Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Parallels in Artificial and Biological Evolution

This morning it occurred to me that are a lot of parallels between the way computer systems have evolved and biological evolution in humans (and maybe in some or all other) species. In computer systems we tend to have generalized hardware capable of performing a set tasks of varying complexity. Software then runs on top of this hardware and composes the basic tasks into a series which represents a single, more complex task. Eventually, some of these tasks are deemed common enough and important enough to add hardware. Consider dedicated graphics coprocessors, on-board Ethernet, or the vector math unit found in modern CPUs (eg. SSE or AltiVec).

In humans the corollary components are genes and the brain, or perhaps more appropriately, the "mind". In humans our genetics encode a series of tasks (eg. production or proteins). The various genes and their products interact to produce us. With these base primitives the mind dreams up new routines. The new routines that are common and important enough then get disseminated through the population by learning. If the complex new routines provide a big enough survival payoff, then those members of the population whose genes (hardware) contain changes that allow them to perform these routines with fewer resources will eventually dominate.

I have no empirical evidence to back this theory up, but one place it should be testable is in how well individuals pick up new ideas from formal education, which was was a new human routine. Starting with the Renaissance in European culture (and its offshoots) the ability to learn from things like books and formal schooling started to rapidly increase in importance relative to experiencial learning, say on a farm or in a smithy. Those individual whose biology evolved to make them better at formal learning should then have been more successful than those who didn't. How you obtain the data to study this, well, that's for someone else to figure out, but until I'm proven wrong, I'll assume I'm right, :-)

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Everything that's old is new again

As I was reading today about Verizon joining the LiMo Foundation it struck me how ideas get recycled. Specifically here I'm talking about computer operating systems and all these new systems being based on Linux, which is substantially a UNIX clone. In the beginning there was UNIX (okay, in the beginning their was Multics) dominated by the command line and then the rise of the graphical operating systems like Mac OS and Windows that baked their own kernel foundations. Now we find ourselves, in a way, moving back to UNIX.

The graphical operating systems were viewed as what would run on desktop computers in the future. This prediction was both right and wrong. It's true that the interface of the graphical systems was the future (and now present) of desktop operating systems, but their original underpinnings reverted to their predecessors. Windows of all flavors now runs on the NT architecture, which while not having a strict UNIX heritage, borrows many (although not enough) concepts from UNIX. Maybe if they'd borrowed more, the disaster that is Vista wouldn't have happened. Mac OS explicitly moved to UNIX when Apple bought NeXT and used this as the basis of Mac OS X. NeXT itself was based the Mach kernel and was very UNIX-like. Apple rolled in a BSD layer to OS X, solidifying Mac OS X as a UNIX operating system, which it recently gained certification as.

The question then comes to me, why did this happen? In fact, I think we see all over the place three phases of development. Phase I strikes into new territory, Phase II moves further into the territory with the idea that most of the ideas from Phase I were really flawed and should largely be abandoned, and Phase III often looks backs and realizes the things Phase I got right and puts them as an underpinning of the new ideas from Phase II. I think this shows very well in operating systems. Phase I produced these massive, powerful operating systems that were hard to use. In Phase II we decided that these complex systems were just all wrong and we needed to start from scratch focusing on ease of use. Now, in Phase III, it turns out Phase I was right about the power that the operating system needs and Phase II was right about the ease of use. As a result, we've put the underpinnings from Phase I back in and adapted Phase II interfaces to run on them.

There are probably many ways to explain this cycle back to UNIX kernels that we've taken, and perhaps betters. The lesson I try to take from all this is if you decide that a solution in a new problem space is completely off target, take a step back, there's probably a lot it go right. Apple commercials said "There is no step 3", I'm trying to get rid of step 2.

Monday, May 12, 2008

life, n.: a broader defintion

Recently I began thinking about how to classify life, in a broader sense. My main motivation for this was to answer the question of how to classify "alien life" in a broader sense.

