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Introducing Mortal Computation: Bridging Biology and Technology

In an era where the boundaries between the biological and the digital continue to blur, a new computational philosophy emerges from the collaborative work of Alex Ria and Carl, dubbed “Mortal Computation.” This groundbreaking thesis proposes a radical shift in how we perceive and construct computational systems, drawing inspiration from the very essence of life itself.

The Genesis of Mortal Computation

The Mortal Computation thesis finds its roots in the critique of the traditional view that software and hardware operate independently—a notion that Jeff Hinton challenged by emphasizing their inseparable nature. This perspective suggests that just as life cannot exist without a physical body, software should not be abstracted away from its hardware substrate. It’s a call to view computation through the lens of mortality, where the demise of hardware inevitably leads to the cessation of its software.

The Essence of Mortal Computation

At its core, Mortal Computation advocates for a computational model where software is not just running on hardware but is fundamentally integrated with it. This integration implies that the software evolves, adapts, and, ultimately, ‘dies’ with its physical counterpart. This concept is not just philosophical but has practical implications, promising advancements in creating computing systems that are more efficient, adaptable, and in harmony with their environment.

Implications and Applications

The implications of Mortal Computation are vast and varied, spanning from edge computing devices to robotics and artificial intelligence. By embracing the principles of Mortal Computation, we can envision a future where devices not only consume less energy but also possess the ability to learn and adapt to their surroundings in ways that mimic biological entities. This could revolutionize how we approach design and efficiency in computing architectures.

Cybernetics, Cognitive Science, and Beyond

Incorporating insights from cybernetics and cognitive science, Mortal Computation stands at the confluence of growth, adaptation, and the environment’s role in shaping computational entities. It embraces the 5E cognitive theory—Extended, Embodied, Embedded, Enactive, and Elementary—highlighting the interplay between an entity and its niche, which influences its development and functionalities.

Real-World Examples and Future Directions

Practical manifestations of Mortal Computation principles can already be seen in innovations such as Ashby’s homeostat, xenobots, and organoid intelligence. These examples not only demonstrate the viability of Mortal Computation concepts but also offer a glimpse into the future of computing—a future where machines can heal, adapt, and evolve, drawing closer to the essence of life itself.

Yet, as we venture down this path, we must also navigate the ethical landscapes it unveils. The potential for artificial sentience begs us to reconsider the rights of computational entities and the responsibilities of their creators. Moreover, the reliance on specific niches for computational entities highlights the need for inclusive access to these technologies, ensuring that advancements in Mortal Computation benefit all of humanity.

Mortal Computation invites us to reimagine the relationship between software and hardware, urging us to create computational systems that embody the principles of life. By doing so, we not only unlock new efficiencies and capabilities but also align our technological endeavors with the natural world. As we explore this frontier, we are called to ponder the philosophical implications and the future of a world where computation, like us, is mortal.

In the Mortal Computation thesis, the environment plays a pivotal role, acting not just as a backdrop but as a key participant in the computational process. This interaction is particularly evident in the growth segment of the thesis, where the concept of morphogenesis is introduced. Morphogenesis—the process by which an organism or entity changes its shape, structure, or both in response to its environment—underscores the dynamic and reciprocal relationship between a mortal computer and its surroundings.

The Environment as a Catalyst for Change

For a mortal computer, morphogenesis is not an isolated event but a fundamental aspect of its existence. Environmental conditions serve as both catalysts and constraints, shaping the computer’s development over time. This interaction ensures that the mortal computer doesn’t just passively exist within its environment but actively adapts and evolves in response to it. Such a process is reflective of natural biological systems, where environmental pressures guide the evolution of species.

Self-Replication and Environmental Influence

The principle of self-replication in cybernetics further emphasizes the environment’s role. In this context, self-replication isn’t merely about producing an identical copy of the computational entity; it’s about generating variations that are suited to thrive under specific environmental conditions. This means that the mortal computer’s ability to replicate is directly influenced by its surroundings, ensuring that each new generation is more adept at navigating its niche.

Environmental Triggers for Morphogenic Processes

Environmental triggers can instigate morphogenic processes, leading to structural and organizational changes within the mortal computer. These changes are not arbitrary but are directed by the need to maintain continuity and integrity in the face of environmental challenges. Whether it’s a shift in temperature, the availability of resources, or interaction with other entities, each environmental factor can lead to adaptations that enhance the mortal computer’s survivability and efficiency.

