The Teleportation Conundrum and The Soul – Part 1

•June 23, 2009 • 5 Comments

I have of late been thinking about our sense of self. In preparing this post I have attempted to come at it from many directions, in many ways and I have come to the conclusion that the best way to discuss this topic is in relation to the teleportation conundrum. It is a fairly long discussion, but I have tried to ensure it is comprehensive and that it concludes properly. This essay is my first comprehensive attempt at the problem, so if you see any flaws in my logic that I have overlooked, please point them out.  You have likely heard the teleportation conundrum before, but in case you haven’t I’ll explain it in detail to begin.

The Teleportation Conundrum

Imagine you are standing on earth (this should not be very hard to do). In front of you is a teleporter, it looks like a glass tube. The mechanics behind the teleporter are inconsequential, what matters is what it does. When you stand in the teleporter it will instantly destroy your body on earth and rebuild it (it is rebuilt at exactly the same time and is a perfect copy) on mars. Now ask yourself, have you died? Is the person standing on Mars you, or is that person someone else entirely? Take some time to think about this question before reading on, it is an important one – one which I believe cuts directly to our understanding of ourselves. As an extension, what if there are two receiving teleporters, which will make two copies of you instantaneously, what then? Or even, what if the first teleporter merely records the data when it destroys you and the second rebuilds you a hundred years later – what then?

To answer this question we have to look at what exactly we are, a concept I am going to conveniently (but perhaps confusingly) label our “soul”.

Teleporter

Definition of the Soul

To talk about this question further I need to use a word to define our sense of self, the word I am going to attribute to “ourselves” is “soul”, another word I could use for it would be “mind”. This is similar but not exactly the same as some religious concepts of a “soul” – it is important to recognise that I am not talking about a necessarily immortal object, merely a “being”.

So how do I define a soul? A soul is the only thing which we can know for certain in this world, the fact that that little voice in your head is real. Descartes said ‘Cogito Ergo Sum’  , I think therefore I am (with untranslatable emphasis on present tense, something which coincides neatly with this theory. You can’t actually know anything other than this for certain – you could after all be a brain in a jar, or a person in the matrix. This concept is called the Mind-Body problem. However, generally we must accept the things around us to be true (and empirically they appear to be so) as otherwise we can make no further comment. So to progress in this argument I am making the assumption that the empirical knowledge of the world around us (that is, scientific knowledge such as gravity etc.) holds true. Within this empirically grounded world we know that minds exist (or at the very least your own mind), in some form or another. But what actually constitutes a soul?

How does the soul exist?

So you know for certain you exist, but how can we rationalise the soul in the world around us? There are two main ways you can look at the existence of the soul (although I would not go so far as to say they are the only two). The first is that the soul is “divine” and the second is that the soul is “emergent” (I will just note that it is perfectly acceptable for a religious person to accept an emergent soul in addition to their faith, the word ‘divine’ is used gere in a qualitative and not categorical sense).

The Soul

A divine soul is a soul which comes from outside our realm of understanding, it is gifted by God or is a piece ofBrahman or is made of magical Dust or a wizard did it or it transcends everything we know about the universe around us. This option is certainly possible and many would hold it to be the truth. However there is no empirical proof for this type of understanding of the world – and many different divine soul “theories” are different to each other on important points. Thus in this case we cannot easily assess the results of our teleportation theory. If we do not know how or why the soul inhabits the body than we cannot easily understand how teleportation would affect it. In other words, we just cannot know the answer.

An emergent soul on the other hand is one which is grounded in the realm of empirical science. An emergent soul is not one which comes from a divine unknowable force, but one which we can rationalise fully. The emergence of this soul comes from a certain configuration of information storing devices (in our case, neurons) over time. The mind is not separate from the brain, it is the higher order function of the brain itself. This does not mean the mind is not special, merely that it comes from a pattern. The mind is in fact a pattern of information – this pattern makes you…. you. We run into a couple of problems if we look at it this way however. You may have spotted the first already, the fact that we are a pattern of “information” in “information storing devices”. What does that actually mean? Isn’t everything in the universe in fact an information storing device of some sort – as long as it is read in the correct way? The second is that a pattern is a static thing and the patterns in our brains are constantly changing at an extremely fast rate – yet we observe our “souls” as existing over time. How can we rationalise this?

Discrete Patterns and the Illusion of Continuity

I’ll begin with the second problem to the emergence theory and work towards the first. So we have a discrete pattern of information (stored in neurons in the brain, of course there is no reason why it could not be stored in a computer, but that is a whole different blog) which must include our “soul”. But this pattern exists for less than a nanosecond, it is very quickly changed to something else. The patterns are discrete (even if time may be continuous) because if we reduce them to their lowest speed we can divide them into frames of information, where each frame represents different information (ever so slightly different to the last, eg. a single neuron firing)). The distance of time between these frames is irrelevant (in humans it would be almost unmeasurably small), but what is relevant is that we cannot “think” in a single frame – thinking requires multiple consecutive frames. So is it the case that we( ie. our soul) “lives” for this one “frame” in the slideshow of our lives before being replaced by another similar yet fundamentally different soul?

