LIST OF CONTENTS
(ETERNAL DRAFT: CONTINUALLY BEING RECONSTRUCTED)
(like life on earth)
How can a cloud of dust transform itself into a planet
full of living things as diverse as life on Earth?
Many have asked: what sorts of physical and chemical
mechanisms could make that possible?
This project asks: what forms of information-processing
and what information-processing mechanisms
make that possible?
(Combining and extending Turing's ideas about
and his earlier ideas about discrete computation.)
[NASA artist's impression of a protoplanetary disk, from WikiMedia]
The changes in information processing include (a) what is done (as indicated in the previous paragraph), (b) why it is done, e.g. what benefits, if any, result, (c) what the information used is about (e.g. what it refers to, which can include past, present, future, remote, and non-existent entities, events, etc.) and (d) how all that is done, which refers to types of information bearers, mechanisms for analysing, transforming, constructing, comparing, storing, retrieving information bearers, types of information processing architectures, combining different forms of information processing in larger wholes, types of self-monitoring, self-modulation, self-repair, self-extension, types of competition, types of conflict resolution, types of interrupt mechanism, use of virtual machinery, including multi-layer machines, distributed information-processing (involving several different individuals, or a whole community) and many more. ____________________________________________________________________________
Natural selection (or the biosphere) is a bit like a young child that has begun to learn, but has no idea that it is learning, what it is learning, how it is learning, why it is learning, what it will do with what it has learnt, why what it has learnt works and why what it has learnt sometimes proves inadequate, either for individuals or for whole species.
A difference is that over billions of years natural selection modifies its information-processing abilities far more than any child can do in a human lifetime, and modifies them in parallel in different ways. Moreover, at least on one planet, it has recently produced some individuals that have begun to understand some of what the evolutionary mechanisms produce without understanding.
The reproductive mechanisms do not normally produce ready-made full understanders, but individuals empowered to grow their understanding guided by the environment and by what some of their forebears and peers have already understood.
Some of those evolutionary changes bear a high level resemblance to the
processes in individual development in animals described as "Representational
Redescription" in Karmiloff-Smith
(1992). In particular, it seems that increases in competence both in
evolution and in individual development involve mechanisms that partition
discoveries into domains with mathematical structures that can be discovered by
appropriate domain-related mechanisms (not merely the use of universally
applicable statistical learning techniques as some have supposed). See also the
quote from McCarthy below, and the Chappell-Sloman proposal
For example, natural selection may seem to be a uniform process, but what it does depends both on the mechanisms generating options between which selections can be made, and the selection mechanisms. The points summarised above imply that both the types of options and the selection mechanisms can change dramatically.
Those modifications include: changes in physical and chemical structures and processes (that require, and also make possible, more complex information processing), changes in reproductive machinery, changes in genome-driven or partly genome-driven patterns of individual development (epigenesis) both across generations and within an individual's development, changes in the relative contributions of genome and environment and the stages at which they interact in individual development, changes in forms of adaptation and learning by individuals, changes in forms of sensing, perceiving and acting, changes in modes of communication and control between subsystems in an organism, changes in information-processing architectures within which diverse subsystems can interact, communicate, cooperate, compete and develop, changes in modes of communication and control between organisms, changes in types of cooperative or symbiotic processing, changes in requirements for and forms of competition, changes in abilities to acquire and use information about oneself and about other individuals (requiring two different but related forms of meta-cognition), changes in how parents influence offspring in their learning and development, changes in how groups of individuals acquire, use and transmit information, changes in how societies and cultures interact, including interactions involving new technologies, changes in the ways in which the physical environment produces new challenges and opportunities for information-processing in organisms of different kinds, including humans (sometimes as a result of biological processes, or as a result of other processes, e.g. geological events, asteroid impacts, tides, etc.) and changes in the ways all these processes influence one another.
