Plus ca change?

I love it when serendipity brings me the answer to a question that hasn’t even been asked yet. It happens to me all the time. Yesterday Vegard sent me a great video about our lack of intuition about exponential functions and how that relates to the energy crisis and the population explosion. Then this morning John asked me a question in connection with an apparently unrelated but deeply shocking thing I posted on Facebook about the Spanish Catholic church having stolen 300,000 newborn babies, telling the parents they had died and then selling them into adoption. Serendipitously, I think the former nicely illustrates part of the answer to John’s question, which was stimulated by the latter, so I decided to write a post on it.

I hope John doesn’t mind if I quote his (partially rhetorical) question in full, because it’s interesting:

I also bring attention to the recent London riots – the English government finding it necessary to offer free “parenting lessons…” What are the root causes of such going on? Why would the planet’s most intelligent inhabitants happily stray from time-honoured behaviour that is widely known and demonstrated to be “good and sensible”, building nations and bringing progress, safety and wealth? Why do humans derail themselves when they know better? From where come the flies in the ointment? I would be interested in YOUR take! best John

First some caveats: John is a conservative and I’m a liberal – we don’t see eye to eye on a number of things, most notably religion. But we argue fairly and earnestly (not to mention heatedly!) and we both try with honesty to get to the bottom of things. So it’s a bit unfair of me to stand up on my soapbox like this alone. If John violently disagrees with me and opts to comment then please look for that below. Fair’s fair.

The other thing is, my answer isn’t really an answer to John’s specific question, more an answer to why I think questions of this sort understandably seem to many people to be worth asking. Such questions lie at the very heart of conservatism. The crux of the whole conservative world view is, “why break with tradition?” To a conservative, the fabric of modern society is crumbling – the old, sure ways are being lost, and radical, revolutionary changes are wrecking everything. Conservatism is a counter-revolutionary philosophy. That may not be everyone’s conscious, deliberate view of what it’s all about, but nevertheless it’s fundamental to the psychology and philosophy of conservatism – hence the name.

And a lot of other very influential philosophies then hang from this one. The “old, sure ways” in question were once those of the monarchic, top-down, stratified society that existed before the French Revolution. That’s where the terms “left wing” and “right wing” originated and that’s the legacy of debate and division that fueled the development of the United States constitution. Today’s conservatism (and indeed liberalism, although from the opposite wing) inherits much of the ideology that stemmed from those revolutionary days, and as a consequence, conservatism isn’t just about conserving the old ways whatever they may be; it’s about conserving certain deeply held beliefs about what is right and good for society, especially the concept of hierarchy. It’s why conservatives tend to be religious (in an Old Testament sort of way); because they feel that we need a moral compass from on high. Conservatives believe in the need for the rule of law, including moral law, and see rebellion and “mob rule” as a breakdown of society. They also tend to see inequality as a necessary factor in society, for various and rather subtle reasons. Egalitarianism is the province of liberals, not conservatives, and what we see as fairness and compassion, conservatives tend to see as encouraging laziness, removing hard-working people’s right to a reward, and so on. The two sides look at the same things in radically different ways. These feelings we each have are deeply, deeply ingrained in our respective psyches.

I’ve written before about the possibility that this is something really innate to the human mind; that perhaps we inherited both the chimapanzee-like dominance hierarchy, and the bonobo lassez faire, make-love-not-war behaviours from our common ancestor. But John’s excellent question is not so much about “why this, not that?”; it’s more about “why now?”. And here’s my suggestion for part of the answer to that. I appreciate it’s not the whole answer by any means, but I think it’s relevant.

I think the assumption that is innate to conservatism – indeed essential to it – is that things worked okay in the past, so what’s all this nonsense about revolution? The conventional liberal response to that would be “it was never alright in the past; only alright for some.” But that’s not the point I want to make. The point I want to make is that things are very often “alright in the past” and then cease to be alright, yet nothing has to change for that to happen.

