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“… words are not numbers, nor even signs. They are animals, alive and with a will of their own. Put together, they are invariably less or more than their sum. Words die in antisepsis. Asked to be neutral, they display allegiances and stubborn propensities. They assume the color of their new surroundings, like chameleons; they perversely develop echoes.” Guy Davenport, “Another Odyssey”, 1967. [above: painting by Mark Rothko – untitled]
Figure – A classic example of emergence: The exact shape of a termite mound is not reducible to the actions of individual termites. Even if, there are already computer models who could achieve it (Check for more on “Stigmergic construction” or the full current blog Stigmergy tag)
“The world can no longer be understood like a chessboard… It’s a Jackson Pollack painting” ~ Carne Ross, 2012.
[…] As pointed by Langton, there is more to life than mechanics – there is also dynamics. Life depends critically on principles of dynamical self-organization that have remained largely untouched by traditional analytic methods. There is a simple explanation for this – these self-organized dynamics are fundamentally non-linear phenomena, and non-linear phenomena in general depend critically on the interactions between parts: they necessarily disappear when parts are treated in isolation from one another, which is the basis for any analytic method. Rather, non-linear phenomena are most appropriately treated by a synthetic approach, where synthesis means “the combining of separate elements or substances to form a coherent whole”. In non-linear systems, the parts must be treated in each other’s presence, rather than independently from one another, because they behave very differently in each other’s presence than we would expect from a study of the parts in isolation. […] in Vitorino Ramos, 2002, http://arxiv.org/abs/cs /0412077.
What follows are passages from an important article on the consequences for Science at the moment of the recent discovery of the Higgs boson. Written by Ashutosh Jogalekar, “The Higgs boson and the future of science” (link) the article appeared at the Scientific American blog section (July 2012). And it starts discussing reductionism or how the Higgs boson points us to the culmination of reductionist thinking:
[…] And I say this with a suspicion that the Higgs boson may be the most fitting tribute to the limitations of what has been the most potent philosophical instrument of scientific discovery – reductionism. […]
[…] Yet as we enter the second decade of the twenty-first century, it is clear that reductionism as a principal weapon in our arsenal of discovery tools is no longer sufficient. Consider some of the most important questions facing modern science, almost all of which deal with complex, multi factorial systems. How did life on earth begin? How does biological matter evolve consciousness? What are dark matter and dark energy? How do societies cooperate to solve their most pressing problems? What are the properties of the global climate system? It is interesting to note at least one common feature among many of these problems; they result from the build-up rather than the breakdown of their operational entities. Their signature is collective emergence, the creation of attributes which are greater than the sum of their constituent parts. Whatever consciousness is for instance, it is definitely a result of neurons acting together in ways that are not obvious from their individual structures. Similarly, the origin of life can be traced back to molecular entities undergoing self-assembly and then replication and metabolism, a process that supersedes the chemical behaviour of the isolated components. The puzzle of dark matter and dark energy also have as their salient feature the behaviour of matter at large length and time scales. Studying cooperation in societies essentially involves studying group dynamics and evolutionary conflict. The key processes that operate in the existence of all these problems seem to almost intuitively involve the opposite of reduction; they all result from the agglomeration of molecules, matter, cells, bodies and human beings across a hierarchy of unique levels. In addition, and this is key, they involve the manifestation of unique principles emerging at every level that cannot be merely reduced to those at the underlying level. […]
[…] While emergence had been implicitly appreciated by scientists for a long time, its modern salvo was undoubtedly a 1972 paper in Science by the Nobel Prize winning physicist Philip Anderson (link) titled “More is Different” (PDF), a title that has turned into a kind of clarion call for emergence enthusiasts. In his paper Anderson (who incidentally first came up with the so-called Higgs mechanism) argued that emergence was nothing exotic; for instance, a lump of salt has properties very different from those of its highly reactive components sodium and chlorine. A lump of gold evidences properties like color that don’t exist at the level of individual atoms. Anderson also appealed to the process of broken symmetry, invoked in all kinds of fundamental events – including the existence of the Higgs boson – as being instrumental for emergence. Since then, emergent phenomena have been invoked in hundreds of diverse cases, ranging from the construction of termite hills to the flight of birds. The development of chaos theory beginning in the 60s further illustrated how very simple systems could give rise to very complicated and counter-intuitive patterns and behaviour that are not obvious from the identities of the individual components. […]
[…] Many scientists and philosophers have contributed to considered critiques of reductionism and an appreciation of emergence since Anderson wrote his paper. (…) These thinkers make the point that not only does reductionism fail in practice (because of the sheer complexity of the systems it purports to explain), but it also fails in principle on a deeper level. […]
[…] An even more forceful proponent of this contingency-based critique of reductionism is the complexity theorist Stuart Kauffman who has laid out his thoughts in two books. Just like Anderson, Kauffman does not deny the great value of reductionism in illuminating our world, but he also points out the factors that greatly limit its application. One of his favourite examples is the role of contingency in evolution and the object of his attention is the mammalian heart. Kauffman makes the case that no amount of reductionist analysis could explain tell you that the main function of the heart is to pump blood. Even in the unlikely case that you could predict the structure of hearts and the bodies that house them starting from the Higgs boson, such a deductive process could never tell you that of all the possible functions of the heart, the most important one is to pump blood. This is because the blood-pumping action of the heart is as much a result of historical contingency and the countless chance events that led to the evolution of the biosphere as it is of its bottom-up construction from atoms, molecules, cells and tissues. […]
