, leaving behind the fixed boundaries and conditions of a state ontology approach, and embracing a process ontology that sees the boundaries of identity constantly shifting, in a ‘great swirl’ of material resources.

Clark, A., & Chalmers, D. (1998). The Extended Mind. Analysis, 58(1), 7–19.
White, B. & Hipólito, I. (2024). Preventive Mental Health Care: A Complex Systems Framework for Ambient Smart Environments. Cognitive Systems Research. Volume 84.


Ben White

Other authors:  

Laura Desirée Di Paolo

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Digital Humanities Tilburg