This is where the excellent lecture that Vegard sent me comes in. I recommend you watch it, because it’s beautifully presented and interesting from its own perspective as regards resources and population, but it’s an hour long, so here’s the meat of it:

The lecturer is Albert Bartlett, and his central thesis is that we humans are really, really crap at understanding exponential growth. He says, for example, that we don’t bat an eyelid at the news that something is growing by 7% per year – 7% seems like nothing. And then we read in the papers that “crime has doubled in a decade” and we freak out. But 7% per year is the same thing as doubling in a decade!

7% per year doesn’t mean something grows by 7% of the original value every year, of course; it means it grows by that much of the previous value. If you plot the curve of such steady growth, you find that it climbs really gently for ages but then starts to accelerate until it suddenly skyrockets heavenward. Face one way and it’s basically flat; face the other and you’re looking at a brick wall. And yet it’s just steady growth. A town that had 1,000 inhabitants in 1900 and grows at 7% per annum will have 2,000 inhabitants by 1910, 4,000 by 1920 and so on. By the year 2010 the population will be over a million. By 2050 it would be 16 million.

Bartlett then goes on to give us the shocking bottom line: during each doubling time (each decade, for 7% per annum growth), the change in any single decade is larger than all of the decades up to that point added together. You can see how counterintuitive that makes things when you think about a situation like this: Suppose we’ve been using coal for 150 years, at a growth rate of 7%. By the year 2010 we find we’ve only used up half of all the coal that exists. Half the coal is gone after 150 years but the other half remains, so we’re doing okay, right? The rest probably won’t last another 150 years but we needn’t worry for ages yet, surely? Except it will all be gone by 2020! It took us 150 years to use up half of it, but only ten more to use up the other half. That just doesn’t feel right, and so we don’t notice, or don’t believe what the figures tell us. By the time it starts to dawn on us, it’s one minute to midnight and we’re screwed. Who would have thought that starting to worry about energy conservation when we still have half of our resources left is potentially too late for us to do anything about it? But it’s true. Even if we find out there’s twice as much coal under the ground as we thought, it makes damn all difference.

And this, I think, has something to do with John’s question. At two levels.

If we’re tracking up an exponential curve, then sticking to our “good old ways” really doesn’t seem like a problem. Until the curve starts to skyrocket. When we look backwards we see everything has continued pretty much as normal and stayed pretty stable, but when we look forwards we see an explosion just ahead of us. I can see how that looks frightening (as it should) and why it seems like things were going great but now they’re going wrong. Yet nothing actually has to alter for this to be the case; it’s just a natural consequence of steady change. I think society has now reached such a point on a number of axes at once. It’s not that the natural world order is being threatened by Bolshevic revolutionaries who want to screw up the happy times of the past, despite what people like Glen Beck believe. It’s that the “happy times of the past” have led, inexorably and inevitably, to a time where those practices and mores have ceased to work. Nay, caused a disaster. Nothing has to go wrong or be destabilized for that to happen – it’s just exponential growth.

But what, exactly, is growing? Well, as Professor Bartlett points out, population is a major factor in this. The ways we used to live worked just fine when the human population was low, but it has been growing steadily since forever, and it’s now one minute to midnight. Our population is skyrocketing and such a growth is completely and utterly unsustainable. It will not be sustained, whether we like it or not, and we’ve left it too late to put it right gently. The old ways simply cannot and will not work. Revolutions of many kinds – political, military, social and technological – are absolutely inevitable, and in very short order. We live in interesting times, and the only thing we can say with certainty is that the “good old days” are useless to us now. We can never recover them and we’re fools to try to hang onto them. Do the math.

But there’s also another sense in which conservatism versus liberalism hits up against exponential change, and that’s capitalism. Conservatives are pretty uniformly advocates of capitalism, especially the resistance to regulation. Liberals tend to have mixed views on capitalism in general, but tend to favor regulation as a means towards egalitarian ideals.

The thing about capitalism is that it doesn’t follow the central theory of economics, as elucidated in the steady growth days of the early twentieth century. Back in those days, when the curves were still fairly flat, it was hard to distinguish between two contradictory models for how economic systems work, and we picked the wrong one.