By our original definition of the soul this cannot be true – we observe ourselves as existing over time and thus we must exist over time under this definition. The above reasoning however is extremely important, because it changes the nature of the soul in our empirical world. It means that the “soul” that we are defining (something which occurs over a period of time and not just a point) does not exist in an empirical way. The soul is not some “quality” the brain possesses, it is not some categorical dimension in the universe. Rather the soul can only exist as we ourselves define it, it is our own sense of self which we hold so important but the soul does not “exist” as a real entity.

Discrete Patterns Flipping Like Cards

So how can we have a sense of self and continuity in a discrete information system? A few possible ways we could define “ourself” over time come to mind; proximity in: material or space or time or pattern. Proximity in material can be immediately dismissed from our minds, the body replaces every cell within it every seven years – do you perceive yourself as a new person every seven years? of course not. Proximity in time and space is a little more difficult, but using some analogies we can examine them. Lets imagine we freeze time and move you to a new place. When time starts up again are you the same person? Intuitively we would think you are (notice that this example is similar to yet still different from the teleportation question). Furthermore if we were to freeze you in space, and speed up time around you, then wake you in the future – you would also intuitively think of you as alive. This intuitive reasoning is fine to use as our definition of the soul in the first place is intuitive. This means however that our sense of self and continuity over time is determined by proximity in pattern – this occurs through memory.

Memory and self awareness is the key to the existence of an emergent soul. Not all memory is important for the soul, merely  memory of the soul in the past. So what we have is a special subset of information systems, this is an information system which contains within it information about itself in its last frame, and the one before that and on and on. The amount of information about your past you have does not matter too much, as long as you can remember your existence in past frames. This almost recursive type of memory creates the illusion of continuity and thus connects the discrete frames into one self defined “soul”.

The Problem With Information Storing Devices

Mind of the UniverseWe can now come to the first problem we had, how do we define information storing devices? For an information storing system to exist there must be something which can read that information and make sense of it. This is an interesting situation as we could conceive that every configuration in the universe could be considered an information storing device, if only we had the right system for reading it (a compiler if you will). In effect, this means that there are information systems everywhere – although they are incomprehensible to us. However an important thing to note is that these information sets are by and large unorganised. It is only through the extreme structure that biology has evolved that we see proper memory systems and self awareness which create a soul.

Conclusions and Teleportation Application

So we can now finally come to a conclusion for our teleportation question. The question has two answers, one for the divine soul theory and another for the emergent soul theory. The answer for a divine soul theory is unknown – we just do not know. The answer for an emergent soul theory is that you will not “die” in the sense that we understand death. You will only die so much as you die between every frame of your pattern. The emergent soul is an intuitive yet on the whole meaningless thing, the meaning it has is special only to its holder.

This conclusion of the definition of the “soul” is particularly interesting and there are a lot of important implications which are very interesting. Part 2 will cover these topics, so don’t miss it!


The Importance of Freedom of Speech

•June 17, 2009 • 1 Comment

I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.
– Voltaire

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

-Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

In light of recent events I thought I would write about the importance of freedom of speech in the world. Today in Iran there are protests over the results of their election, allegedly rigged. The government has responded by trying to silence these protests by attempting to censor and block the internet, mobile networks and any other type of communication. While the government has been somewhat successful in blocking larger news corporations from getting information – there has been a new side of news which they cannot block, namely Twitter.

Surprisingly enough twitter is actually an extremely effective method of communication for these protestors and it is changing the dynamics of this media warfare entirely, the game has changed forever. Already we are seeing attempted counters to the resistance: fake accounts spamming false information and the tracking down of iranians who use the network. Counter-counter measures have been thrown back at them as supporters from all around the world change their location to Tehran in an attempt to throw off such attempts.

I am not going to make a judgement on the cause of the protests or their legitimacy, but I will go so far as to say that I wholeheartedly support their attempts to be heard. The blocking of information by any government is a horrible offense, it is a crime against humanity and is something which we should not tolerate in the modern world. One of the fundamental ideals democracy requires to work is that of freedom of speech and sadly this is not an ideal yet held by a large portion of the world. There are two main types of freedom of speech and I want to cover why both of these types are immoral and wrong.

Type 1: Censorship (No Eyes, No Ears)

Censorship is when the access to material is prohibited from viewing. This can occur on many different levels, with differing levels of protest – I disapprove of all types. Censorship is wrong because it involves one group of people deciding that another group of people cannot hear/see something. The group which is hiding the material is a “judge” in this case, they seem to assume they have a right to judge the material. Such judging is subjective and entirely inappropriate for any person or people to do. The key point is that censorship is a form of deception, it involves you preventing someone else from knowing what you know. Such deception leads to a lack of transparency and inequality among people.

