I overheard a clip on the radio last week in which someone was parodying the quote from Marvin, the Paranoid Android in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: ‘Here I am with a brain the size of a planet and they ask me to pick up a piece of paper. Call that job satisfaction? I don’t.’ It set me thinking about something that I read a few months ago in Max Tegmark’s book: ‘Life 3.0 – being human in the age of artificial intelligence‘ [see ‘Four requirements for consciousness‘ on January 22nd, 2020]. Tegmark speculates that since consciousness seems to require different parts of a system to communicate with one another and form networks or neuronal assemblies [see ‘Digital hive mind‘ on November 30th, 2016], then the thoughts of large systems will be slower by necessity. Hence, the process of forming thoughts in a planet-sized brain will take much longer than in a normal-sized human brain. However, the more complex assemblies that are achievable with a planet-sized brain might imply that the thoughts and experiences would be much more sophisticated, if few and far between. Tegmark suggests that a cosmic mind with physical dimensions of a billion light-years would only have time for about ten thoughts before dark energy fragmented it into disconnected parts; however, these thoughts and associated experiences would be quite deep.
Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Penguin Random House, 2007.
Four years ago I wrote a post asking whether there were any fundamental laws of biology that are sufficiently general to apply beyond the context of life on Earth [‘Laws of biology?‘ on January 16th, 2016]. I suggested Dollo’s law that diversity and complexity increases in evolutionary systems; the Hardy-Weinberg law about allele and genotype frequencies remaining constant from generation to generation; and the Michaelis-Menten law governing enzymatic reactions. Recently, I came across a simpler statement of the laws of biology proposed by Edward O.Wilson. He states that the first law of biology is all entities and processes of life are obedient to the laws of physics and chemistry; and the second law is all evolution, beyond minor random perturbations due to high mutation rates and random fluctuations in the number of competing genes, is due to natural selection. It seems likely that these simpler laws will be universally applicable; however, until we find evidence of extra-terrestrial life, they will remain untestable in a universal context unlike the laws of physics.
Sadly my vacation is finished [see ‘Relieving stress‘ on July 17th, 2019] and I have reconnected to the digital world, including the news media. Despite the sensational headlines and plenty of rhetoric from politicians, nothing very much appears to have really changed in the world. Yes, we have a new prime minister in the UK, who has a different agenda to the previous incumbent; however, the impact of actions by politicians on society and the economy seems rather limited unless the action represents a step change and is accompanied by appropriate resources. In addition, the consequences of such changes are often different to those anticipated by our leaders. Perhaps, this is because society is a global network with simple operating rules, some of which we know intuitively, and without a central control because governments exert only limited and local control. It is well-known in the scientific community that large networks, without central control but with simple operating rules, usually exhibit self-organising and non-trivial emergent behaviour. The emergent behaviour of a complex system cannot be predicted from the behaviour of its constituent components or sub-systems, i.e., the whole is more than the sum of its parts. The mathematical approach to describing such systems is to use non-linear dynamics with solutions lying in phase space. Modelling complex systems is difficult and interpreting the predictions is challenging; so, it is not surprising that when the actions of government have an impact then the outcomes are often unexpected and unintended. However, if global society can be considered as a complex system, then it would appear that its self-organising behaviour tends to blunt the effectiveness of many of the actions of government. This seems be a fortuitous regulatory mechanism that helps maintain the status quo. In addition, we tend to ignore phenomena whose complexity exceeds our powers of explanation, or we use over-simplified explanations [see ‘Is the world incomprehensible?‘ on March 15th, 2017 and Blind to complexity‘ on December 19th, 2018]. And, politicians are no exception to this tendency; so, they usually legislate based on simple ideology rather than rational consideration of the likely outcomes of change on the complex system we call society. And, this is probably a further regulatory mechanism.
However, all of this is evolving rapidly because a small number of tech companies have created a central control by grabbing the flow of data between us and they are using it to manipulate those simple operating rules. This appears to be weakening the self-organising and emergent characteristics of society so that the system can be controlled more easily without the influence of its constituent parts, i.e. us.
I have written recently about time and consciousness [see ‘Time at the heart of our problems‘ on January 30th, 2019 and ‘Limits of imagination‘ on February 13th, 2019]. We perceive some things as almost constant or changeless, such as trees and landscapes; however, that is just a consequence of our perception of time. Nothing that is in equilibrium, and hence unchanging, can be alive. The laws of thermodynamics tell us that disequilibrium is fundamental in driving all processes including life. Our perception of experience arises from registering changes in the flow of sensory information to our brains and as well as changes in the networks of neurons in our brains. Hence, both time and complexity appear to be essential ingredients for consciousness. Even when we sit motionless watching an apparently unchanging scene, as a consequence of the endless motion of connections and signals in our brains, our minds are teeming with activity, churning through great jumbles of ideas, memories and thoughts. Next time you are sitting quietly, try to find ‘you’; not the things that you do or experience but the elusive ‘I’. We assume that the elusive ‘I’ is there, but most of us find nothing when we look for it. Julian Baggini has suggested that the “I” is ‘a nothing, contentless centre around which experiences flutter like butterflies.’
Baggini J, The pig that wants to be eaten and 99 other thought experiments, London: Granta Publications, 2008.