A fundamental assumption in many economic models is that of the law of decreasing returns. Things tend to balance themselves out. Negative feedback rules. If you own a mine and do really well at first, you’ll eventually mine out the lode and profits will start to fall again as extraction becomes more difficult and expensive. Decreasing returns. If people don’t like your product or your corporate practices, or workers don’t like their work environment, the customers will fade away and finding workers will get harder. Or so it was claimed.

But that was pretty naive, because the universe is stuffed full of both negative AND positive feedback. Indeed the universe IS the effects of combining negative and positive feedback (but that’s a long story!). Positive feedback follows the law of increasing returns: To he that hath is given more. And the law of increasing returns is fundamental to capitalism, whether we like it or not.

Back in the days when people went west in search of gold, diminishing returns tended to hold sway. You’d stake your claim, work hard, extract your glinting reward and feel good. But gradually the cost and effort of extraction would make that reward smaller and smaller, and eventually the claim would be worked out. Those who didn’t see that coming often ended up destitute. But although that seems like negative feedback – a resistance to change that brings things back towards the status quo – it’s actually positive feedback. And like all positive feedback loops, there’s a null point. If you remain below the null point, all the forces pull you down and down. If you don’t have enough gold to make ends meet, you can’t hire labor or buy decent tools and your ability to capitalize on your claim falters and fades. But you just have to be lucky enough to get over the hump; over the null point; to find things change very rapidly in the other direction. If your gold seam is just good enough, you can make a profit and invest that profit in workers to do the digging. And then maybe buy a second mine, which, if you’re still lucky, doubles your profits. So then you can buy a fourth, and an eighth, and a sixteenth…

The people who get rich in an unrestrained capitalist system need skill and hard work as well as luck, but the reward is not proportionate to skill or effort. A billionaire is not a million times more industrious than someone whose entire assets run to a thousand dollars. It’s simply that the billionaire managed to cross to the positive side of the null point, while the pauper didn’t make it. In such a system, all other factors being equal, two people who start out almost but not quite identically, can experience radically different outcomes. Capitalism, due to positive feedback, is a watershed. If I stand on a hill a few miles from here and pee towards the west, it’ll end up in the Pacific; if I pee to the right, it’ll end up in the Atlantic. Massive change from tiny differences.

Unrestrained capitalism is inherently like this. Those that hath, get given more, while those that hath not, lose everything. There’s actually a well of negative feedback in the middle of the curve, which keeps many of us relatively stable and stuck in the middle, but that’s getting too complex for this post. The thing is, everyone is entitled to a reward for their hard work and diligence, but because of positive feedback both the reward and the punishment tend to be way out of proportion. In fact it’s very, very easy, due to nothing more than random noise, for someone who’s more industrious and skilled, especially if they also happen to have scruples, decency and compassion for their fellows, to end up in the gutter through no fault of their own, while people who hardly deserve it go on to garner enormous wealth.

Without negative feedback, for instance in the form of a welfare safety net at the lower end and progressive taxation to damp out spiralling wealth at the higher end, such an explosion of inequity is ABSOLUTELY inevitable. But it won’t seem like a problem at first. Not even for a long time. The curve rises only gently for most of its history. But one day it will start to take off and skyrocket, and we passed that day some time ago. When over a third of the wealth belongs to only 1% of the population, and the bottom 40% of the people have to make do with less than 1% of the total wealth spread between them, we know we’ve stepped over the edge. At that point – the point we have reached now – massive change to the fundamental fabric is inevitable, because the present rate of change from “business as usual” is unsustainable.