On the “lowest” level of censorship we have discriminatory censorship, where a particular group of people is prevented from seeing something. This is quite common across the world in the form of age-based discrimination, for example R18 movies or the legal age to watch pornography. I should clarify that I still believe that in these cases there should be restrictions to allow parents the ability choose what their children see – but there should not be such sweeping restrictions overall.

The next level up is the censorship of a certain type of material. This may be “bleeping” or “black-barring” television, or it may take the form of banning books (for example Orwell’s Animal Farm or Hitler’s Mein Kamph). This type of censorship does not discriminate, but rather bans from everyone. This can be particularly dangerous as religious groups often try to impose this type of censorship in order to block out views which oppose their own (a form of trickery).

Finally there is wide-scale censorship, which involves blocking news or the internet. This is the type of censorship which is worrying in Iran today. This is usually only carried out by large organizations and is possibly the most worrying type of censorship. Other examples in the world are of course the Great Firewall of China, another crime against humanity which horrendously censors the internet. Even in my own Australia we have the government attempting to censor “terrorist sites” from the general public – this is of course completely ridiculous and is yet another form of immoral censorship.

Type 2: Media Blackout (No Mouth)

Stopping people from listening is one thing, stopping them from speaking is another. Not being able to have your voice heard is completely immoral. Every person on this planet deserves the right to speak about their rights, the right to vote for their beliefs and the right to explain and promote their beliefs through public media. Whether these beliefs be ridiculous (like claiming man never landed on the moon) or whether they are controversial (lets bring back the Nazi party) they still deserve to be said. Whether they are right, wrong or downright horrible does not matter – what is important is that people have the right to express those opinions without fear of persecution.

At the moment this is not the case in Iran, or in many other places in the world for that matter. I’ll end with a quote from a controversial and often censored tv show, South Park which in their episode “Cartoon Wars” gives an impressive summary of this argument (which is of course immediately dismissed for comic effect in the cartoon):

We are united in the belief that every person has the right to say what they want. Its been real easy for us to stand up for free speech lately, for the past few decades we haven’t had to risk anything to defend it. But those times are going to come, and one of those times is right now. And if we are not willing to risk what we have, then we just believe in free speech – we don’t defend it.

So I ask you to defend free speech in the world, defend it in Iran today and everywhere else in the world where it is being threatened.


Cellular Automata Experiments

•May 24, 2009 • 1 Comment

It is my intention to occasionally talk about the work I do in university in these blogs. However for the most part first year has, not so unsurprisingly, been mostly about foundations. Foundations are important, but not particularly interesting blog material. This is likely to change next semester when I start my first ASC and can report on that. But for now I’ll talk about the first assignment I did in Comp1100, an introductory course to programming. The assignment had an extension task element to it, which I twisted as best I could into a scientific experiment.

Cellular Automata

The first assignment we did in Comp1100 was on Cellular Automata. For those who haven’t heard about them before, they are pretty cool things. Imagine a grid – on this grid squares can be black or white. White squares are inactive and represent a background whereas black squares are active. The pattern of active and inactive squares is determined by a pattern which changes over time according to specific rules. This can best be represented by a simple example:

Conway's Life

Each frame of “time” in this cellular automata is derived from the frame before it using purely mathematical algorithms.

Cellular Automata were invented at around the same time as computers were, as the amount of computations needed to draw them are very tedious by hand. However they are not just pretty patterns, they have significant mathematical, computational, and biological importance. The main reason for this is that they display simple forms of emergence. From simple rules we see patterns emerge in the structures. Perhaps more interesting is the fact that we see things happening which we could not have predicted, like the creation of “gliders” in the animation above. Cellular Automata eventually gave rise to the field of Artificial Life, which I will no doubt talk about at a later date. I’ll quickly go through two of the most famous cellular automata, as examples and because they are both really cool. (N.B. You may be interested to know that in most cellular automata the “grid” wraps around on itself at both the top and bottom, making the board essentially equivalent to a torus (the same way a map of earth is equivalent to a sphere)

Famous Cellular Automata:

1. Conway’s Game of Life (Play it Here)

Conway's Life Animation

Conway’s game of life is one of the first and most famous cellular automata ever invented. It was designed on a simple premise, cells will “die” if they are overpopulated or underpopulated – but otherwise they will grow and spread. From this somewhat simple premise we see a huge array of different structures emerging. Different patterns will tend to be “stable” and either stay statically in one place, or will move around. This in many ways lives up to its name and on a very rudimentary scale it mimics life on earth. The development of complex structures from chaos is the reason life exists at all, and the extreme complexity which arises from the comparatively tiny amount of rules in the game can help explain why life on earth shows such immense complexity itself.