One of the most important discoveries of biological evolution was the power of "generative" forms of representation of information: e.g. encoding information using trees and networks of information, whose nodes can be either arbitrary non-decomposable objects, or structured (decomposable) objects composed of other objects, for example trees and networks. The need for such meaning structures is clear in connection with the contents of complex sentences, with parts that have parts that have parts, but also mathematical formulae and proofs, complex intentions and action plans.
The ability to create and operate on such structures has been a pervasive feature of AI programming languages, often described as symbolic programming languages, which typically also provide standard instructions for operating on numbers of various sorts. Without this sort of capability, human language, and, I suspect, powerful animal vision systems, could not have evolved. This is why widely used forms of representation using vectors of scalar values are inadequate for explaining how organisms work. That doesn't even suffice for representing chemical structures and processes.
This is not intended to be a complete list of information processing novelties produced by natural selection. Extending the list, filling in details, and testing ideas by empirical research into processes and products of evolution, building working models to check the feasibility of the theories, and addressing a variety of closely related philosophical problems, including problems about relations between mind and body, are all among the long term aims of the M-M project. (Yes -- it's potentially a huge, long term project.)
Achieving such goals will require, among other things, major advances in AI and robotics in order to be able to test theories of how organisms work, and may even require novel forms of physical computing machinery, for instance if some of the functions of chemical information processing, with their mixtures of continuous and discrete changes, cannot be replicated in digital computers; and new kinds of mathematics may be required, for reasoning about how some of the systems work.
In the process we can expect many old philosophical problems to be solved or dissolved and many new ones to emerge.
The remainder of this document expands on some of these points and provides links to other, related documents on this web site and to relevant publications. (A partial list)
Offers of collaboration welcome. I have no funds for this research, and do not intend to apply for funds. Others may do so.
(School of Computer Science, University of Birmingham.)
Are babies born with empty minds plus a learning machine?
Some researchers regard the pinnacle of evolutionary design as a totally general, domain-independent learning mechanism, which allows individuals to learn in any environment by discovering statistical relationships between sensory inputs and motor outputs; whereas there seems to be plenty of evidence that humans have different kinds of learning capabilities, used at different stages of development or for different domains of structures and processes.
Compare the views of Neisser (2007) and John McCarthy who wrote:
"Evolution solved a different problem than that of starting a baby with no a priori assumptions."____________________________________________________________________________
"Animal behavior, including human intelligence, evolved to survive and succeed in this complex, partially observable and very slightly controllable world. The main features of this world have existed for several billion years and should not have to be learned anew by each person or animal." McCarthy (1996/2008)
Turing's paper is not an easy read, especially for non-mathematicians, but there is a very readable introduction to the ideas in Margaret Boden's magnum opus Boden (2006). In particular, section 15.iv ("Turing's Biological Turn") gives a summary of Turing's work on chemistry-based morphogenesis (which she had read and admired decades earlier).
The previous section 15iii (Mathematical Biology Begins) summarising work by D'Arcy Thompson is also very relevant. E.g. she writes:
Turing's 1952 paper made a deep impression on me, and led me to wonder what Turing might have done if he had lived longer. My tentative (presumptious?) answer was that he might have worked on what I've called The Meta-Morphogenesis project, summarised here. The proposal for a Meta-Morphogenesis project, was first presented as a chapter (written in 2011) published as part of the Turing volume (published in 2013):
A piece of evidence that Turing might have been interested: According to his mother, he had always been interested in living things, as depicted by her in this famous drawing: https://www.commondreams.org/sites/commondreams.org/files/imce-images/turing_mother_drawing.jpg
Margaret Boden's commentary on Turing's work on morphogenesis provides this additional piece of evidence
Perhaps he would have moved (by analogy with some of his earlier moves) from studying embryology to studying the origins of embryology deep in the evolutionary past of the project: the basis of the M-M project. (Later I'll discuss another link with Boden's work: her ideas on creativity and the varieties of creativity in natural selection (including ontological creativity, required for production of new types of virtual machinery) mentioned briefly below.