[…] Reductionism then falls woefully short when trying to explain two things; origins and purpose. And one can see that if it has problems even when dealing with left-handed amino acids and human hearts, it would be in much more dire straits when attempting to account for say kin selection or geopolitical conflict. The fact is that each of these phenomena are better explained by fundamental principles operating at their own levels. […]
[…] Every time the end of science has been announced, science itself proved that claims of its demise were vastly exaggerated. Firstly, reductionism will always be alive and kicking since the general approach of studying anything by breaking it down into its constituents will continue to be enormously fruitful. But more importantly, it’s not so much the end of reductionism as the beginning of a more general paradigm that combines reductionism with new ways of thinking. The limitations of reductionism should be seen as a cause not for despair but for celebration since it means that we are now entering new, uncharted territory. […]
[…] In conclusion, much elegant work has been done starting from activated mono-nucleotides. However, the prebiotic synthesis of a specific macromolecular sequence does not seem to be at hand, giving us the same problem we have with polypeptide sequences. Since there is no ascertained prebiotic pathway to their synthesis, it may be useful to try to conceive some working hypothesis. In order to do that, I would first like to consider a preliminary question about the proteins we have on our Earth: “Why these proteins … and not other ones?”. Discussing this question can in fact give us some clue as to how orderly sequences might have originated. […] A grain of sand in the Sahara – This is indeed a central question in our world of proteins. How have they been selected out? There is a well-known arithmetic at the basis of this question, (see for example De Duve, 2002) which says that for a polypeptide chain with 100 residues, 20^100 different chains are in principle possible: a number so large that it does not convey any physical meaning. In order to grasp it somewhat, consider that the proteins existing on our planet are of the order of a few thousand billions, let us say around 10^13 (and with all isomers and mutations we may arrive at a few orders of magnitude more). This sounds like a large number. However, the ratio between the possible (say 20^100) and the actual chains (say 10^15) corresponds approximately to the ratio between the radius of the universe and the radius of a hydrogen atom! Or, to use another analogy, nearer to our experience, a ratio many orders of magnitude greater than the ratio between all the grains of sand in the vast Sahara and a single grain. The space outside “our atom”, or our grain of sand, is the space of the “never-born proteins”, the proteins that are not with us – either because they didn’t have the chance to be formed, or because they “came” and were then obliterated. This arithmetic, although trivial, bears an important message: in order to reproduce our proteins we would have to hit the target of that particular grain of sand in the whole Sahara. Christian De Duve, in order to avoid this “sequence paradox” (De Duve, 2002), assumes that all started with short polypeptides – and this is in fact reasonable. However, the theoretically possible total number of long chains does not change if you start with short peptides instead of amino acids. The only way to limit the final number of possible chains would be to assume, for example, that peptide synthesis started only under a particular set of conditions of composition and concentration, thus bringing contingency into the picture. As a corollary, then, this set of proteins born as a product of contingency would have been the one that happened to start life. Probably there is no way of eliminating contingency from the aetiology of our set of proteins. […]
Figure – The ratio between the theoretical number of possible proteins and their actual number is many orders of magnitude greater than the ratio between all sand of the vast Sahara and a single grain of sand (caption on page 69).
[…] The other objection to the numerical meaning suggested by Figure (above) is that the maximum number of proteins is much smaller because a great number of chain configurations are prohibited for energetic reasons. This is reasonable. Let us then assume that 99.9999% of theoretically possible protein chains cannot exist because of energy reasons. This would leave only one protein out of one million, reducing the number of never-born proteins from, say, 10^60 to 10^54. Not a big deal. Of course one could also assume that the total number of energetically allowed proteins is extremely small, no larger than, say, 10^10. This cannot be excluded a priori, but is tantamount to saying that there is something very special about “our” proteins, namely that they are energetically special. Whether or not this is so can be checked experimentally as will be seen later in a research project aimed at this target. The assumption that “our” proteins have something special from the energetic point of view, would correspond to a strict deterministic view that claims that the pathway leading to our proteins was determined, that there was no other possible route. Someone adhering strictly to a biochemical anthropic principle might even say that these proteins are the way they are in order to allow life and the development of mankind on Earth. The contingency view would recite instead the following: if our proteins or nucleic acids have no special properties from the point of view of thermodynamics, then run the tape again and a different “grain of sand” might be produced – one that perhaps would not have supported life. Some may say at this point that proteins derive in any case from nucleic-acid templates – perhaps through a primitive genetic code. However, this is really no argument – it merely shifts the problem of the etiology of peptide chains to etiology of oligonucleotide chains, all arithmetic problems remaining more or less the same. […] pp. 68-70, in Pier Luigi Luisi, “The Emergence of Life: From Chemical Origins to Synthetic Biology“, Cambridge University Press, US, 2006.
