r _Web.log

tag: history

Emergence ch11: Emergence

in project: emergence-advent

Andrew Assad and Norman Packard - Emergence (1992)

This chapter marks a watershed as the first from the perspective of computational modelling and artificial life. It's very brief, with its prime contributions being an outline of a couple of key characteristics of (epistemic-computational) emergence plus a useful bibliography from the field: Bergson, Langton, Kauffman, Pattee, Cariani (who, I would argue, is by far the most glaring omission as an author in this book).

Assad and Packard offer a yardstick scale of emergence, based on mechanical deducibility of behaviours:

Non-emergent: Behavior is immediately deducible upon inspection of the specification or rules generating it
Weakly emergent: Behavior is deducible in hindsight from the specification after observing the behavior
Strongly emergent: Behavior is deducible in theory, but its elucidation is prohibitively difficult
Maximally emergent: Behavior is impossible to deduce from the specification.

It strikes me that, if we are to maintain an axiom of fundamental reducibility, the "maximally emergent" pole must be approached asymptotically (ie, cannot be attained) as "impossible to deduce" implies that the base-level laws are insufficient to explain the properties - so we have smuggled in (in Bedau's terminology) strong emergence.

More interestingly, they suggest a hierarchy of subsets of the types of thing that emerge from a substrate: structure (in space-time or symbolic space); from which arises computation (information-processing capabilities); from which then arises functionality (towards beneficial objectives). This seems like an elegant and useful formulation which can clearly be see when looking back at the emergence of complexity described in the previous chapter.

Le Mundaneum

As an addendum to my earlier post following an IHT article, here's another thing they picked up from AP last year: The Web That Time Forgot, a report on Belgian taxonomist Paul Otlet and his early sketches towards a global information network - from the early 1930s, anticipating the internet by almost half a century.

In 1934, Otlet sketched out plans for a global network of computers (or "electric telescopes," as he called them) that would allow people to search and browse through millions of interlinked documents, images, audio and video files. He described how people would use the devices to send messages to one another, share files and even congregate in online social networks. He called the whole thing a "réseau," which might be translated as "network" — or arguably, "web."

The article quotes technojournalist Kevin Kelly, part of his research for a forthcoming book on the future of technology. Kelly has previously written about Otlet in relation to a documentary film about his life and his "Mundaneum" informative archive, which included such mind-boggling features as a primitive search engine (with submissions submitted to its archivist team by post).

There's also a free documentary on Otlet available on archive.org.

Such impressive technical foresight recalls the 17th century (!) writings of Francis Bacon, who describes, in New Atlantis, a future utopia:

We represent and imitate all articulate sounds and letters, and the voices and notes of beasts and birds. We have certain helps which, set to the ear, do further the hearing greatly; we have also divers strange and artificial echoes, reflecting the voice many times, and, as it were, tossing it; and some that give back the voice louder than it came, some shriller and some deeper; yea, some rendering the voice, differing in the letters or articulate sound from that they receive. We have all means to convey sounds in trunks and pipes, in strange lines and distances."

— Francis Bacon, New Atlantis (1626)