Much the same is true when it comes to raping the earth of its resources. Capitalism is a system of increasing returns, but those increasing returns come at an increasing cost. The more successful a company becomes or the more successful an economy becomes, the faster it extracts resources. Yes, diminishing returns will set in eventually, when all the resources have gone or become too diffuse to extract. But the “to him that hath is given more” property of unregulated commerce ensures that this rate of change takes us by surprise. We might think we were doing great with the “old ways” up to now and with a bit of diligence we still have a long way to go, but in reality it’s one minute to midnight. Watch Albert Bartlett’s lecture to see how giant corporations (via naive journalists and crooked politicians) contrived to capitalize on their success by lobbying and marketing the idea that we have more than enough coal and oil to last us hundreds of years. And then remember that we only believe such things because we’re so easily fooled by exponential growth. 150 years to use up half the coal; 10 years to use up the other half…

So it seems to me that “the good old ways” that conservatives wish we could hang on to or return to are what created the coming revolution. It’s inevitable that looking backwards gives us the view that we were comfortable and doing just fine, while looking forwards fills us with fear. It’s a natural consequence of our human inability to understand exponential change. But when you add to this the fact that the rate of change itself is accelerating, in large part because of the positive feedback and spiralling of inequity inherent in the very worldview that seems to those of a reactionary bent to have worked so well for us up to now, then an explosion is not just inevitable but imminent.

How that explosion plays out is an unknown, but the reasons behind it are pretty clear. The kids occupying Wall Street and other cities seem to be pissed off about any number of different things and it’s easy to say they’re unfocused and just into rebellion and demonstrations for the hell of it. But it doesn’t really matter what they actually say; it doesn’t even help to feel smug if they lose their current admirable level of cool and end up being violent; the truth is, their existence was inevitable and the underlying reasons for their disenchantment with the good old days were an event just waiting to happen. It’s written in the curve. Disenchanted people do bad things sometimes, and revolutions do fracture society. But at the same time, there never was a golden age, and the “tried and trusted” ways of the past are at least in need of rethinking from the ground up. The rule of law can only go so far, so I hope people don’t rely on it for so long that it needs to hold back a tidal wave.

And the old ways caused this, albeit unintentionally; they cannot possibly be the solution to it. We have to have change in the fabric of society, and we can either opt for managed change or we can wait until one second to midnight and suffer the consequences (if that time has not already passed). It’s not only wrong that so much wealth is locked up in so few coffers while the number of poor and suffering is increasing exponentially; it’s totally unsustainable.

My thanks to John and Vegard for the stimulation!


Just an idle thought:

I’m watching Wall Street being occupied, and became fascinated by the degree to which the Media and assorted right-wing morons are glibly disparaging the Wall Street protestors for “not having any coherent demands.” That in itself is just pathetic, since we all know what their demands are and why they’re not something that can be written on a bumper sticker.

But it made me think: What a powerful and terrifying prospect that could be, if you genuinely have something to feel guilty about: For people to gather in numbers, look you in the face and then not tell you what their demands are.

Imagine a bunch of people walked up your driveway today and just stood there, staring at you impassively through the window. Imagine they kept doing that, day and night, without a word. Every time you walk into a room, there’s someone with their face pressed up against the glass, looking at you and giving nothing away. How long would it be before you started searching your conscience? Frankly, I’d probably be offering them all my money and admitting to crimes I’d never even committed within minutes! But if I HAD committed crimes, or even willingly gone to work and done a mundane job in the financial sector, knowing that there was a little uneasiness in my gut about the ethics of it but not being willing enough to rock the boat or suffer the consequences of resigning, then I think I’d probably be quaking in my shoes. Before long I’d be suggesting my OWN concessions to make them go away. And who better to figure out how to put the mess right?

Of course the major flaw with this kind of reasoning is that I do actually have a conscience, and a sense of empathy, and most of the people responsible for the current scandal in America and around the Western world don’t. It’s their most characteristic feature by far. Maybe if you are completely clueless (or simply don’t give a s**t) about what is going on inside other people’s minds and how they feel, then being faced with thousands of impassive faces, looking at you accusingly and making no demands of you whatsoever, would merely cause you to shrug and say “why should I care?” before going about your business. Unfortunately, such a psychopathic mindset is the primary qualification for being the sort of person who is causing all the trouble, whether on the inside of Wall Street’s towers or on the outside cheering it on. But if there’s even a glimmer of empathy inside the brains of these people then staring blankly at them and waiting for THEM to do something is probably a damned good way to unnerve them, I’d have thought.