[…] Dumb parts, properly connected into a swarm, yield smart results. […] ~ Kevin Kelly. / […] “Now make a four!” the voice booms. Within moments a “4” emerges. “Three.” And in a blink a “3” appears. Then in rapid succession, “Two… One…Zero.” The emergent thing is on a roll. […], Kevin Kelly, Out of Control, 1994.
video -‘Swarm Showreel’ by SwarmWorks Ltd. December 2009 (EVENTS ZUM SCHWÄRMEN – Von Entertainment bis Business).
[…] In a darkened Las Vegas conference room, a cheering audience waves cardboard wands in the air. Each wand is red on one side, green on the other. Far in back of the huge auditorium, a camera scans the frantic attendees. The video camera links the color spots of the wands to a nest of computers set up by graphics wizard Loren Carpenter. Carpenter’s custom software locates each red and each green wand in the auditorium. Tonight there are just shy of 5,000 wandwavers. The computer displays the precise location of each wand (and its color) onto an immense, detailed video map of the auditorium hung on the front stage, which all can see. More importantly, the computer counts the total red or green wands and uses that value to control software. As the audience wave the wands, the display screen shows a sea of lights dancing crazily in the dark, like a candlelight parade gone punk. The viewers see themselves on the map; they are either a red or green pixel. By flipping their own wands, they can change the color of their projected pixels instantly.
Loren Carpenter boots up the ancient video game of Pong onto the immense screen. Pong was the first commercial video game to reach pop consciousness. It’s a minimalist arrangement: a white dot bounces inside a square; two movable rectangles on each side act as virtual paddles. In short, electronic ping-pong. In this version, displaying the red side of your wand moves the paddle up. Green moves it down. More precisely, the Pong paddle moves as the average number of red wands in the auditorium increases or decreases. Your wand is just one vote.
Carpenter doesn’t need to explain very much. Every attendee at this 1991 conference of computer graphic experts was probably once hooked on Pong. His amplified voice booms in the hall, “Okay guys. Folks on the left side of the auditorium control the left paddle. Folks on the right side control the right paddle. If you think you are on the left, then you really are. Okay? Go!”
The audience roars in delight. Without a moment’s hesitation, 5,000 people are playing a reasonably good game of Pong. Each move of the paddle is the average of several thousand players’ intentions. The sensation is unnerving. The paddle usually does what you intend, but not always. When it doesn’t, you find yourself spending as much attention trying to anticipate the paddle as the incoming ball. One is definitely aware of another intelligence online: it’s this hollering mob.
The group mind plays Pong so well that Carpenter decides to up the ante. Without warning the ball bounces faster. The participants squeal in unison. In a second or two, the mob has adjusted to the quicker pace and is playing better than before. Carpenter speeds up the game further; the mob learns instantly.
“Let’s try something else,” Carpenter suggests. A map of seats in the auditorium appears on the screen. He draws a wide circle in white around the center. “Can you make a green ‘5’ in the circle?” he asks the audience. The audience stares at the rows of red pixels. The game is similar to that of holding a placard up in a stadium to make a picture, but now there are no preset orders, just a virtual mirror. Almost immediately wiggles of green pixels appear and grow haphazardly, as those who think their seat is in the path of the “5” flip their wands to green. A vague figure is materializing. The audience collectively begins to discern a “5” in the noise. Once discerned, the “5” quickly precipitates out into stark clarity. The wand-wavers on the fuzzy edge of the figure decide what side they “should” be on, and the emerging “5” sharpens up. The number assembles itself.
“Now make a four!” the voice booms. Within moments a “4” emerges. “Three.” And in a blink a “3” appears. Then in rapid succession, “Two… One…Zero.” The emergent thing is on a roll.
Loren Carpenter launches an airplane flight simulator on the screen. His instructions are terse: “You guys on the left are controlling roll; you on the right, pitch. If you point the plane at anything interesting, I’ll fire a rocket at it.” The plane is airborne. The pilot is…5,000 novices. For once the auditorium is completely silent. Everyone studies the navigation instruments as the scene outside the windshield sinks in. The plane is headed for a landing in a pink valley among pink hills. The runway looks very tiny. There is something both delicious and ludicrous about the notion of having the passengers of a plane collectively fly it. The brute democratic sense of it all is very appealing. As a passenger you get to vote for everything; not only where the group is headed, but when to trim the flaps.
