Civilisation: primeval slime to Mars

I finished Daniel Dennett’s From Bacteria to Bach and Back, and personally have no problem with his view that human consciousness is an evolved characteristic built over time from the ground up, and that human culture evolves too, starting with language and continues through memes. In other words, it’s all cranes, not skyhooks. Some people are obviously troubled by this argument. I lack the technical knowledge to evaluate all the detail here. It fundamentally seems far more plausible to me than the alternative.

As a matter of logic, this requires me – and Dennett – to take seriously the argument that computers/AI could evolve minds and consciousness. He puts some weight on the importance of embodiment – but that might be possible although we’re not there yet. Computer vision would be different from ours, but then so is flies’ vision or cephalopods’.

More of an issue, it seems to me, is that computers/AI are very energy-hungry compared to our brains: at the moment, Dennett writes, computer intelligence is parasitical, depending on humans to feed them a lot of energy and otherwise maintain them. What’s more, computers don’t have to struggle or compete: “Down in the hardware, the electric power is doled out evenhandedly and abundantly; no circuit risks starving. At the software level, a benevolent scheduler doles out machine cycles to whatever process has the highest priority, and although there may be a bidding mechanism … this is an orderly queue, not a struggle for life.”

So for now, I’ll stick to thinking Singularity-talk is mystical hype; but will try to keep an open mind on this question.

I’ve always had a soft spot for memes. Dennett uses words as the paradigmitic examples. It reminded me of a jokey line I read once about libraries being the dominant life form on Earth because they are so good at finding new hosts who will start to accumulate books.

There’s a nice section on the importance of social trust at the end of Bacteria/Bach, citing Paul Seabright’s wonderful Company of Strangers. Trust is the invisible glue of human societies, Dennett writes, and much too recent to be a hard-wired natural instinct. “We have bootstrapped ourselves into the heady altitudes of modern civilisation, and our natural emotions and other instinctual responses do not always serve our new circumstances. Civilisation is a work in progress and we abandon our attempt to understand it at our peril.”

Looking at the news these days, that isn’t a very optimistic note on which to end. And yet yesterday brought the amazing launch of Space X’s Falcon Heavy. Astonishing. Perhaps we’ll end up on Mars while the computers colonise Earth.



Optimizing bacteria & the value of information

One of the most exciting moments in my World Economic Forum experience was meeting Daniel Dennett, who was the first person to turn up to hear me talk about measuring the economy – he’s the distinguished Father Christmas-bearded chap on the right.

Daniel Dennett listening to meIt’s only quite recently that I read his Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking. Now I’m half way through the more recent From Bacteria to Bach and Back.

It’s interesting in part because of the read-over to economics. For example, the book talks about the reverse engineering approach to evolution – how come this creature has this feature? “Reverse engineering is methodoloigcally committed to optimality considerations,” Dennett writes. (NB this does not mean simplistic ‘just so’ stories.) The control circuits of an elevator have been top-down designed for good reasons, while the control proteins of bacteria have been bottom-up ‘designed’ (that is, evolved in their environment) for good reasons too. In economics optimisation is presented as an assumption about top-down choices, but maybe it’s more useful to consider it as a bottom-up description of how people decide to act, given their environment.

When the book turns to information – ‘a distinction that makes a difference ‘ – Dennett makes the link with economics explicit. Like other biological information, economic information is semantic information of some us to us. How useful depends on individual context – the value of information lies in the receiver. This means it can’t be measured in a non-arbitrary way (although its usefulness can often be empirically confirmed). Dennett also argues that semantic information does not need to be encoded to be useful, obvioulsy a claim of relevance to the debate about AI. (He spoke about this in Davos.)

This is interesting as it was an issue discussed in the recent ESCoE seminar by Richard Heys (on a paper I co-authored) about the price of telecommunication services. As a sort of thought experiment, we calculated a unit value index for these services – revenues divided by the volume of data used in bytes. This index declined 90% in the five years to 2015. But, one strand of the discussion went, not all units of data are equal; some are far more valuable than others. Of course. But the value is in the eye (or bank account) of the user, and what other signal of value could we select other than the decision to use?

This reminds me that I’ve been meaning to write, since I read it in October, about Jason Smith’s interesting e-book A Random Physicist Takes On Economics. I find it very hard to write about books in the Kindle app as I can’t page through them (though it seems there’s now a paperback); so all I will say is that it’s worth reading for its observations on the methodology of economics. I share some of its reservations – above all, the trouble macro has with aggregation. It also made me think about the role of context or environment, and why this might be more influential than individual choice processes in determining economic outcomes. Smith alludes to the literature on biological market theory, pointing out, though, that this does not rest at all on the utility of biological agents, be they pigeons or fungi.