Incidentally, a few years ago I bizarrely found myself lying on my front lawn, head to head with a journalist called Jon Ronson. We were lying head to head for a magazine photo and shortly after that he made me climb a tree, but I’ve really no idea why a journalist like Jon in particular would be sent to interview an artifical intelligence researcher. Unless it was to uncover what a bunch of kooks we all are. Anyway, a while back I was driving through the Arizona desert listening to NPR and a voice came on that I recognized. It was Jon, talking about a book he’d written about psychopaths. After our encounter on the lawn, I was glad to note that I wasn’t in it. But if you’re looking for some light but insightful reading about a kind of mind that (being a reader of my blog) you are most unlikely to own yourself but may be uncomfortably aware that you share a planet with, then I thoroughly recommend it. It’s called The Psychopath Test: A journey through the madness industry.

P.S. How ironic that Steve Jobs died today. This is an iPhone-fuelled revolution, for sure.

Seeing the wood for the trees

A while back I wrote a piece about bonobos and chimpanzees – how different they are and how human political differences might be a reflection of these two ways of life.

One thing that struck me about bonobos is that they are separated from chimpanzees by nothing more than a river. The Congo River is apparently what separated two populations of their common ancestors a couple of million years ago and prevented them from interbreeding. One population went on to become modern chimpanzees and the other bonobos. Once their genes were no longer able to mingle, it was inevitable that they would diverge from each other in both physiognomy and behavior.

What was it about the south side of the Congo that favored collaboration and appeasement instead of dominance and aggression? I have no idea, but it needn’t have been very much at all. The tiniest difference in habitat could lead to a change in culture (such as a shift in the roles of males and females) and this in turn would have knock-on effects. Positive feedback would soon lock in these changes and drive an expanding wedge between the two populations.

In modern humans, chimpanzee-like right-wing behaviors and bonobo-like left-wing behaviors coexist, but very uneasily. Empathy, for instance, serves different purposes in each mode: “socialism” (with a small “s”) is fundamentally based upon empathy in the form of sympathy – the understanding that other people suffer like we do, and if we help and support each other we can minimise this suffering for all. “capitalism”, meanwhile, makes use of empathy to outwit other people. A CEO who can walk into a business meeting and immediately grasp what everyone around the table is thinking will come away with a better deal. The consequences of this difference are profound. To a libertarian conservative, for instance, government is an unwanted imposition – a Them who controls Us. It’s an Alpha Male to be feared, opposed and ideally got rid of. Meanwhile, from the perspective of a liberal, the government actually is us; it is the collective will; the way we look out for each other. It’s no wonder the two sides fail to understand each other. In America and the UK this tension is very strong at the moment and it sometimes makes me feel that humans must be descended from the interbreeding of two previously separated species, because the two points of view aren’t very compatible and evolution might have been expected to opt for either one or the other. Bonobos and chimpanzees certainly did.

All this came back into my mind this morning when I read this article in Machines Like Us. The gist of it is that Australopithecus afarensis appears to have walked upright on two feet, in roughly the front-of-foot way that we humans do, rather than the bowlegged way that other primates do. And they did this almost four million years ago at the latest – around the time the human bloodline separated from the chimp/bonobo bloodline.

It made me wonder what kind of “Congo river” might have separated the two lines, and it’s really not hard to imagine. Chimpanzee and orangutan feet are designed for living in trees – their mastery of the arboreal mode of transport is astounding from the perspective of a human being, whose feet are utterly useless for dangling from branches. Every time I watch a primate leap confidently from branch to branch I find myself in awe and not a little envious.

But suppose the trees thin out? There are clear limits to how far apart branches can be whilst still being able to support two hundred pounds of leaping flesh. When trees get too thin on the ground, primates have to climb down and walk. For a quick dash, followed by a rapid climb back into safety, chimpanzee feet are ideal, but there will come a point when efficient running becomes far more important than efficient climbing and leaping. There are no tigers in the trees (which is basically why primates live in them), so being a bit ungainly in the canopy is not nearly as serious as being unable to reach the safety of the next trunk. The evolutionary advantage of good running feet would very quickly be tested, once running became necessary.

