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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Extraordinary entities: Insights into folk ontology from studies of lay people’s beliefs about robots


Robots are extraordinary, category-defying entities. Machines that move autonomously, store and communicate information, display emotions, and cultivate social relationships pose a challenge to our most basic assumptions about what kinds of things exists in the world and how we should reason about them. As such, studies of lay people’s beliefs about robots offer new insights into the ordinary functioning of folk ontologies. In this paper, I propose that there are two ontological questions that human reasoners must grapple with in making sense of robots, or any other entity: Which kind of thing is it? and Which causal forces act on it? Each question highlights a distinct way in which robots are extraordinary—albeit, not exceptional—entities for the human cognitive system. A meditation on the dynamic interplay between these two ontological questions provides a new theoretical framework for understanding conceptual change at both the individual and the cultural-historical level.

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