The Reciprocal Nature of the Relationship

The relationship between a mortal computer and its environment is inherently reciprocal. While the environment influences the development and adaptation of the mortal computer, the computer, through its actions and modifications, can also affect its surroundings. This concept of niche construction, where an entity actively modifies its environment, highlights the interconnectedness of life and computation. It suggests that for mortal computation to truly mimic biological systems, it must not only adapt to its environment but also shape it in ways that promote its own growth and evolution.

The role of the environment in the Mortal Computation thesis is profound, underscoring the interconnectedness of computational entities with their surroundings. By embracing morphogenesis and self-replication influenced by environmental conditions, mortal computers break free from the static nature of traditional computational models. Instead, they embark on a dynamic journey of adaptation and evolution, mirroring the very essence of life itself. This holistic approach to computation, grounded in the symbiotic relationship with the environment, opens up new avenues for developing intelligent systems that are not only more resilient and adaptable but also harmoniously integrated with the natural world.

The topic of Markov blankets, as discussed in the video transcript, revolves around a sophisticated conceptual framework utilized to understand the boundary between a system and its environment. This concept is deeply rooted in statistical physics and information theory and serves as a foundational principle in explaining how biological systems, and potentially cognitive systems, maintain their autonomy and integrity through the process of active inference.

Understanding Markov Blankets

A Markov blanket creates a statistical boundary that delineates a system from its external environment. It is composed of several key components:

  • Internal States: These are the states within the system that are influenced by and can influence the states within the Markov blanket but are not directly affected by external states outside the blanket.
  • External States: States outside the system that can affect the sensory states but are not directly influenced by the internal states of the system.
  • Sensory States: Part of the Markov blanket, these states are influenced by external states and can affect internal states, serving as inputs to the system.
  • Active States: Also part of the Markov blanket, these states are influenced by internal states and can affect external states, serving as outputs from the system.

Role in Active Inference

The concept of the Markov blanket is crucial for understanding how systems engage in active inference, a process where the system updates its internal states in response to sensory inputs to minimize free energy. Free energy, in this context, is a measure of surprise or uncertainty regarding the system’s internal states given its environment. By minimizing free energy, the system strives to maintain a predictable state, thereby ensuring its autonomy and integrity.

Implications for Biological and Cognitive Systems

Markov blankets provide a theoretical framework to model how biological systems differentiate themselves from their environment, process information, and adapt to changes through the minimization of free energy. This concept extends to cognitive systems as well, offering insights into how the brain might segregate different aspects of the external world to maintain a coherent sense of self and non-self.

In essence, the discussion of Markov blankets in the transcript illuminates a complex mechanism by which systems manage and maintain their boundaries with the environment. This is done through a continuous process of active inference, where the system interacts with its environment via sensory and active states to minimize uncertainty. The concept of Markov blankets thus bridges theoretical insights from statistical physics and information theory with practical understandings of biological autonomy and cognitive processing, highlighting a fundamental aspect of how systems navigate and make sense of the world around them.

Exploring the Depths of Biological Systems: Markov Blankets, Bioelectric Phenomena, and the Universe’s Computational Fabric

In an era where the confluence of biology and theoretical physics continues to push the boundaries of our understanding, a groundbreaking framework emerges, promising to redefine our grasp of life, consciousness, and the universe’s very fabric. This framework intricately weaves together the principles of Markov blankets, bioelectric phenomena, and the notion of a computational universe, offering a visionary model of how biological systems interact with their environment, process information, and adapt. Let’s dive into the details of this fascinating theory.

The Sophistication of Markov Blankets in Biological Systems

Central to our exploration is the Markov blanket, a concept that serves as a statistical boundary differentiating a system from its surroundings. It suggests living organisms aim to minimize free energy or the uncertainty regarding their environment, thereby maintaining autonomy and structural integrity. This boundary, encapsulating internal states, external states, and sensory and active states, enables systems to actively infer and adapt to sensory inputs, underscoring a sophisticated mechanism of biological self-regulation.

The Role of Bioelectric Phenomena

Integral to this dialogue is bioelectricity, the physical manifestation of a system’s interaction with its environment. These bioelectric signals, vital for cellular and neural communication, act within the Markov blanket, mediating the interplay between internal and external states. This perspective enriches our understanding of how biological entities process information and adapt, providing a tangible link between theoretical constructs and biological reality.

