CASIP and Fudan PSI International Lecture

Me and My Markov Blanket: Active Inference and the Free Energy Principle

Speaker:  Karl J. Friston (University College London)

Chair: Chuang Liu (Fudan University/ CASIP)


Tung-Ying Wu (CASIP)
Nanxin Wei (Imperial College London)
Yingjin Xu (Fudan University)
Deniz Vatansever (Fudan University)

Time: Friday, 30th September, 2022, 7:00 PM—9:00 PM (UTC+8)

Online Platform: Zoom

Meeting ID: 492 794 2827

Language: English


Institute of Philosophy, Chinese Academy of Sciences (CASIP) 
The Philosophy and Science of Intelligence Center (PSI), Fudan University


How can we understand ourselves as sentient creatures? And what are the principles that underwrite sentient behaviour? This presentation uses the free energy principle to furnish an account in terms of active inference. First, we will try to understand sentience from the point of view of physics; in particular, the properties that self-organising systems--that distinguish themselves from their lived world--must possess. We then rehearse the same story from the point of view of a neurobiologist, trying to understand functional brain architectures. The narrative starts with a heuristic proof (and simulations of a primordial soup) suggesting that life--or biological self-organization--is an inevitable and emergent property of any dynamical system that possesses a Markov blanket. This conclusion is based on the following arguments: if a system can be differentiated from its external milieu, then its internal and external states must be conditionally independent. These independencies induce a Markov blanket that separates internal and external states. Crucially, this equips internal states with an information geometry, pertaining to probabilistic beliefs about something; namely external states. This free energy is the same quantity that is optimized in Bayesian inference and machine learning (where it is known as an evidence lower bound). In short, internal states will appear to infer--and act on--their world to preserve their integrity. This leads to a Bayesian mechanics, which can be neatly summarised as self-evidencing. In the second half of the talk, we will unpack these ideas using simulations of Bayesian belief updating in the brain and relate them to predictive processing and sentient behaviour.


Karl Friston is a theoretical neuroscientist and authority on brain imaging. He invented statistical parametric mapping (SPM), voxel-based morphometry (VBM) and dynamic causal modelling (DCM). These contributions were motivated by schizophrenia research and theoretical studies of value-learning, formulated as the dysconnection hypothesis of schizophrenia. Mathematical contributions include variational Laplacian procedures and generalized filtering for hierarchical Bayesian model inversion. Friston currently works on models of functional integration in the human brain and the principles that underlie neuronal interactions. His main contribution to theoretical neurobiology is a free-energy principle for action and perception (active inference). Friston received the first Young Investigators Award in Human Brain Mapping (1996) and was elected a Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences (1999). In 2000 he was President of the international Organization of Human Brain Mapping. In 2003 he was awarded the Minerva Golden Brain Award and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 2006. In 2008 he received a Medal, College de France and an Honorary Doctorate from the University of York in 2011. He became of Fellow of the Royal Society of Biology in 2012, received the Weldon Memorial prize and Medal in 2013 for contributions to mathematical biology and was elected as a member of EMBO (excellence in the life sciences) in 2014 and the Academia Europaea in (2015). He was the 2016 recipient of the Charles Branch Award for unparalleled breakthroughs in Brain Research and the Glass Brain Award, a lifetime achievement award in the field of human brain mapping. He holds Honorary Doctorates from the University of Zurich and Radboud University.