And what then? Once you perform better on the ground than in the canopy, you can free your hands. You have to watch out more carefully for predators and find ingeneous ways to thwart them (even using sticks as weapons, maybe). Sex becomes different. Meetings tend to happen face-to-face instead of face-to-ass. Perhaps females carrying young need protection. You are presented with vistas that exceed a mere wall of leaves. A thousand things have suddenly changed, and each of those thousand things would go on to create a thousand other changes. And all because the trees got too far apart to leap between.

Perhaps this was all it took to make the human race? Perhaps we’re just the descendants of incompetent leapers who had to evolve bizarre and expensive tricks like literature and intelligence in order to survive on the ground when we could no longer stay hidden in the trees. As we dash (by elevator) from the safety of our office-trees to the safety of our house-trees and climb the wooden stairs to bed, on feet and hips that are very much designed for the ground, it’s sobering to think that most of what we see around us might have been caused by a bit of a lingering drought, four million years ago.

Maybe I should go for a run…


Just a couple of storm pics that I thought were worth sharing. We don’t get enough big storms at night round here, so it was nice to be able to open the shutter wide last night, and take still photos instead of grabbing frames from video taken in daylight. Also below is a time-lapse cloudscape that I took from the same balcony yesterday. Isn’t the sky amazing?

Bye darling


Isn’t human behaviour wonderful?

This is just a trivial post but then I’ve had a lazy afternoon, so what do you expect? I went downtown, as I usually do of a Sunday, and watched some dancing. But I got there not long before it finished, so I strolled up into Thorpe Park, to watch people instead.

There were no murders going on, this being Flagstaff, and I couldn’t make up my mind whether to cringe or be envious of the guy singing and playing guitar at his girlfriend, so I watched a foursome, milling around near a car. I’ll call them Janet and John, and Peter and Jane.

Janet and John were approaching sixty, I’d say, and Peter and Jane were in their thirties. Jane was carrying a little dog, which was a useful distraction to all (a function usually served by babies). John, the older man, wore a cowboy hat and a moustache that he must have bought to go with the hat. That’s about as complex as he got. Janet, his wife, was more interesting. She had a sort of “nursey” air to her, but she was incredibly awkward and nervous, emitting little giggles to fill the silences. (She had those shoulders, Holly!) They were obviously Jane’s parents, and they hadn’t seen her for ages. This visit had clearly not been long enough by a factor of at least a thousand, but hell, Peter has his limits.

The thing is, they were all trying to say goodbye, but they couldn’t make it happen. Each would say a little piece and make sure it had a good trajectory, ending on the fundamental tone. Perfect. A momentary silence while everyone took their places for the finale, and then Peter would give Janet a hug. The trouble is, Janet would then giggle, shrug her shoulders and say how nice it was to have had more than one hug today. I think she got four in the end, so she must have been thrilled.

But her voice would always tail off, because she really didn’t want to see her daughter go. And that left the tune unfinished, so John, ever gallant, would then step in and say something to cover the gap – crack a joke, probably, given the way everyone took a conspiratorial step forward into a huddle and then erupted backward again. And that would give Jane time to think of something to say, or the dog would make a contribution and Janet would tickle him under the chin. And everyone was back where they started.

Peter made a solid move towards the car, and Jane put the dog inside. But she didn’t follow through, and came back out to appease poor Janet’s wistful look. And so then Peter would have to give her another hug (“Goodness, that’s THREE hugs I’ve had today!”) and the dance would start all over again.

I watched this for about half an hour and I felt so sorry for them. They were poised on the threshold of leaving but just couldn’t climb that last step. So I stood up, yawned, dropped my coffee cup into a trashcan and started to walk off, stage left. And immediately, Peter leapt for the driver’s door, Jane got in, Janet got a grip and John’s moustache breathed a sigh of relief. Mission accomplished.

