Tag Archives: emergent behaviour

Destruction of society as a complex system?

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.

For a more straightforward explanation listen to Carole Cadwalladr’s TED talk on ‘Facebook’s role in Brexit – and the threat to democracy‘ or if you have more time on your hands then watch the new documentary movie ‘The Great Hack‘.  My thanks to Gillian Tett in the FT last weekend who alerted me to the scale of the issue: ‘Data brokers: from poachers to gamekeepers?

 

Blind to complexity

fruit fly nervous system Albert Cardona HHMI Janelia Research Campus Welcome Image Awards 2015When faced with complexity, we tend to seek order and simplicity.  Most of us respond negatively to the uncertainty associated with complex systems and their apparent unpredictability.  Complex systems can be characterised as large networks operating using simple rules but without central control which results in self-organising behaviour and non-trivial emergent behaviour.  Emergent behaviour is the behaviour of the system that is not apparent or expected from the behaviour of its constituent parts [see ‘Emergent properties‘ on September 16th, 2015].

The philosopher, William Wimsatt observed that we tend to ignore phenomena whose complexity exceeds our predictive capability and our detection apparatus.  This is problematic because we try to over-simplify our descriptions of complex systems.  Occam’s razor is often mis-interpreted to mean that simple explanations are better ones, whereas in reality ‘everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler’, (which is often attributed to Einstein).  This implies that our explanation and any mathematical model of a complex system, such as the nervous system in the image, will need to be complex.  In mathematical terms, this will probably mean a non-linear dynamic model with a solution in the form of a phase portrait.  ‘Non-linear’ because the response of the system not proportional to the stimulus inducing the response; ‘dynamic’ because the system changes with time; and a ‘phase portrait’ because the system can exist in many states, some stable and some unstable, dependent on its prior history; so, for instance for a pendulum, its phase portrait is a plot of all of its possible positions and velocities.

If all this sounds too hard, then you see why people shy away from using complex models to describe a complex system even when it is obvious that the system is complex and extremely unlikely to be adequately described by a linear model, such as for the nervous system in the image.

In other words, if we can’t see it and its too hard to think about it, then we pretend it’s not happening!

 

The thumbnail shows an image of a fruit-fly’s nervous system taken by Albert Cardona from HHMI Janelia Research Campus.  The image won a Wellcome Image Award in 2015.

William C. Wimsatt, Randomness and perceived randomness in evolutionary biology, Synthese, 43(2):287-329, 1980.

For more on this topic see: ‘Is the world comprehensible?‘ on March 15th, 2017.

 

Red to blue

Some research has a very long incubation time.  Last month, we published a short paper that describes the initial results of research that started just after I arrived in Liverpool in 2011.  There are various reasons for our slow progress, including our caution about the validity of the original idea and the challenges of working across discipline boundaries.  However, we were induced to rush to publication by the realization that others were catching up with us [see blog post and conference paper].  Our title does not give much away: ‘Characterisation of metal fatigue by optical second harmonic generation‘.

Second harmonic generation or frequency doubling occurs when photons interact with a non-linear material and are combined to produce new photons with twice the energy, and hence, twice the frequency and half the wavelength of the original photons.  Photons are discrete packets of energy that, in our case, are supplied in pulses of 2 picoseconds from a laser operating at a wavelength of 800 nanometres (nm).  The photons strike the surface, are reflected, and then collected in a spectrograph to allow us to evaluate the wavelength of the reflected photons.  We look for ones at 400 nm, i.e. a shift from red to blue.

The key finding of our research is that the second harmonic generation from material in the plastic zone ahead of a propagating fatigue crack is different to virgin material that has experienced no plastic deformation.  This is significant because the shape and size of the crack tip plastic zone determines the rate and direction of crack propagation; so, information about the plastic zone can be used to predict the life of a component.  At first sight, this capability appears similar to thermoelastic stress analysis that I have described in Instructive Update on October 4th, 2017; however, the significant potential advantage of second harmonic generation is that the component does not have to be subject to a cyclic load during the measurement, which implies we could study behaviour during a load cycle as well as conduct forensic investigations.  We have some work to do to realise this potential including developing an instrument for routine measurements in an engineering laboratory, rather than an optics lab.

Last week, I promised weekly links to posts on relevant Thermodynamics topics for students following my undergraduate module; so here are three: ‘Emergent properties‘, ‘Problem-solving in Thermodynamics‘, and ‘Running away from tigers‘.

 

Digital hive mind

durham-cloistersFor many people Durham Cathedral will be familiar as a location in the Harry Potter movies.  However, for me it triggers memories of walking around the cloisters discussing Erwin Schrodinger’s arithmetical paradox: there seems to be a great number of conscious egos creating their own worlds but only one world.  Each of us appears to construct our own domain of private consciousness and Schrodinger identifies the region where they all overlap as the ‘real world around us’.  However, he raises questions such as, is my world really the same as yours?  Schrodinger proposes two solutions to the paradox: either there are a multitude of worlds with no communication between them or a unification of minds or consciousness.

Schrodinger found ‘it utterly impossible to form an idea about’ how his ‘own conscious mind should have originated by the integration of the consciousness of the cells (or some of them)’ that formed his body.  Recently this has been addressed by Susan Greenfield, who has proposed that short-lived coalitions of millions of neurons are responsible for consciousness.  These ‘neuronal assemblies’, which last for fractions of a second, link local events in individual cells with large scale events across the brain and many of ‘these assemblies flickering on and off somehow come together to provide a collective continuous experience of consciousness’.  In other words, our consciousness arises as an emergent behaviour of the myriad of interacting networks in our brain.  It seems no less fanciful that our individual minds networked together to generate a further level of emergent behaviour equivalent to the unified mind that Schrodinger conceived though, like Schrodinger, I find it utterly impossible to form an idea about how this might happen.

Perhaps, at some level we are creating a unified mind via the digital hive mind being formed by the digital devices to which we delegate some of the more mundane aspects of modern life [see my post entitled ‘Thinking out of the skull‘ on 18th March, 2015].  However, Greenfield worries about a very sinister potential impact of our digital devices, which is associated with the stimulation they provide to millions of the younger generation.  She thinks it could lead to small-scale neuronal assemblies becoming ‘the default setting in the consciousness of the digital native, to an extent it has never been in previous generations’.  In other words we might be losing the ability to create the emergent behaviour required for consciousness and shifting it to our digital devices.

Perhaps we are closer than we think to the vision in Maria Lassnig’s painting of the lady with her half of her brain outside her skull? [see my post entitled ‘Science fiction becomes virtual reality‘ on October 6th, 2016.

Sources:

Erwin Schrodinger, ‘Mind and Matter – the Tarner Lectures’ in What is Life?, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967.

Susan Greenfield, A day in the life of the brain: the neuroscience of consciousness from dawn to dusk, Allen Lane, 2016.

Clive Cookson, Know your own mind, FT Weekend, 15/16 October 2016, reviewing Greenfield’s book.

Nilanjana Roy ‘What it means to be human’ FT Weekend, 17/18 September 2016.