This is a complex, multi-faceted project, and could take several decades, or
even much longer. Some of the main ideas are elaborated below, and in other web
pages referred to on a separate page. But at
present everything is provisional.
"In the nervous system chemical phenomena are at least as important as electrical." in 'Computing machinery and intelligence', Mind, 59, 1950, pp. 433--460I wonder if he had thought about the significance of chemistry for evolution of mind in a physical universe.
Many research fields can contribute, including: genetics, microbiology, ethology, developmental psychology, neuroscience, linguistics, anthropology, philosophy of science, philosophy of mind, computer science, Artificial Intelligence and robotics, raising new questions about what evolution achieved and how it did so.
Explanation by natural selection is not enough
Graham Bell writes in his book Selection: The Mechanism of Evolution
Living complexity cannot be explained except through selection and does not require any other category of explanation whatsoever.No: adequate explanations need to mention both selection mechanisms and enabling mechanisms, as I am sure Bell is aware.
Without enabling mechanisms, selection processes will not have a supply of new working/viable options to choose from. In that case the selection mechanisms cannot select new viable options.
Both the selection mechanisms and the enabling mechanisms can change during evolution (partly by influencing each other).
There is a useful web site listing common misconceptions about evolution here:
It does not bring out (or try to bring out) the full variety of types of explanation of evolutionary phenomena. E.g. Computer systems engineers have been discovering or inventing new types of information processing for over half a century -- especially new types of virtual machinery. There are good reasons for thinking that biological evolution made use of a similar discovery very much earlier, for good reasons, some of them summarised here.
Systems biologists are constantly discovering new biological types of informed control (information-based control). However, there may be types of biological enabling mechanisms (e.g. forms of chemical or biological computation) that we have not yet learnt about - and that may prevent us understanding some of the transitions in evolution, e.g. some changes in reasoning powers in our ancestors including changes from which we benefited.
Familiar ideas about natural selection need to be expanded to show how small changes can build up to create increasingly complex mechanisms involved in the processes that repeatedly produce:
The project investigates how increasingly complex products of evolution produce increasingly complex forms of information processing including new mechanisms of evolution (generalising ideas in Turing's 1952 paper on chemical morphogenesis and also the theory of meta-configured individual cognitive development presented in
That theory (and diagram) referred to processes of development in an individual -- processes that change some of the mechanisms of later development in that individual. The M-M project extends that idea to evolution, so that in this new context instead of the diagram referring only to development of individual organisms, it can also refer (loosely) to evolution of a species, or even of a whole ecosystem whose main features, including features affecting further evolution, change over time.
The M-M project has begun to identify many changes in forms of biological information processing, including transitions in mechanisms of reproduction, mechanisms of learning and development, and inter-individual and inter-species forms of information-processing. Examples of distinct types of transition in biological information-processing are being collected here.
An important under-studied transition is evolution of capabilities that led to proofs in Euclidean geometry long before modern mathematics, one of the most important extensions of human minds in the last few millennia. How did abilities to think philosophically evolve? Were the cognitive mechanisms unique to humans or did unnoticed subsets develop in other species? When will our robots begin to acquire these abilities?
The questions raised in the M-M project require long term multi-disciplinary collaborative research, perhaps comparable in scale to the Human Genome project. The relevance to philosophy of mathematics is discussed in a related web page. ____________________________________________________________________________
The concept of information whose role in evolution, in animal perception, learning, motivation, acting, interacting, thinking, asking, wondering, being puzzled, finding answers (etc.) I am referring to, was already known to Jane Austen over a century before Shannon's work, and to many others long before her. Several examples from her novel 'Pride and Prejudice' published in 1813, are presented here:
http://www.cs.bham.ac.uk/research/projects/cogaff/misc/austen-info.html Jane Austen's concept of information (As opposed to Claude Shannon's)Readers may find it useful to try making a list of the kinds of information they use in a typical day, and what they use those kinds for -- or, more realistically, in a typical hour, such as the first hour after waking, including information used getting light (if needed), deciding whether to get up, getting out of bed, getting dressed, ... For more in the concept of "information" used here see Sloman (2010).