But group mind seems to be a liability in the decisive moments of touchdown, where there is no room for averages. As the 5,000 conference participants begin to take down their plane for landing, the hush in the hall is ended by abrupt shouts and urgent commands. The auditorium becomes a gigantic cockpit in crisis. “Green, green, green!” one faction shouts. “More red!” a moment later from the crowd. “Red, red! REEEEED !” The plane is pitching to the left in a sickening way. It is obvious that it will miss the landing strip and arrive wing first. Unlike Pong, the flight simulator entails long delays in feedback from lever to effect, from the moment you tap the aileron to the moment it banks. The latent signals confuse the group mind. It is caught in oscillations of overcompensation. The plane is lurching wildly. Yet the mob somehow aborts the landing and pulls the plane up sensibly. They turn the plane around to try again.
How did they turn around? Nobody decided whether to turn left or right, or even to turn at all. Nobody was in charge. But as if of one mind, the plane banks and turns wide. It tries landing again. Again it approaches cockeyed. The mob decides in unison, without lateral communication, like a flock of birds taking off, to pull up once more. On the way up the plane rolls a bit. And then rolls a bit more. At some magical moment, the same strong thought simultaneously infects five thousand minds: “I wonder if we can do a 360?”
Without speaking a word, the collective keeps tilting the plane. There’s no undoing it. As the horizon spins dizzily, 5,000 amateur pilots roll a jet on their first solo flight. It was actually quite graceful. They give themselves a standing ovation. The conferees did what birds do: they flocked. But they flocked self- consciously. They responded to an overview of themselves as they co-formed a “5” or steered the jet. A bird on the fly, however, has no overarching concept of the shape of its flock. “Flockness” emerges from creatures completely oblivious of their collective shape, size, or alignment. A flocking bird is blind to the grace and cohesiveness of a flock in flight.
At dawn, on a weedy Michigan lake, ten thousand mallards fidget. In the soft pink glow of morning, the ducks jabber, shake out their wings, and dunk for breakfast. Ducks are spread everywhere. Suddenly, cued by some imperceptible signal, a thousand birds rise as one thing. They lift themselves into the air in a great thunder. As they take off they pull up a thousand more birds from the surface of the lake with them, as if they were all but part of a reclining giant now rising. The monstrous beast hovers in the air, swerves to the east sun, and then, in a blink, reverses direction, turning itself inside out. A second later, the entire swarm veers west and away, as if steered by a single mind. In the 17th century, an anonymous poet wrote: “…and the thousands of fishes moved as a huge beast, piercing the water. They appeared united, inexorably bound to a common fate. How comes this unity?”
A flock is not a big bird. Writes the science reporter James Gleick, “Nothing in the motion of an individual bird or fish, no matter how fluid, can prepare us for the sight of a skyful of starlings pivoting over a cornfield, or a million minnows snapping into a tight, polarized array….High-speed film [of flocks turning to avoid predators] reveals that the turning motion travels through the flock as a wave, passing from bird to bird in the space of about one-seventieth of a second. That is far less than the bird’s reaction time.” The flock is more than the sum of the birds.
In the film Batman Returns a horde of large black bats swarmed through flooded tunnels into downtown Gotham. The bats were computer generated. A single bat was created and given leeway to automatically flap its wings. The one bat was copied by the dozens until the animators had a mob. Then each bat was instructed to move about on its own on the screen following only a few simple rules encoded into an algorithm: don’t bump into another bat, keep up with your neighbors, and don’t stray too far away. When the algorithmic bats were run, they flocked like real bats.
The flocking rules were discovered by Craig Reynolds, a computer scientist working at Symbolics, a graphics hardware manufacturer. By tuning the various forces in his simple equation a little more cohesion, a little less lag time. Reynolds could shape the flock to behave like living bats, sparrows, or fish. Even the marching mob of penguins in Batman Returns were flocked by Reynolds’s algorithms. Like the bats, the computer-modeled 3-D penguins were cloned en masse and then set loose into the scene aimed in a certain direction. Their crowdlike jostling as they marched down the snowy street simply emerged, out of anyone’s control. So realistic is the flocking of Reynolds’s simple algorithms that biologists have gone back to their hi-speed films and concluded that the flocking behavior of real birds and fish must emerge from a similar set of simple rules. A flock was once thought to be a decisive sign of life, some noble formation only life could achieve. Via Reynolds’s algorithm it is now seen as an adaptive trick suitable for any distributed vivisystem, organic or made. […] in Kevin Kelly, “Out of Control – the New Biology of Machines, Social Systems and the Economic World“, pp. 11-12-13, 1994 (full pdf book)