2. Langton’s Ant

Langton’s Ant was the first Cellular Automata I ever heard of, and I remember being fascinated by it. Unlike Life which charts a whole world of creatures, Langton’s Ant is about a single creature and the path it makes. As it moves it leaves a black trail behind it. At every white square it hits it will turn 90 degrees left before advancing again, then when it eventually hits a black square it turns 90 degrees right and turns the black square back to white. So it will continue in a seemingly random fashion, traversing around and around in completely patternless shapes. That is, until suddenly it doesn’t. At an certain point in its pattern it creates a “highway” which involves a set of steps which will be indefinitely repeated. This is a “Stable” configuration which it just happens to stumble upon but it is a configuration it will maintain. Again this is an example of structure arising from chaos.

Highway

Designing My Own Cellular Automata

While my assignment dealt mostly with simple programming and getting cellular automata to work in the first place, it also had an extension section where we could try and get other cellular automata to work. While copying other famous examples would be fun, I thought it would be more interesting to try my own variations on the theme. By developing my own algorithms I would be able to see unique results, which would be far more interesting.

I began my quest to make interesting cellular automata by deciding that the ones I made would be variations on the theme of Conway’s Life. I wanted my active states to represent different organisms in a world. Unlike Conway’s Life however I decided to have more than just active and inactive states – I made two separate types of active states. In other words there are two different “teams” (or species if you will) of cellular automata. This fundamental difference opened up a new array of options – particularly in how these different types could interact. I completed three variations on the theme: Teams, Sheep, and Prey. Sheep was by far the most successful in terms of interesting patterns. I’ll go through the rules and results each of them gave below.

(For all my tests I used starting boards which had roughly random assortments of each type – I have not extensively tested them in any other specific starting patterns. I also used high-density versions of Conway’s life for my versions.).

1. Teams

My first creation was called teams and was simply the existence of two teams together in one world – Red and Blue. My rules were as follows: (Note: Neighbours is refers to a Moore Neighbourhood, in other words, all adjacent squares are neighbours)

  1. A Red square will stay Red if it has 2 or 3 Red neighbours, any more or less and it will become inactive.
  2. A Blue square will stay Blue if it has 2 or 3 Blue neighbours, any more or less and it will become inactive.
  3. An inactive cell will become Red or Blue if it has 2 neighbours of that type, if it has 2 neighbors of both types it will remain inactive.

The results of this were interesting, but not shocking:

Cellular Automata Teams

As you can see between 0 and 1 iterations we see a lot of the organisms die due to overcrowding. By the 6th iteration we see that populations are beginning to form in clumps of their own kind, distinct from one another. This is somewhat interesting an occurrence to have happened, especially as it lays the foundation of later iterations. I should note that these populations are dynamic and individual cells change from active to inactive regularly.

By the 12th iteration the whole world is heavily populated and the borders of the two species are pushing against each other – they are prevented from spreading by each other, and are thus competing for space. Finally we see that as time goes on the red side has largely won the fight for space – although it seems quite unable to  push back the blue entirely. The fact that red won is very likely a result of the initial random state – but it proves that in the fight for space the two species can in fact force each other to extinction.

2. Sheep

Sheep was my second creation and I consider it to be my best so far. In teams I had had two organisms which were essentially the same, they followed the same rules. In sheep that changed – I created two types of organisms, Sheep (white) and Grass (green). My logic was that grass would expand and grow somewhat rapidly, it has no problems with overcrowding so can fill in solid spaces. Sheep on the other hand require nearby grass to survive – however if there are too many sheep to one area of grass then the grass will die, and the sheep will starve shortly afterwards. Thus the rules for sheep became:

  1. A Grass square will only die if there are 3 or more Sheep neighbours.
  2. A Sheep square will die if it has 0 Grass neighbours.
  3. An inactive cell will become a sheep if there are two or more sheep neighbours (sheep are not asexual 😉 ) and at least 3 grass neighbours (sheep only breed when food is plentiful).
  4. An inactive cell will become grass if it has no sheep neighbours and at least 3 grass neighbours.

Cellular Automata Sheep

The results show a very interesting progression of stages, each with its own interesting phenomena. We can see that in the first 30 or so iterations that grass begins to grow quite rapidly, sheep in tow. We see colonies of sheep growing on the sides of expanding patches of grass which start to dominate the world. However in addition we also see various shaped colonies of sheep and grass which are living perfectly stable (and static) lives, where neither sheep nor grass are dieing or reproducing.

However as time goes on (168 being an example) we see that almost the entire field is covered in huge areas of grass, with uniform sheep boundaries eating away at their sides. The grass grows in curly waves and semi-circles because areas next to sheep do not grow, while sides away from sheep do, meaning the edge of the grass curls around the line of sheep. These huge waves will collide with smaller colonies and completely ruin the equilibrium they have, making them just another part of the  larger cycles.