Related Videos (Moved to another file 24 Aug 2014)
Long slide presentation introducing the Meta-Morphogenesis project ____________________________________________________________________________
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The universe is made up of matter, energy and information, interacting with each other and producing new kinds of matter, energy, information and interaction.
How? How did all this come out of a cloud of dust?
In order to find explanations we first need much better descriptions of what needs to be explained.
This is a multi-disciplinary project attempting to describe and explain the variety of biological information-processing mechanisms involved in the production of new biological information-processing mechanisms, on many time scales, between the earliest days of the planet with no life, only physical and chemical structures, including volcanic eruptions, asteroid impacts, solar and stellar radiation, and many other physical/chemical processes (or perhaps starting even earlier, when there was only a dust cloud in this part of the solar system?).
The "proofs" of discovered possibilities are implicit in evolutionary and/or developmental trajectories.
The proofs demonstrate the possibility of
development of new forms of development evolution of new types of evolution learning new ways to learn evolution of new types of learning (including mathematical learning: by working things out without requiring empirical evidence) evolution of new forms of development development of new forms of learning (why can't a toddler learn quantum mechanics?) how new forms of learning support new forms of evolution how new forms of development support new forms of evolution (e.g. postponing sexual maturity until mate-selection mating and nurturing can be influenced by much learning) .... .... and ways in which social cultural evolution add to the mixThese processes produce new forms of representation, new ontologies and information contents, new information-processing mechanisms, new sensory-motor morphologies, new forms of control, new forms of social interaction, new forms of creativity, ... and more. Some may even accelerate evolution.
A growing list of transitions in types of biological information-processing:
Biology, Mathematics, Philosophy, and Evolution of Information Processing
Mathematics is at root a biological, not an anthropological, phenomenon
(as suggested by Wittgenstein). But its possibility depends on deep features of
the universe, some of which evolution had to 'discover':
An attempt to identify a major type of mathematical reasoning with precursors in
perception and reasoning about affordances, not yet replicated in AI systems:
Even in microbes
I suspect there's much still to be learnt about the varying challenges and opportunities faced by microbes at various stages in their evolution, including new challenges produced by environmental changes and new opportunities (e.g. for control) produced by previous evolved features and competences -- and the mechanisms that evolved in response to those challenges and opportunities.
Example: which organisms were first able to learn about an enduring spatial configuration of resources, obstacles and dangers, only a tiny fragment of which can be sensed at any one time? What changes occurred to meet that need?
More examples to be collected here:
On 5th Jun 2012, Stuart Wray produced this sketch of the ideas (click to view):
after reading a draft paper on Meta-morphogenesis and the Creativity of Evolution: http://www.cs.bham.ac.uk/research/projects/cogaff//12.html#1203
For a messy, still growing, collection of examples relating to learning and development
see this web page on "Toddler theorems":
(including an introduction to the idea of
http://www.cs.bham.ac.uk/research/projects/cogaff/talks/#talk102 (PDF) Meta-Morphogenesis: of virtual machinery with "physically indefinable" functions (Slides for presentation given at the Workshop "The Incomputable" (superseded) Royal Society Kavli Centre: 11-15 June 2012) http://www.mathcomp.leeds.ac.uk/turing2012/inc/
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PAPERS WITH FURTHER DETAILS
A collection of examples extracted from the papers and presentations, along with some new examples based on things I have read and conversations with friends and colleagues. Some of the examples illustrate portions of the process of information re-organisation (perhaps instances of what Karmiloff-Smith means by "Representational Redescription"?).
The list of examples is a tiny sample. I shall go on extending it. (Contributions welcome.)
PAPERS ON META-MORPHOGENESIS
RELEVANT PRESENTATIONS (PDF)
CLOSELY RELATED PUBLICATIONS Most moved to separate document.
