Complexity from Simplicity – More Support for a Digital Reality

Simple rules can generate complex patterns or behavior.

For example, consider the following simple rules that, when programmed into a computer, can result in beautiful complex patterns akin to a flock of birds:

1. Steer to avoid crowding local flockmates (separation)
2. Steer towards the average heading of local flockmates (alignment)
3. Steer to move toward the average position (center of mass) of local flockmates (cohesion)

The pseudocode here demonstrates the simplicity of the algorithm.  The following YouTube video is a demonstration of “Boids”, a flocking behavior simulator developed by Craig Reynolds:

Or consider fractals.  The popular Mandelbrot set can be generated with some simple rules, as demonstrated here in 13 lines of pseudocode, resulting in beautiful pictures like this:

Fractals can be used to generate artificial terrain for video games and computer art, such as this 3D mountain terrain generated by the software Terragen:

Terragen-generated mountain terrain

Conways Game of Life uses the idea of cellular automata to generate little 2D pixelated creatures that move, spawn, die, and generally exhibit crude lifelike behavior with 2 simple rules:

1. An alive cell with less than 2 or more than 4 neighbors dies.
2. A dead cell with 3 neighbors turns alive.

Depending on the starting conditions, there may be any number of recognizable resulting simulated organisms; some simple, such as gliders, pulsars, blinkers, glider guns, wickstretchers, and some complex such as puffer trains, rakes, space ship guns, cordon ships, and even objects that appear to travel faster than the maximum propagation speed of the game should allow:

Cellular automata can be extended to 3D space.  The following video demonstrates a 3D “Amoeba” that looks eerily like a real blob of living protoplasm:

What is the point of all this?

Just that you can apply some of these ideas to the question of whether or not reality is continuous or digital (and thus based on bits and rules).  And end up with an interested result.

Consider a hierarchy of complexity levels…

Imagine that each layer is 10 times “zoomed out” from the layer below.  If the root simplicity is at the bottom layer, one might ask how many layers up you have to go before the patterns appear to be natural, as opposed to artificial? [Note: As an aside, we are confusing ideas like natural and artificial.  Is there really a difference?]

The following image is an artificial computer-generated fractal image created by Softology’s “Visions of Chaos” software from a base set of simple rules, yet zoomed out from it’s base level by, perhaps, six orders of magnitude:


In contrast, the following image is an electron microscope-generate image of a real HPV virus:


So, clearly, at six orders of magnitude out from a fundamental rule set, we start to lose the ability to discern “natural” from “artificial.”  Eight orders of magnitude should be sufficient to make natural indistinguishable from artificial.

And yet, our everyday sensory experience is about 36 orders of magnitude above the quantum level.

The deepest level that our instruments can currently image is about 7 levels (10,000,000x magnification) below reality.  This means that if our reality is based on bits and simple rules like those described above, those rules may be operating 15 or more levels below everyday reality.  Given that the quantum level is 36 levels down, we have at least 21 orders of magnitude to play with.  In fact, it may very well be possible that the true granularity of reality is below the quantum level.

In any case, it should be clear to see that we are not even closed to being equipped to visually discern the difference between living in a continuous world or a digital one consisting of bits and rules.

Jim and Craig Venter Argue over Who is more Synthetic: Synthia or Us?

So Craig Venter created synthetic life.  How cool is that?  I mean, really, this has been sort of a biologists holy grail for as long as I can remember.  Of course, Dr. Venter’s detractors are quick to point out that Synthia, the name given to this synthetic organism, was not really built from scratch, but sort of assembled from sub-living components and injected into a cell where it could replicate.  Either way, it is a huge step in the direction of man-made life forms.  If I were to meet Dr. Venter, the conversation might go something like this:

Jim: So, Dr. Venter, help me understand how man-made your little creation really is.  I’ve read some articles that state that while your achievement is most impressive, the cytoplasm that the genome was transplanted to was not man made.

Craig: True dat, Jim.  But we all need an environment to live in, and a cell is no different.  The organism was certainly man made, even if its environment already existed.

Jim: But wait a minute.  Aren’t we all man-made?  Wasn’t that the message in those sex education classes I took in high school?

Craig: No, the difference is that this is effectively a new species, created synthetically.

Jim: So, how different is that from a clone?  Are they also created synthetically?

Craig: Sort of, but a clone isn’t a new species.

Jim: How about genetically modified organisms then?  New species created synthetically?

Craig: Yes, but they were a modification made to an existing living organism, not a synthetically created one.

Jim: What about that robot that cleans my floor?  Isn’t that a synthetically created organism?

Craig: Well, maybe, in some sense, but can it replicate itself?

Jim: Ah, but that is just a matter of programming.  Factory robots can build cars, why couldn’t they be programmed to build other factory robots?

Craig: That wouldn’t be biological replication, like cell division.

Jim: You mean, just because the robots are made of silicon instead of carbon?  Seems kind of arbitrary to me.

Craig: OK, you’re kind of getting on my nerves, robot-boy.  The point is that this is the first synthetically created biological organism.

Jim: Um, that’s really cool and all, but we can build all kinds of junk with nanotech, including synthetic meat, and little self-replicating machines.

Craig: Neither of which are alive.

Jim: Define alive.

Craig: Well, generally life is anything that exhibits growth, metabolism, motion, reproduction, and homeostasis.

Jim: So, a drone bee isn’t alive because it can’t reproduce?

Craig: Of course, there are exceptions.

Jim: What about fire, crystals, or the earth itself.  All of those exhibit your life-defining properties.  Are they alive?

Craig: Dude, we’re getting way off topic here.  Let’s get back to synthetic organisms.

Jim: OK, let’s take a different tack.  Physicist Paul Davies said that Google is smarter than any human on the planet.  Is Google alive?  What about computer networks that can reconfigure themselves intelligently.

Craig: Those items aren’t really alive because they have to be programmed.

Jim: Yeah, and what’s that little code in Synthia’s DNA?

Craig: Uhhh…

Jim: And how do you know that you aren’t synthetic?  Is it at all possible that your world and all of your perceptions could be completely under programmed control?

Craig: I suppose it could be possible.  But I highly doubt it.

Jim: Doubt based on what? All of your preconceived notions about reality?

Craig: OK, let’s say we are under programmed control.  So what?

Jim: Well, that implies a creator.  Which in turn implies that our bodies are a creation.  Which makes us just as synthetic as Synthia.  The only difference is that you created Synthia, while we might have been created by some highly advanced geek in an other reality.

Craig: Been watching a few Wachowski Brothers movies, Jim?

Jim: Guilty as charged, Craig.