The process of waves moving around continues for a long time and for a while it seems the system will remain forever in this dynamic state. However the static colonies find a way to strike back. A special subset of static colonies is able to resist being destroyed by large waves, these specially shaped colony types thus survive and remain. Over time they must be created due to probability and chance, and they are never destroyed and so begin to accumulate. Furthermore, while completely immune colonies are very rare, colonies immune to only one side are less rare. This means that these one-side immune colonies can build with their backs to immune colonies and expand that way. This increased probability results in the quickened spread of static sustainable colonies over time. By the iteration 3409 shown there is only a single cross shaped path left where the original waves are, the rest is static. And by 3540 the world is entirely stable and will no longer change. This exact value will change depending on the random start, but the result is the same.

3. Prey

The final variation on the theme I created was prey. The system would work much like sheep, except the instead of having grass being eaten, it would be another normal conway organism, affected by overpopulation etc. I believe I could have done better on the implementation of this version, but I ran out of time and I believe that as it is the system illustrates what is happening. Prey are green and Predators are red in this version. The rules I used are as follows:

  1. Predators die if they have no prey neighbours.
  2. Prey will stay alive if they have 2 or 3 prey neighbours and no predators, otherwise they will die.
  3. Inactive cells with one predator and at least two prey neighbours will become predators.
  4. Inactive cells with  no predators and at least two prey neighbours will become prey.

Prey-Results

As we can see in these results, the beginning of this simulation involves the majority of the board dying from overcrowding or starvation. However we see small pockets of predators and prey surviving together. These expand, the prey expanding far quicker than the predators so that by iteration 39 there are large prey populations. However by this point the predators too begin to increase and eat their way out in circles through the prey. Unlike in sheep, the systems here are all dynamic due to the overcrowding killing individuals. By later iterations the system becomes a dynamic equilibrium between predators and prey and as far as I can tell it continues this way indefinitely.

Conclusion

I am glad I did try to create my own cellular automata as the results were very interesting. It was not particularly difficult to come up with the basic rules for the system – and once they are run it is amazing to see the complex results that occur as a result. Sheep in shows how such simple rules can really lead to an extremely complex system, with multiple stages and even what could be considered natural selection. The simple truism that things which sustain will sustain is what kept the immune colonies going – and this is a fantastic parallel to life and how we think its origins began. All you need is a structure that can either stay alive or replicate itself, and over time one is bound to arise.


Wolfram Alpha – The Beginning of So Much More

•May 22, 2009 • 3 Comments

Wolfram Alpha is the newest website on the block. In the past few weeks it has recvieved a ton of hype and ton of criticism. If you have yet to see it you can check it out here: Wolfram Alpha . So what does this mysterious new website do? At first it looks a little like a search engine – and this is exactly what it is being compared to – but it is not, it is in fact a computational device. It works simply, you give it some input – it searches through large stores of data and applies appropriate computations to it to give you the answer you want. The only problem is that most of the time it doesn’t work.Wolfram Alpha Logo

The ideal is good, the idea of being able to find any fact instantly from their “accurate” databases. However the implementation, as has been mentioned by many critics so far is still lacking. Searches are often misunderstood or not understood at all. In addition their “accuracy” is looking like it will have to be compromised due to the huge logistics of such a task. This is not to say it is useless, it is still a powerful tool – but it is basic.

However while wolfram alpha may have some downsides now – I believe many of the critics out there aren’t looking far enough in the future. They compare wolfram to search engines like google and encyclopedia’s like wikipedia. They see Wolfram Alpha as a way for people to find simple information. This it is – but it is the start of a whole new area of the internet – an area which will likely revolutionize the way our world works.

The Beginnings of a DataNet

There is one key and fundamental difference between Wolfram Alpha and what is considered to be its “competition” – that difference is content. Wikipedia is written for humans, by humans. Google, and infact most of the internet to date, shows you webpages – pages made to be read by humans. Pages read by humans are all well and good, but they are not all there is to the internet, and soon we will see the emergence of something more powerful. What Wolfram Alpha does differently to what is currently out there is it uses data – and data are the future.

This is not my idea. I first heard about this idea on TED from a talk by Time Berns-Lee , for those who don’t know him he was the inventor of the ‘World Wide Web’ – an integral part of the internet today and the origin of the “www” in URLs.  The new level of web he talks about in his speech is what is coming – the collection and connection of masses of data. In short, the theory is that in the near future we will soon see more and more data reaching the internet, being used in a datanet, computed and used in meaningful ways. There are a few reasons why this is important and I’ll go through them in brief.

1. Collecting Data

For data to be important we must be able to collect it. In the past this has been a somewhat tedious task – each set of data requires a lot of work to obtain. However now it is not such an issue. Today even shoes have computers in them – and if the trend continues we will likely see everything we own with not only computer, but with wireless connectivity. This means we will be able to get data from millions and millions of points simultaneously – the amount of data will be unreal compared to anything we have seen in the past.

2. Connecting Data

For this data to be useful however it needs to be connected. It needs to be compared and correlated with other data from other sources. This is where the internet and a data-net comes in handy. With streams of more and more data coming together, we need the infrastructure to connect all this and it will come through the natural expansion of the internet.