SOMEBODY had to leave or they’d have been there still.

There’s no point to this post, I just wanted to remark on how beautiful and complex human communication is, and how subtly poised and balanced. What a wonderful world!

Free Will (excluding taxes and postage)

I just came across this paper on free will and consciousness by Stuart Kauffman. I think it’s nonsense, but I can’t be bothered to raise a counterargument; it would just take too long. There are so many linguistic slippages to contend with in physics and life’s too short. But I’m posting it because I know some of you will be interested and may wish to take the matter up.

Basically Kauffman looks to a handy loophole, which is claimed to lie between classical and quantum physics, that is neither “lawful” nor random, and he thinks he can take advantage of this to permit the free will and conscious self-determination he so desperately wants. If you ask me, this desperation is easily seen in the following quotes (the italics are mine):

 “If mind does not act on matter, is mind a mere epiphenomenon?”

“The response to this apparent impasse is a retreat to epiphenomenonalism: Mind does nothing, in fact, it does not act on brain, it is an epiphenomena (sic) of brain. It is fair to say that no one likes this view

Oh, well, it’s the duty of every scientist to find some loopholes that might plausibly help us avoid finding out something we simply don’t like very much. I can see that. It works for Intelligent Design proponents.

Why “mere”? It doesn’t bother me in the slightest if I’m an epiphenomenon. I don’t feel “mere”; I’m proud of what I am. Maybe a hurricane feels it is making a conscious decision to make landfall over southern Florida, too. So what? I cannot possibly know my future and nor can anyone else (classical theory is enough for that; we don’t need to invoke QM), so I look forward to finding out what is actually going to happen to me. It’s a consequence of my biology that I feel like I’m choosing it, and that I’m somehow making things happen, and if that’s how it feels to me then what do I care if it’s an illusion at the level of physics? I happen to live in a moderately successful social organization, which therefore has evolved a system of belief in culpability and justice; if it hadn’t then I wouldn’t be here, because society would have collapsed. As a consequence, I’m an organism that interprets what happens to me and others as something that was within our control. Sometimes I even have to hold people responsible for “their” actions, because that’s how this society thrives (I don’t have to choose to do it, it’s just the way my thoughts turn out). At the level of description in which “I” live, it makes sense to talk about responsibility, choices and morals. So what if that wouldn’t make sense to an atom? I’m not an atom. I really don’t mind being a lawful consequence of my past and my environment. It doesn’t bother me in the slightest. How else can I even justify my so-called choices? “I did it because…” I don’t feel a need to seek out quantum loopholes that could just plausibly allow the way that the world seems to be, actually to be “true.”

But if this sort of thing bothers you and you’re desperate to escape the feeling that you’re trapped by causality, then this is a paper you should read.

“Memristor minds: The future of artificial intelligence”

Ever the guardian of my intellectual development, Norm sent me a link to a New Scientist article on memristors, today. I’d never heard of them, but the article was interesting for both good and bad reasons, so I thought I’d share my impressions.

Here’s a short summary: The memristor is apparently a “missing component” in electronics, hypothesized by Leon Chua in 1971, to sit alongside the well known resistor, capacitor and inductor, but at the time it was unknown as a physical device. In the early years of this century, Stan Williams developed a nanoscale device that he believed fit the bill. And then Max di Ventra, a physicist at UCSD, linked this work with some research on a slime mould, which showed that they are capable of “predicting” a future state in a periodic environmental change. He suggested that this is a biophysical equivalent to a memristor. The article then goes on to suggest that neural synapses work the same way, and so this must surely be the big missing insight that has prevented us from understanding the brain and creating artificial intelligence.

But the article troubles me for a couple of reasons and I can’t help thinking there’s a serious problem with the way physicists and mathematicians tend to think about biology. Firstly, here’s a quote from the article:

“To Chua, this all points to a home truth. Despite years of effort, attempts to build an electronic intelligence that can mimic the awesome power of a brain have seen little success. And that might be simply because we were lacking the crucial electronic components – memristors.”

