Friday, March 16, 2007

Emergent Intelligence

An iron atom has certain properties that we can describe. A large collection of iron atoms crowded together in a 10 kilo hunk of iron has certain further properties we can describe on a more macro level. Likewise, a carbon atom has certain properties and a large matrix of them crowded tightly in a 1 karat diamond has yet further and distinct properties. If we mix a little carbon with some iron in a specific way we can end up with steel which has a whole set of different emergent properties.

A popular example is to show how the combination of two poisonous atoms like Sodium and Chlorine combine to create Sodium Chloride which is vital to human life. So by grouping together different elemental parts we end up with totally different things with different features and more complex conglomerations can come together to make such materials as plastics and other building materials.

A tree is a very complex conglomeration indeed. In a tree the matrix of atoms come together in such a way as to make discussion of the atoms mostly moot. When something attains a level of complexity as does a tree or any other living thing we assign it a whole other level of being complete with a whole new set of properties that we can describe. We can then appreciate a tree in a variety of other ways as a living thing and can more fittingly attribute such complex estimations as vigor and beauty.

Of course we can just cut down the tree and lower its complexity a great deal by reducing it to wood or make paper out of it. But when combined with steel, glass, plastics and other materials it can all come together to become the Toronto-Dominion Centre as designed by Mies van de Rohe, something I drove past a few days ago and marveled at how it manages to be so perfectly proportioned and beautiful. Here is a thing that celebrates simplicity while hiding its enormous complexity of design and function.

The most puzzling complex system of all is the brain of a highly evolved animal such as the human. It is not just the complexity of materials required to comprise a neuron that baffles but also the enormous complexity with which these neurons are organized. Once organized in such a matrix of atoms within cells within neurons this conglomeration has the category-busting feature of being aware of itself. Some will argue that consciousness is simply an emergent property of the complex system of the brain.

When you combine a grouping of human brains and discuss the properties that result what you end up with are disciplines like Sociology or Economics that attempt to describe the properties of large groupings of humans behaving independently but in a more complex system that begins to take on properties of its own. The internet allows the most efficient way to combine large groupings of human brains. The result is a bursting throbbing mash of information that may be displaying a feature set of its own that is likely too complex for us to see without the use of simpler metaphors.

The future progression of this trend will be greatly influenced by the mixing of human intelligence with the machine intelligence that we have been busy increasing in complexity. The internet is a precursor to what will become a vast array of information residing in a complex system made of human and artificial intelligence. What will result is anyone's guess. The emergent properties of such complex systems are perhaps as intelligible to us now as the brain is intelligible to a single brain cell.


me girrl said...

oh, bravo, dear judges...i often misplace my comments! that being said, i'm glad i bursted into your throbbing mash of information...i'm having fun now.

JakeJakob said...


It's been said that I have some difficulty containing my bursting throbbing mash.

Cathy said...

I'll second that.