3. Computing Data

Once we have the data connected it needs to be computed. Data on its own is not useable – it needs to be processed and analyzed. A huge data set with a huge number of connections will require huge computation power – however we are getting there. Computer power has and is still increasing at insane levels. Even if it does slow or stop eventually, we’ve come a long way already. With such processing power, able to be delocalized too thanks to the internet, this data computation can actually be done.

4. Using Data

An Example of Complex Statistic Computation

An Example of Complex Statistic Computation

So I’ve shown that we can now collect lots of data, connect it all together and compute it. So what? What is so special about raw data, why is it at all important? Well to begin with here is an awesome website which aims to show exactly why it is important: Gap Minder . But data goes far beyond uses like that. Data can be used to make decisions, data represent pure information – and computed in complex ways together can give some of the best information to people making decisions about the world and what to do within it. It also works well with research and development groups in that they have the best up to date information at their finger tips and can publish their results back to the world rapidly and in a meaningful way.

Revolutionary?

Revolutionary is a pretty strong word, but I think this has the capability to be just that – revolutionary. The creation of a datanet would re-center the focus of computers back onto computation and with this knowledge will come power. Furthermore it means we will be able to use the internet to begin to regulate things itself. If this continues this way then we may see extrapolation of the current theory of a “conscious internet”. Data represent the inputs the mind of the internet receives and any control they internet may have may eventual become its conscious intent. But even if it isn’t conscious, the effect is largely the same – a huge mind working to solve the problems we face today (from the biggest to the smallest), and able to do so much better than any human can.

A Few Problems

I should mention a few of the possible hurdles this entire system will need to jump to work in the end. One problem is the possibility of false data, vandalism or even cyber-warfare through this sort of thing could be largely detrimental to the system as a whole and methods for monitoring and double-checking data will be essential for accuracy. On that note, the internet is a global community – but we are currently living in a nationalistic world. I have hopes the internet will begin to break down that system, but in the meantime it is important that a datanet is not controlled by or twisted towards bias by superpowers. The other worry some may have is the “skynet” problem, where we give too much power to computational beings who will then “turn on us”. While this is quite a farfetched speculation, for many reasons, it is important to remember that humans DO have important roles to play in the future of the datanet. Humans have amazing neural systems which in many ways can be complimentary to a computers. So while computation may largely be done by computers, areas such as connection of data are better accomplished by humans (a good example is tagging photos, a rudimentary type of data connection already well established).

Back to Alpha

So is Wolfram Alpha the beginning of this revolution? I say it is one of the first signs that it is coming at the least. And I would not rule out the possibility of it expanding into a strong mover towards this direction. It is new in that it works off of data and not “information”. There is a key difference and Wolfram Alpha has realized and implemented this. Its new, its simple and its still in its infancy – but this will be the future and we may look back at Alpha as being one of the first steps in this historic development.


Void

•May 5, 2009 • 3 Comments

I have found that in my courses at university I am not required to write anything longer than short answer responses. This situation I fear may be detrimental to my ability to write and as such I am hoping to counter this through writing. The result of such writing is the following short story. I hope you enjoy it:

Void

Whence did the universe come from? I do not know.
Were it god or heav’nly creature did fill this void?
This void of nothing – a being filled not even with chaos or night.
And what of the time when Void will take back its own…

***

Nadja sat on her chair. It was a good chair, in fact it was Nadja’s favourite chair. It offered a certain amount of comfort to the old lady – who had seen so much yet felt so little. Nadja continued to sit on her chair as she was oft to do of an evening. She sat and she thought.

For you see Nadja was alone in this world. People visited her every day and her chair looked out onto a park where children would play. She saw these people yet she knew they were not real. They were shells – they were ghosts. Every day they passed by living their lives as they would, completely ignorant to their own non-existence.

Nadja felt lonely, she often did, as she looked out at the void around her. Although she knew it to be a warm summer day she felt cold, as if the emptiness that surrounded her – the emptiness which permeated every atom in her body – was sucking the heat out of the air. Of course the heat was an illusion too, everything was.

As a girl she had never been able to accept that she was alone – surely these people around her were real too. They said they were real, they acted real, there was nothing to doubt their realness. Nothing to prove them unreal – yet nothing to prove them to be real either.

And so Nadja continued to sit in her chair, her mind ticking away, alone in the void.

***

I sit here alone and it surrounds me.
It pulls at my skin, it tugs at my bone.
It rips me apart so that I touch nothing – not even myself.
But of course, it has been that way all along.

***

Darkness rolled over the sky like a warm blanket over a child. The blackness comforted and subdued but in this light the world seemed to be ethereal. This was not the ethereal land of the twilight or even that of the midday sun – no this was the world of demons and nightmares.