Hmm… So exactly what years of effort would that be, then? VERY few people have ever attempted to “build an electronic intelligence”. We simply don’t do that – we use computers! 

Sure, a computer is an electronic device, but the whole damned point of them is that they are machines that can emulate any other machine. So they can emulate memristors too. They don’t actually have to be MADE of them in order to do that – they simply simulate them in code, like they simulate everything else. And I’m sure I’ve many times written code that has a state memory like a memristor. I didn’t know there was a named physical device that works in the same way, and it’s very interesting that there is, because it might give us new analogies and insights. But if I needed something to behave like that I could have coded it any time I wanted to. It’s meaningless to say that we’ve been stuck because we lacked a new type of electronic component. Only a physicist would confuse hardware and software like that! It boggles my mind.

And then I’m a little perplexed about a missing electronic component we DO know about. Maybe someone can help me with this? Chua’s work apparently hypothesized the memristor as a fourth component to add the existing resistor, capacitor and inductor. But where’s the transistor? Isn’t that a fundamental component? It’s a resistor, after a fashion, but surely it’s a fundamental building block in its own right, because it has the ability to allow a voltage to modulate a current – without them almost no electronic circuits would do anything useful!

I hate to say it, but I wonder if that’s a comment on the minds of physicists, too? It’s the transistor (or vacuum tube) that makes the difference between a static circuit, for which the mathematics of physics works well, and a dynamic circuit, for which it doesn’t. The capacitor is a dynamic system too, but only for a moment and then it settles down into something nice and easy to write equations for. It’s only when you add transistors and their consequent ability to generate feedback that the system really starts to dance and sing, and then the equations stop being much use.

The real glaring insight that electronics gives us, in my not-always-terribly-humble opinion, is the realization that sometimes classical science has a bad habit of being obsessed with “quantities” and ignoring or even sometimes denying the existence of “qualities”. Two electronic systems might have precisely the same mass, complexity and constituent substances, for instance, but be wired up in a different arrangement, producing radically different results. The reductionism implicit in much of physics can’t “see” the difference between the two circuits – because it’s something purely qualitative, not quantitative.

It’s the same with the brain. The reason we don’t understand the brain has NOTHING of significance to do with some “missing component”. It has nothing to do with quantum uncertainty or any other reductionistic claptrap. The reason we don’t understand the brain is that we don’t understand the CIRCUIT. We don’t understand the system as a whole. Memories, thoughts, ideas and the Self are not properties of the brain’s components, they are properties of its organisation. It’s very hard to understand organisations – I could easily give you an electronic circuit diagram out of context and it might take you days or weeks to figure out how it works and exactly what it does. But you could know everything you need to know about the properties of its resistors, capacitors,  inductors and transistors, and even it’s memristors. You could weigh it and measure it all you liked and it would tell you nothing. Organization is not amenable to understanding using the tools of classical Physics.

Life and mind are qualitiative constructs. Looking for some special elixir vitae is completely missing the point. The article is very interesting and I plan to look up more information. Memristors may well provide a useful analogy that gives us some hints and insights about localised properties of brains, and that may steer us towards making more sense of the circuitry of intelligence. However, to suggest that we’ve got it all wrong because we didn’t have the right component in our toolbox for making our “electronic brains” is just nonsense. Electronic components are the province of physics, but electronic design is not. Synapses may be the province of physics too, but biology is not. Biology is a branch of cybernetics, which has a very different mindset (or did until physicists took it over and turned it into information theory).

P.S. I sort of see why transistors are missing now – at the mathematical level of description of Chua’s work, I guess a transistor is just a resistor, because both of them convert between voltage and current. Time only really enters into the equations as an integral, and the deeply nonlinear consequences of the transistor don’t really apply when you consider it as a single isolated component. But that was my point – once you wire them up into circuits all of this is pretty much irrelevant. It’s circuits that matter for intelligence. Minds are emergent properties of organisations. Looking for a “magic” component is just a modern-day form of vitalism.