Abstract for COGS seminar at Sussex University Tues 27th Jan 2015:
Part of the Meta-Morphogenesis project:
(DRAFT: Liable to change)
A partial index of discussion notes is in
Some of the requirements of simple organisms were analysed by Tibor Ganti who showed how chemistry might provide a suitable construction-kit including a variety of control mechanisms.
Later forms of information-processing included increasingly complex and varied uses of information not only about the physical states of organisms, and their immediate and remote physical environments but also about information and information processing activities in the organism itself and in other organisms (e.g. predators, prey, competitors, collaborators, mates, etc.).
Some of that information processing requires rapid changes in complex information structures that are best supported by virtual machinery, with multiple interacting virtual machines running in parallel on a shared hardware platform, and interacting with one another and the local environment (as has happened increasingly in computer-based systems over the last half century). The need to be able to support various kinds of virtual machinery in ever more complex architectures adds to the requirements of the original construction kit, which must be capable of supporting a variety of derived, more powerful though less general construction kits, for example many intermediate derived construction kits produced by biological evolution, in various evolutionary lineages.
Many detailed information-processing requirements are related to "online intelligence", the focus of work on embodied or enactive or situated cognition (the only kind possible for very simple organisms). Examples of online intelligence include uses of visual servo-control in feedback loops controlling actions.
More sophisticated requirements arise from needs of organisms with "offline intelligence", including abilities to form intentions for non-immediate action, construct multi-step plans, build explanatory theories, invent and understand stories, and discover the sorts of mathematics that led to Euclid's Elements, over 2.5 thousand years ago.
The fundamental construction kit (FCK) provided by the underlying physics is too general and low-level to be used directly by organisms for these purposes. However, products of natural selection included a host of derived construction kits (DCKs) supporting specialised forms of life using bodies made of different materials, using different forms of interaction with the environment, including microbes, plants of many types and sizes, insects and other invertebrates, and a variety of vertebrates.
These had different information processing requirements, in addition to the requirements for reproduction. Some used only temporary information about the immediate environment and immediate responses. Others used offline intelligence, handling information about remote, future, past, or hypothetical places and events, and modes of reasoning that allow inferences to be made about unperceived or remote parts of the environment, and future possible actions.
The FCK must be able to support all the evolved designs, including all the materials, all the constructions, all the behaviours and all the information processing: but evolution cannot produce the most complex designs directly. It somehow managed to produce new derived construction kits, and in some cases allow one type of organism to benefit from mechanisms evolved in others, e.g. by eating them, or forming symbiotic relationships with them, which itself required new forms of information processing. Eventually requirements for sophisticated forms offline intelligence (mostly ignored by ``embodiment'' theorists, ``enactivists'', etc.) were met, at least in humans, and to some extent in other intelligent species.
These forms of offline intelligence provided abilities to reason about geometrical and topological relationships. In some cases this led to meta-cognitive abilities to think about and communicate about such reasoning and thereby to forms of mathematical communication (as in Euclid's Elements).
In some ways, evolution is like a "blind theorem prover", proving theorems about what is possible on the basis of the initial "construction kit". The evolutionary trail leading to phenomenon X is a proof of that the FCK makes X possible.
There are reasons to suspect that currently understood models of computation (e.g. Turing machines, neural nets, evolutionary computation) are not adequate to support some of those kinds of mathematical reasoning (perhaps including discoveries of "toddler theorems" by pre-verbal children). Chemical information processing, already required for the simplest organisms, may add important new features, as Turing seems to have noticed in his last few years. The talk will present more questions than answers, and constitutes an invitation to join the project -- informally. (I have no funds and don't intend to apply for any.)
We still have much to learn about the powers of the fundamental construction kit (FCK), including: the details of how those powers came to be used for life on earth, which sorts of derived construction kit (DCK) were required in order to make more complex life forms possible, how those construction kits support "blind" mathematical discovery by evolution, mathematical competences in humans and other animals and eventually meta-mathematical competences, then meta-meta-mathematical competences, at least in humans, what sorts of potential the FCK has that have not yet been realised, whether and how some version of the FCK could be used to extend the intelligence of current robots, and whether currently used Turing-equivalent forms of computation have at least the same information-processing potentialities (e.g. abilities to support the same variety of information-processing mechanisms and architectures). Don't expect complete answers soon.
In future, physicists wishing to show the superiority of their theories, should attempt to demonstrate mathematically and experimentally that they can explain more of the potential of the FCK to support varieties of construction kit required for, and produced by, biological evolution than rival theories can. Will that be cheaper than building bigger better colliders?
School of Computer Science
The University of Birmingham