As this world descended from the sky the children looked up from their game. Dark twisted shapes met their vision and they pondered them. This was no regular day. A hiss of static filled the air and rose in their hearts. The sound had no source, it was all encompassing – they heard it merely within their heads, for where else could sound be heard? And as if they had been plunged into an untuned television the sound merely rose and rose.

People in the streets were running and screaming, but the children did not know why. They merely watched and waited as the world shook and twisted. In the darkness many things appear as they are not, thus was the world around them a twisted mirror of reality – it had truly taken on a dreamlike form. Lightning now struck across the sky and the following thunder was almost lost to them – the static so loud now that it engulfed all.

The kids were reaching the top of a tall hill. When they had begun walking none knew, nor even the reason they were walking. Like a school of fish they had moved on their own accord –seemingly drawn to this hill on the outskirts of town where a tall tree stood. On the top they saw an old old lady, seated wearily in an old rocking chair. They sat at her feet expectantly.

One child opened his mouth to speak – before realising how pointless a gesture it would be. He could not hear his own thoughts let alone his own voice. But the old lady seemed to understand – so she reached out, picking up the child and placing him on her lap. And so the group sat there, and waited.

For what seemed an age all was still – nothing but the darkness and the engulfing static. Then slowly, slowly but surely, like the glacier with its inexorable force – the world was torn apart, as if the corners of world were being pulled by their guardians. The children looked from one to another and found it hard to see. They felt their minds unable to grasp images anymore. Each felt the world slipping away – until each was alone, as they always had been. The small boy looked up at Naja and mouthed… “I don’t want to die”.

Nadja nodded slowly, yet seemingly confidently responded “No one does.” And then the blackness was replaced with white. The static was replaced with silence. And the boy was no longer alone. He would never be alone again.

***

Cogito Ergo Sum
I think therefore I am
I am a whisper in the void
I am a light in the darkness
I am and I will never be again


Humans Vs Zombies @ ANU

•March 14, 2009 • 9 Comments

Humans Vs Zombies is a craze which has swept through the US like wildfire. Starting at a single university, the game has grown and spread all across the world. And now I want to bring it to Australia – specifically ANU.

Humans Vs Zombies is essentially a large game of tag. In this game everyone, bar one person, is a human. The other player is the initial zombie. Over the course of a week this game takes place, with humans slowly succumbing to the zombie horde and survivors praying for their lives. Humans do have a way to slow their (inevitable deaths) however – they can stun zombies with nerf guns or socks.

The main website for Humans Vs Zombies is here: http://humansvszombies.org/ . The following is a fantastic documentary about the game by its creator, its long, but well worth watching. It really shows you just how awesome this game is:

So I have decided that ANU needs to have this game as well. I think this is an achievable goal and so far everyone I have explained it to seems to think its awesome as well. We are aiming to start a club through ANUSA – the student union, which should get us some support. Following that we will need to get approval from ANU and possibly the colleges on campus.

The games go for a week and we are planning on holding one each semester, very early on to avoid disrupting study. With that in mind we are aiming for the second week of next semester as a first game. By making the games far apart in the year we can ensure they are done well and it will give us lots of time to get everything ready in the first place. Not to mention advertising!

Bring on the zombies!

 

Edit: This event DID happen and the club is now a strong and large part of ANU life, check out my followup post here.


Emergent Miracles

•March 11, 2009 • 7 Comments

Emergence is probably the most amazing phenomenon I can think of. It is an area of great interest to me as it seems to cross the boundary between philosophy and science – it goes to the heart of many of the great questions we ask today. It is an area I think I might end up researching as a career because I believe it has the possibility to change the world.

Neuron Network

For those who haven’t heard of it before, emergence is the process whereby a complex system can attain properties greater than the sum of its parts. In other words, thousands of tiny things interacting together in seemingly insignificant ways can create sum effects which are completely unexpected and different from their own efforts. A good way to explain this is through examples.

One good example is a neural system. Each neuron is on its own fairly unremarkable. It receives thousands of inputs from other neurons and sends out its own output depending on specific situations. The addition of all of these neural firings however is an organism which has complex behavior and even such high level workings as social interaction.

Another good example is a colony of ants. You’ve probably been told before that ants are slaves to the will of the queen of a colony. This is in fact wrong. The queen does not rule over a colony of ants with some omniscient or telekinetic power. Instead ant colonies work on extremely complex interactions formed by scents the ants use to communicate. Thousands of workers make notes of little things they note in the environment (output) and at the same time they modify their behavior through the notes they read from other ants (input). This seemingly mundane interaction allows them to solve amazing problems and work almost like a giant brain! The combined intelligence of the ant colony superorganism is far greater than the sum of the individual ant brains.

Emergence

An important note at this point I need to make is the difference between Strong and Weak emergence. Weak emergence is simply a method of describing lots of things interacting together. When lots of things work together they can be modeled by weak emergence as a way of looking at the system as a whole. Strong emergence goes one step further though – a system which displays strong emergence creates properties which are irreducible. That is, something new is created by this interaction of many parts which is of a higher level than the original parts.

