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Information Reaction

Brett Holverstott

Many years ago, when was working at BLP and living in Princeton, I attended a public lecture by the then President of the Rockefeller University, Paul Nurse.

Nurse made the general argument that the cell does not so much resemble a machine, but rather a circuit board. The cell is able to react to its environment in a complex way, using several chemical signals.

He called what took place inside the cell as an information reaction.

I had never heard this phrase before, or since. But to my own mind, it is a useful concept. I have spent ten years ruminating on it. To me, the concept suggests that there is a large class of systems in which information can 'react,' both simple ones such as a cell; larger ones, such as the central nervous system;  or decentralized ones such as an ant colony, or human civilization.

A computer program is a kind of information reaction with which we are all familiar, but it has properties that are unique to it. Most computer programs exist in a very controlled environment, have a very controlled response to environmental stimuli, and are unable to evolve their responses due to feedback, unless the software has been specifically designed to evolve through the use of genetic algorithms.

In a general sense, the idea of an information reaction subverts the use of "consciousness" whenever someone notices an intelligent response or behavior. The internet is not conscious, neither is an ant colony. And it might inform the discussion of the Gaia Hypothesis, in which the biosphere is a "self regulated complex system" without waxing philosophical about the nature of the mind.

An information reaction requires a few basics. First, information must be transduced from the environment and encoded in some kind of representation.

A representation can be a chemical signal in a cell, or an electronic communication such as Morse code. The only requirement of a representation is that it leads to some further action by the system which comprehends the signal as representative of something beyond itself: a need for the system to react in some way.

Thus the second requirement is that there is a response to the stimulus. The degree of sophistication of the response varies from system to system. It depends on how many parallel streams of signals are being received by the system. It depends on the capacity of the system to remember previous signals. It depends on many factors.

In short - matter has the capacity to represent information and also to react to representations. It can do more than react to brute physical forces impinging on it at any given time, even while any conveyance of representational information must occur through the use of brute physical forces.

For some time I have followed the work of Peter Voss, who is developing what he calls Artificial General Intelligence, which is composed of at least three key elements: it is autonomous, goal-directed, and adaptive.

These features are in contrast to most computer programs as we are aware of them today. Programs are traditionally brittle; they break catastrophically. But look around - how many organisms on the planet are capable of suffering a catastrophic failure in information processing? Organisms are great examples of information reactions.

I contemplated adding a chapter to my book on this topic. There is a theory - quantum mind theory - by which, the weird aspects of quantum theory (entanglement, superposition) play an important role in the consciousness of the brain, and therefore (by extension) allow us to salvage the idea of free will on this basis. I have had people ask: if the physics of the world is classical and therefore deterministic, what room is there for free will?

Over the last ten years, Nurse's concept of an information reaction has informed my opinions on free will as well. Instead of the dichotomy of free will versus determinism, I have gravitated to the notion of compatibilism, by which there is no inherent conflict between free will and a deterministic universe.

Imagine making two identical copies of yourself and placing them in identical environments. Then watch them act over time. If both copies, and the environment, are truly identical in every way, we might imagine that both copies will act identically.

Let me assume for the moment that this agrees with your intuitions, that there is one singular outcome of any given identical physical scenario. Let me remind the reader that any attempt to perform this experiment will fail because no two real world scenarios are in fact, identical. Very small perturbations in the system could potentially change the outcome. I think this has something to do with chaos theory.

However, let's get back to Peter Voss's requirement for artificial general intelligence to be goal-directed. Suppose each copy of yourself in the above experiment faced an important life decision - whether to stay in college as a philosophy major or drop out to jump into a new technology startup (a decision once faced by the author).

Both copies of yourself sit down, deeply reflect on the situation, ask the advise of friends and mentors, and then make a decision.

Since each identical copy of you is in an identical environment, each of them will choose the same path. If we accept this, are we therefore determined to follow some fated path through life? I think not. After all, each copy of you was fully aware of the choice, explored it in depth, and made a reasonably good decision. Perhaps what is important is the fact that it is you, in each situation, who is making the decision.

Instead of asking: "are we free?" we should be asking "is it me?"

The idea that free will is intricately tied up with goal directed action puts some of the psychological experimental studies on free will (such as those by Libet) in a rather useless category of testing the instant-decision-making capacity of goal directed volitional beings in a situation that has absolutely no reference to goals or values.

In fact these studies show that when we skip the process of rational reflection on a situation, we may very well reduce ourselves to a non-volitional state. Unreflective actions are the result of nonconscious processes in the brain.

The question: "is it me?" is itself a wide one; and cognitive psychologists such as Engle and Kane are getting closer to understanding what in your brain makes you, YOU. In their model, a broad range of cognitive abilities can be understood in terms of the role of executive attention. This is the process that "maintains access to stimulus, context, and goal information in the face of interference or other sources of conflict."

[Note: both texts I've linked to can also be found elsewhere online for free.]

Perhaps what makes you a unique individual is not only the content of your memory, but the manner in which you control your focus and attention. To reflect or not, to be aware or not, to avoid distraction and keep focused on moving toward the goals that represent your values as a person. And once we have steered our course with big decisions, we ride the waves with the foam and sparkle of life's unique moments. We feel free; even while moving within a comparatively narrow space of volitional action.

There are many levels of consciousness; we observe the gradation in animals and small children. The kind of mature human consciousness that brings about volitional action can be described as an information reaction in which the system is able to represent with abstractions with a high enough degree of sophistication to allow it to be aware of itself, its environment and the probably future outcomes of its decisions. This allows the thinker to compare the imagined future with goals and values; and chose an action.

I don't see any need for quantum theory to explain complex cognition. And I believe that the future is ours for the taking.