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kottke.org posts about Emergence

Are You an NPC? (Or Do You Have Free Will?)

Kurzgesagt attempts to answer the question (from the perspective of physics): Do we have free will? Here’s the deterministic perspective (from the show notes):

Now imagine that if right after the Big Bang, a supersmart supercomputer looked at every single particle in the universe and noted all their properties. Just by applying the deterministic laws of physics, it should be able to predict what all the particles in existence would be doing until the end of time.

But if you are made of particles and it’s technically possible to calculate what particles will do forever, then you never decided anything. Your past, present and future were already predetermined and decided at the Big Bang. This would mean there is a kind of fate and you are not free to decide anything.

You may feel like you make decisions, but you are on autopilot. The motions of the particles that make up your brain cells that made you watch this video were decided 14 billion years ago. You are just in the room when it happens. You are only witnessing how the universe inside you unfolds in real time.

And the other side of the argument (in favor of free will):

We know that we can reduce everything that exists to its basic particles and the laws that guide them. While this makes physics feel like the only scientific discipline that actually matters, there is a problem: You can’t explain everything in our universe only from particles.

One key fact about reality that we can’t explain by looking just at electrons and quantum stuff is emergence. Emergence is when many small things together create new fundamental traits that didn’t exist before.

Emergence occurs at all levels of reality, and reality seems to be organized in layers: atoms, molecules, cells, tissues, organs, you, society. Put many things in one layer together and they’ll create the next layer up. Every time they do, entirely new properties emerge.

Having thought about this for all of 20 minutes (or, practically all of my life), the emergence argument against determinism makes a lot of sense to me. Then again, James Gleick’s Chaos and Steven Johnson’s Emergence both made a huge impression on me when I read it more than 20 years ago.

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Slime Molds!

macro photograph of slime molds

macro photograph of slime molds

macro photograph of slime molds

macro photograph of slime molds

I have been a fan of slime molds ever since I read about them in Steven Johnson’s Emergence; they are fascinating. From a NY Times excerpt of Johnson’s book:

The slime mold spends much of its life as thousands of distinct single-celled units, each moving separately from its other comrades. Under the right conditions, those myriad cells will coalesce again into a single, larger organism, which then begins its leisurely crawl across the garden floor, consuming rotting leaves and wood as it moves about. When the environment is less hospitable, the slime mold acts as a single organism; when the weather turns cooler and the mold enjoys a large food supply, “it” becomes a “they.” The slime mold oscillates between being a single creature and a swarm.

In his ongoing series of photographs, Barry Webb captures these bizarre and exotic creatures. Yet another example of not having to look off-world to find alien life. (via colossal)


Emergence: how many stupid things become smart together

A nice overview of emergence by Kurzgesagt. I continue to find the concept of emergence endlessly fascinating โ€” order from disorder, complexity from simplicity, more is different. As a society, we tend to underestimate how much emergence plays a role in why things happen the way they do and are therefore often wrong-footed in our analysis and response.

For a good primer on emergence and other related phenomena, check out Steven Johnson’s Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software.


Video Feedbackteria

If you point a video camera at a projection of the video camera’s output โ€” and if the conditions are just so โ€” you get some interesting patterns that look almost biological. It’s fascinating that video feedback strongly resembles the patterns on brain coral. There must be an underlying emergent process for filling space that links the two patterns together. The video was made by Ethan Turpin…you can see more of his work here. (via @sleeptest)


Steven Reich to Brian Eno to Cory Arcangel

Onstage at PopTech just now, Brian Eno said that a musical piece by Steven Reich had a huge influence on how he thought about art. He said that Reich’s piece showed him that:

1. You don’t need much.
2. The composer’s role is to set up a system and then let it go.
3. The true composer is actually in the listener’s brain.

I’d never heard of Reich, but the name sounded familiar when Eno mentioned it. I realized I’d seen it yesterday when reading about Cory Arcangel’s show at Team Gallery in reference to his piece, Sweet 16:

Cory applied American avant-garde composer Steven Reich’s concept of phasing to the guitar intro of Guns and Roses’ track Sweet Child O’Mine. Rather than use instruments, Cory took the same two clips from the song’s music video and shortened one clip by a single note. As the videos loop, the two intros grow farther apart until they are back in sync.

He’s veered away from video games, but Cory’s new work is looking really interesting these days.


A Crash Course On Complexity, Emergence and Collective Intelligence.

A Crash Course On Complexity, Emergence and Collective Intelligence.


Live City by Daniel Shiffman uses live

Live City by Daniel Shiffman uses live cam images of New York City to create a living, interacting virtual city.


Emergence

I recently reread Steven Johnson’s Emergence and was struck by how familar it all seemed, even for a reread. Flipping through the bibliography at the end, I realized why: much of my reading list over the past four years has come directly from those few pages in the back of the book:

The Age of Spiritual Machines by Ray Kurzweil
A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History by Manual De Landa
Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond
The Pattern on the Stone by Danny Hillis
How Buildings Learn by Stewart Brand
The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs
Nonzero by Robert Wright

Since reading the book, I’ve also heard talks or read articles by other folks mentioned in the bibliography, like Franz De Waal, Eric Bonabeau, Kevin Kelly, James Howard Kunstler, Marvin Minsky, etc. I’d read a few things on the topic before Emergence, but it was really a catalyst for a area of study I didn’t quite know I was focusing on until much later.


Scientists at Princeton have made a crude

Scientists at Princeton have made a crude computer out of bacteria. Earlier work showed “they could insert DNA into cells to make them behave like digital circuits [and] perform basic mathematical logic. The latest work expands this concept to vast numbers of bacteria responding in concert.”


Stewart Brand interviews Jane Jacobs about cities

Stewart Brand interviews Jane Jacobs about cities. “Cities are about the most durable things we have. People think of them as superficial things, but they aren’t. They’re very, very basic. Rural places, which are considered more fundamental and more basic, actually are hangers-on of cities in most cases.”