I also don't propose that it will suffice to start from multi-cellular organisms like insects, that have already evolved capacities to move around in rich and complex environments, foraging, feeding, mating, building nests, etc. Instead I consider the possibility that even at the single-celled level there may have been forms of information processing that underpin some of the types of information processing that interest us in humans and other animals.
Brooks' suggestion that the importance of internal representations has been over-rated because the best representation of the world is the world itself, has been highly influential, but is at most relevant to what I've called 'online intelligence' involved in control of movements and manipulations using feedback mechanisms of various sorts. (H.A.Simon made similar points.) For deliberative and meta-semantic competences the slogan is not merely wrong: it has been positively harmful.
Also the ideas in the CogAff project and the CogAff architecture schema allow for a richer variety of types of architecture than the type of layered subsumption architecture proposed by Brooks, though it's possible that each could be modified to cover more of the features of the other.
His work had enormous influence in many research and teaching centres. Unfortunately the people influenced were often much less intelligent and less subtle than Brooks, and as a result much of the influence has been bad. Hence my critique.
David Kirsh wrote a critical review of Brooks' ideas around 1986, published in 1991
(here.). Brooks wrote a reply ('From
earwigs to humans') published in Brooks (1997).
I wrote a somewhat different critical commentary much later, partly based on the
unpublished note on requirements, cited here.
A sample list of types of transition produced by biological mechanisms The mechanisms include evolution by natural selection, individual learning, cultural development and transmission, including changes in genomes as well as changes in factors affecting gene expression.
Meta-Morphogenesis (M-M): Things that cause changes can produce new things that cause changes. Old phenomena may be produced in new ways e.g. information acquired and ways of acquiring and using information can change. Often new mechanisms can produce new biological phenomena
e.g. organisms that can discover what they have learnt. organisms that make and use mathematical discoveries.In particular, most forms of biological information processing that exist now are products of parallel trajectories of biological information processing over many stages of evolution and development, including cultural evolution in the case of humans.
This is quite unlike use of evolutionary computation (GA, GP, etc.) with a fixed
evaluation function, often used to solve engineering problems.
For example, evaluation in natural evolution keeps changing, as environments,
including competitors, prey, symbionts, diseases, etc. change.
Return to list of contents ____________________________________________________________________________
A slightly messy PDF version is also available:
This is one of a set of documents on the meta-morphogenesis project listed below.
A partial index of a wider collection of discussion notes is in
This version installed: 21 Oct 2012
Previous (longer) version installed: 19 Oct 2011 now here.
24-5 Aug 2014: considerable reorganisation, with most references moved to here.
7 Aug 2014: minor changes; 15 Aug 2014 added Birner's paper on Hayek and Popper;
30 Jul 2014: added link to Strawson and meta-descriptive metaphysics moved to another file
5 Apr 2014 (Doyle and Popper links); 17 May 2014; 12 Jun 2014
31 Jan 2014: added new introduction and reorganised a bit; 10 Feb 2014: Minor eds;
12 Nov 2013 (Added section on comparison with ideas of Rodney Brooks.) ;19 Nov 2013
2 Aug 2013; 16 Aug 2013; 24 Aug 2013 (some re-formatting); 6 Sep 2013; 29 Sep 2013; 31 Oct 2013;
2 Feb 2013; 24 Apr 2013; 4 May 2013; 20 May 2013; 17 Jun 2013; (Video fixed) 24 June 2013;
6 Dec 2012 19 Dec 2012; 21 Oct 2012 (Split in two: other part here.);
10 May 2012; 22 May 2012; 19 Jun 2012; 29 Jun 2012; 7 Jul 2012; 24 Aug 2012; 13 Oct 2012; 14 Nov 2012;
20 Oct 2011; 22 Nov 2011; 21 Feb 2012 (Appendix);5 Mar 2012; 19 Mar 2012; 23 Apr 2012;
School of Computer Science
The University of Birmingham