This raises a huge question to me – how is it that a emergent system can create something from nothing? How is it that these miracles can happen. To quote Mark Bedau:

“Although strong emergence is logically possible, it is uncomfortably like magic. How does an irreducible but supervenient downward causal power arise, since by definition it cannot be due to the aggregation of the micro-level potentialities? Such causal powers would be quite unlike anything within our scientific ken. This not only indicates how they will discomfort reasonable forms of materialism. Their mysteriousness will only heighten the traditional worry that emergence entails illegitimately getting something from nothing.”

So is emergence a type of magic, a gift from God, or just a very special and important outcome of these specific systems?

Before moving on to that question I’d like to take an aside and look at an (possibly the most) important example of emergence – the conscious mind.

Consciousness

The Mind and Soul

I think therefore I am. What are you? Do you associate yourself with your body, your brain, or your mind? Where is the mind in the body, is there a part of the brain which houses the mind? Is the mind – the soul – and its conscious element some area outside of our current scientific knowledge, or can we explain it. These philosophical questions are very old and still unanswered ones. In many ways they are some of the most important questions to us, as they intimately relate directly to us.

However it looks like consciousness is the result of emergence. There is no biological basis for a a “magical” mind. the brain is made up of simple neurons, which are in turn made up of simple inorganic elements. So how is it something as amazing, complex and wonderful as consciousness could develop? Strong emergence provides an answer (of sorts) to this question.

A series of neurons works on seemingly simple inputs and outputs, however the structure is so complex that it is able to create a phenomenon as complex as consciousness. This emergent property is irreducible – each neuron doesn’t have a bit of consciousness inside of it, only when they are all connected does the phenomenon exist. This is extremely significant, as it means we are the result of emergence. Our very being is an irreducible quality derived from the collaboration of these neurons in our body.

So to return to the question above, is this the result of magic? Is it a type of divine intervention which allows strong emergence to create such miracles? Or is this just another extremely interesting facet of the way the world works? I can’t answer these questions, others might be able to and I’d love to know the answers to them.

A Fresh Look at Reductionism

Reductionism is a process used in the sciences a lot. You reduce a problem further and further down to find the lowest most basic elements in the system and then once you have developed these, extrapolate up to understand the complex processes you were looking at in the first place. Reductionism is at the core of a “Theory of Everything” (the Holy Grail of physics) – the idea being that if we can figure out the most basic parts of the universe (currently string theory or the standard model depending on what you believe to be right) then we can extrapolate upwards to explain everything else in the cosmos. Essentially this would mean that a physics theory of everything could explain the nuisances of sociology given enough data and computational power.

However a reductionist view of everything has run into a few problems recently, chaos theory and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle in particular. I’d propose that emergence poses just as much a problem to reductionism as these other areas. How can you extrapolate upward if complex interactions yield irreducible qualities?

There are two possible outcomes of this. One is that you can’t extrapolate upwards and reductionism just won’t work. In this case the only way to study such systems is on a macro-scale or through the use of more recent fields such as systems theory.

However I believe that it should be possible to scientifically understand how and why emergence works the way it does. If we copy emergent systems we see in the world already we can work on trial and error. What are the fundamental pieces required to make emergence work in different cases – and is it possible for us to find a pattern that underlies the entire process.

A Forrest of Complexity

The Manipulation of Emergence

So to quickly recap, I believe we can understand why and how strong emergence works through the study of emergent systems we see in the world today. This makes the assumptions that there is an underlying system below these and that they are not just magical/unpredictable properties we can never understand. Assuming we can and do understand how emergent systems work – what would change? In other words, why study it at all – what is there to gain from doing so?

Well firstly, if we discovered how emergent systems worked then we would immediately know a lot more about ourselves. We would finally have a scientific answer to the question of “what is the mind”. Conversely, if we discovered emergent properties are fundamentally unpredictable this would increase the evidence for more religious or spiritual theories.

Perhaps more practical however is how we could manipulate emergence for our own means. Emergent properties are usually significantly more impressive than the structures they are made out of and its very possible that there are higher order emergent properties we have never yet witnessed but which could be extremely powerful/strange/exciting. We think consciousness to be important and special – just try to consider the implications of even higher order emergent systems.

One question is will the internet yield emergent features? It is made up of millions of humans and computers connected in a huge network. Nothing particularly special about the individual components – but as a whole it might be something more, something unlike anything we’ve seen before – or perhaps just conscious itself. But perhaps it won’t reach these stages unless certain conditions for emergence are met.

Speaking of consciousness, the understanding of emergent systems would give us the power to create new consciousness – from scratch. Computers are already very close to the brain, if we figure out exactly what computers need to create emergence then we might see the birth of the first conscious computers.

The applications are ambiguous certainly, but my bet is on them being amazing.