Wondrous little robots and larger sentient ones

You should see a set of photos below with what might at first glance appear to be dots. But as you look closer you should notice that they are tiny spiders. They were about 1mm across at the widest diameter. I call them robots – ‘bots’ for short – for the rest of this post.

As it turns summer every year, there is a rush of ‘life’ – animals and plants do most of their living and reproduction. These bots below caught my attention because they were in a web on my large bin outside the house. They started off this morning [2012-05-27] under the blue bin and by afternoon their web somehow extended to the roof of the front entrance, where the wind is strongest. They were probably hatched about two or three days ago.  [Each photo is clickable for a closer view]2012_05_27_4207_bots_sm.

These tiny animals got me thinking. I was aware of myself watching them – but I don’t think it would be arrogant to presume that they were not aware of my presence, or not aware of themselves watching me. They were busy with their own set of hardwired instructions. I, however, was not aware of a set of hardwired instructions limiting my choices at that moment in time. I could choose to pause and reflect on them and me – or I could also have chosen to go to the park and see them as just another insignificant thing.

They were driven to do what they did. Their bodies were structured for their own limited purposes. I don’t think they had ‘minds’ as I know humans normally have. By ‘minds’ I mean some apparatus for sentient self-awareness. Yes – surely my mind has been shaped by my education to think about all these things but I still maintain that I have a greater degree of freedom to apply my mind in different ways.

Well I’m not into a debate today about creationism – I take the Dawkins’ position on this, having read ‘The Blind Watchmaker’. For those who haven’t read the book, there would appear to be an ‘intelligence’ operating to design these bots above which has then programmed them with instinct etc. No such thing is required – as per Dawkins.

2012_05_27_4212_bots_smThe thing we normally call intelligence is the ability to adapt, maximise potential, direct the self/organism and maximise chances of survival. The efficiency with which these things happen, appears to us to have some mystique. We marvel about it. The bots and the humans both have this broad-brush intelligence. But of course human intelligence is something quite different. Well, so we would be expected to think.

A seed and a tree which grows from it are surely different. The position I take is that our human intelligence is likened to the tree – that had grown out of the ‘seed’. Nature has it’s own form of ‘intelligence’ (for want of a better word) to fashion living objects over millions of years by repeated cycles of selecting and deselecting the most efficient. Efficient for what? Efficient in contributing to the overall disorder of the universe – a thing called entropy. Yes – living things are more ordered than disordered but the universe may play a little game. It may opt for order insofar as overall disorder is better achieved.

2012_05_27_4209_bots_smThe trial and error method is as efficient as it can be in creating living things. Sure enough living things use things like air and food (of various kinds) and release energy from them. The food may be ordered in the form of plants for example and in doing that a living thing – a plant say – will use up energy and cause an increase in entropy. A herbivore such as a cow may eat the plant and expend energy in the act of eating, digesting and excreting etc. Dung beetles may feed on the cow’s dung and in so doing make their tiny individual contributions to increasing entropy. So – the creation of order in the shape of living things is a good gambit for increasing entropy. Had earth, air and water just remained there, they would have remained just there – or bounced around by other inanimate forces of wind, fire and  seasonal forces. So – the ‘life-effect’ by contrast uses inanimate matter to create greater ‘disorder’ (i.e. entropy), in contrast to being left alone to stand.

2012_05_27_4210_bots_smBut there is something new on the ‘block’ in the last one million years of this planet. It’s called sentient life. It does something rather different compared to the rest of animal and plant life. Sentient life is so organised and ordered that it can discover and reflect on the forces that orchestrate the universe. It can then ponder how to manipulate those forces in novel ways. Think of a modern airplane. It is a brilliant example of the mind of sentient beings fashioning a thing into an ordered state, yet managing the complexity and dynamics involved in the physics required to fly – thereby dramatically increasing the entropy of the universe. The act of building an airplane in itself involves a dramatic expenditure of energy and increases entropy. Our minds create processes for mass production of these planes. Then more and more planes are built and so on. The same situation certainly exists for automobiles and other machines that the minds of men have created. I think it is safe to say that ‘nature’ left to her own devices could not produce these kinds of machines.

And think about splitting the atom – yes it happens in nature. However, our sentient minds have worked out how the laws of nature operate, and we can then direct and control nuclear reactions to create bombs or nuclear power plants. Minds then direct the building of more and more nuclear power plants – and I hope you can see that the effect of sentient life is to unleash forces and energy that would have taken a far greater length of time to be unleashed if left to their own natural pathways.

2012_05_27_4213_bots_smLiving things without sentience are significantly less powerful in adding to the entropy of the universe – even though they are working optimally, within their constraints. Where it emerges, the life-effect is to increase the rate of increase of entropy. But the sentient-life-effect is to exponentially increase the rate of increase of entropy when it emerges.

In summary therefore the ‘sentient life-effect’ is nature’s novel way of more rapidly increasing the entropy of the universe. This now raises big and many questions. I explore one or two related issues.

We’ve taken approximately 5 Billion years to emerge – and have only done so in a big way in the last 10,000 years or so. The increase in entropy contributed by human sentience is on an exponential curve, certainly after the Industrial Revolution (if you want to hold that as a landmark). The invention of machines in their varied forms in the last 200 years or so has been most noticeable. Our machines now consume and release so much energy on a scale that could not be imagined 1000 years ago. Where is this trajectory to take us? Or is it about ‘us’? Strange question – perhaps.

Maybe it isn’t about ‘us’. Perhaps we are the scaffolds for something (or things) new to come.  “What?!!” – you exclaim. Well calm down – we are creating ‘intelligent’ machines that can function with a fair degree of autonomy. It is possible to extrapolate that totally autonomous machines, self-aware, with capacities to self-replicate, effect self-repair, adapt and alter their configuration, work in groups on challenging problems, and discover new phenomena by analysing the universe, could emerge. It is difficult to tell when this might happen. My expectation is that they will be with us within the next 100 years.

I would thank the tiny bots for stimulating my thoughts on this, however, I think it is most unlikely that they would be able to appreciate what I mean to convey.

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