Adapting to Environmental Changes

Our journey delves into how biological systems recalibrate their internal states in response to environmental perturbations, such as electromagnetic fields, highlighting the adaptive capacity of life. This dynamic process exemplifies the system’s ability to engage in active inference, distinguishing between self and non-self, and showcasing resilience against external disruptions.

Integrating Research and Expanding Frameworks

Incorporating insights from Michael Levin’s research on bioelectric signaling in cancer development offers a compelling narrative on the role of bioelectricity in maintaining the organized complexity of biological systems. Levin’s work suggests viewing cancer as a bioelectric dysfunction, further intertwining the discussion on Markov blankets with practical implications in understanding and treating diseases.

Future Directions and Implications

This expansive framework opens new research avenues, including the study of how non-ionizing radiation influences bioelectric patterns and the development of computational models to simulate these effects. These endeavors hold promise for novel therapeutic interventions, restoring healthy bioelectric patterns, and advancing our knowledge in fields like medicine and neuroscience.

Toward a Unified Understanding of Life

By marrying the concepts of Markov blankets, bioelectric phenomena, and a computational universe, we edge closer to a unified theory of biological systems, consciousness, and life itself. This synthesis not only propels our theoretical understanding forward but also paves the way for technological and medical advancements, drawing us nearer to unraveling the complexities of existence.

Multi-Dimensional Space Geometry and the Universe

The discussion extends into the realm of multi-dimensional space geometry, illustrated by concepts like the amplituhedron, suggesting that the universe’s fundamental nature is both geometric and computational. This perspective posits that Markov chains and blankets form the scaffolding of reality, facilitating the interaction and adaptation of systems within this geometrically structured cosmos.

This exploration into the depths of biological systems, through the lens of Markov blankets, bioelectric phenomena, and the universe’s computational essence, signifies a bold step towards decoding the intricate dance of life and consciousness. As we continue to bridge theoretical physics, biology, and computational science, the future beckons with the promise of new discoveries, unifying our understanding of the living world and beyond.

Ashby’s homeostat, introduced by the British psychiatrist and cybernetician W. Ross Ashby in the 1940s, stands as a pioneering contribution to the field of cybernetics and is an early exemplar of what could be termed a “homeostatic moral computer.” The homeostat was developed to demonstrate the principles of self-regulation and adaptation—core concepts in cybernetics and systems theory. Its design and functioning reflect the capacity for maintaining stability, or homeostasis, in the face of changing environmental conditions, making it a profound early model of adaptive and autonomous systems.

Design and Functioning

The homeostat consists of a set of electrical circuits that include amplifiers, variable resistors (potentiometers), and relays, arranged in such a way that the system can modify its own circuitry in response to external disturbances. These components are interconnected, and the system’s state is represented by the position of pointers on dials, which are connected to the potentiometers. The homeostat’s goal is to keep these pointers within a certain range on the dials, which represents a state of equilibrium or “homeostasis.”

When an external electrical disturbance is applied, it drives the system away from its equilibrium state. The homeostat responds by adjusting the settings of its potentiometers randomly until it finds a new configuration that returns the pointers to their desired range. This process of adjustment continues until the system stabilizes itself against the given perturbation.

Theoretical Implications

Ashby’s homeostat serves as a physical manifestation of his law of requisite variety, which states that for a system to be stable, the number of states of its control mechanism must be greater than or equal to the number of states in the system being controlled. The homeostat, through its capacity for random reconfiguration in response to disturbances, embodies this principle by demonstrating how a system can adapt to a wide range of inputs and maintain its stability.

Significance and Legacy

The homeostat’s significance lies in its embodiment of the principles of adaptability, autonomy, and self-regulation—characteristics essential to living organisms and increasingly relevant to the development of intelligent machines. It provided a concrete model that illustrated how systems could self-organize and adapt without explicit programming or intervention, influencing subsequent developments in robotics, artificial intelligence, and the study of complex systems.

Moreover, the homeostat’s conceptual framework paved the way for understanding biological and cognitive processes in terms of feedback mechanisms and dynamic interactions with the environment. It anticipates modern discussions on the nature of consciousness, autonomy, and the relationship between physical systems and their informational states, such as those found in discussions on Markov blankets and the notion of embodied cognition.

In essence, Ashby’s homeostat remains a landmark in the history of cybernetics, offering profound insights into the principles of system stability, adaptability, and the foundations of what might be considered moral behavior in computational terms—namely, the maintenance of integrity and purposeful adaptation in a changing world.


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