The definition that I think I've heard most is that "life" is something that reproduces. This is unsatisfying for a couple of reasons. The first reasons being that does this make a computer virus alive? You might say, but a computer virus isn't "organic". However, if we get down to it, organic's definition is based on its ability to be used by "life". The second reason why this definition is unsatisfying is what if we encountered a species that never died and therefore had no reason to perpetuate itself through reproduction? For that matter, what about people who can't reproduce, they are certainly not dead.

My proposed definition for life is, "that which exports entropy from itself." Life is the one thing that we know in the universe that seeks to maintain or lower its level of entropy by exporting local entropy to the surrounding environment. Something that is alive does not continually move to a lower and lower energy state. It is true that all "life" on this planet does eventually die, but not without an attempt at preservation. It is perhaps then a consequence of death that life reproduces. This makes life being defined by reproduction even less satisfying because it means the definition of life is really dictated by the reality of death.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Web 1.5?

This morning I said to myself, f-it, I'm just going to join Twitter. And then I thought, fine, I'll hurry up and join Orkut. I've already got a Google account, my friends want me to join Facebook, but my colleagues work on OpenSocial and I'd feel like a bit of sellout if I didn't join at least Orkut and maybe Facebook later. I can definitely feel some pent up inertia since I've been thinking I *should* do these things for a while. So, there, maybe the curse is broken, social web here I come. I say Web 1.5 though because joining is one thing, actually using is another.

P.S. I saw Baby Mama over the weekend, very funny. I love me some Tina Fey and 30 Rock is basically the only non-animated sitcom worth watching.

Monday, January 7, 2008

The desire to procreate

Certainly from an evolutionary perspective the organisms that have some desire or instinct to procreate will be more successful than those who just don't care. For most organisms it would be sufficient for evolution's purposes to give the animal a sex drive since sex under the right conditions will result in conception. Humans, clever as we are, have decoupled sex and reproduction because nature did a great job with our desire for sex. We have done this, if for no other reason, because reproduction might result in less sex in the future, not to mention imposing a host of other demands on our resources that not all of us are interested in having.

In addition to the physical urge to reproduce we do seem to have some sort of behavioral/emotional one as well, or rather many of us do. Many men and women who at twenty are certain they never want children find themselves picking out cribs and bibs ten or fifteen years later. Why do people change their minds?

Certainly there must be many reasons for this, but one in particular that is slightly less socially acceptable than many explanations that are put forth, has occurred to me. This has mainly come about because of changes in myself whereby I find dogs frolicking to be devastatingly cute and endearing. Pets are often thought of as dependents in much the same way that children are and people frequently have their first pet before their first child. The question is then, why have I become more and more joyous at the sight of a dog playing fetch or romping with its companions?

I think its a safe generalization to say that most people get more jaded and cynical as they age. There are certainly exceptions to this, and I think its becoming less and less the norm, but its still the dominant pattern. My theory is then that at least one motivation to have children is to have something around us all the time that reminds us of optimism and innocence.

Children start out with no knowledge of pain or failure. We certainly work hard, as their caretakers, particularly in the early years, to insulate children from the "harsh realities" of life. As a result children are optimistic, adventurous, and "full of life". Similar things can be said of pets, in fact they often remind perpetually childlike. In the absence of abuse dogs are likely to remain energetic and loving until they are mangled by age or infirmity.

Is a key behavioral driver of procreation the desire to make ourselves happier with the child as a constant reminder of how innocent and optimistic we once were? If so, is there a better way to fulfill this desire? It would be interesting to study the average number of children that self actualized individuals have versus the general population.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Happy 2008 to me

I go out to my car this morning to get in and go to work. When I get out there, what do I see, but the words "Fuck you" etched into the front and rear driver side doors. Do people have nothing better to do, seriously? I wonder if it actually happened on New Year's Eve and I just didn't notice it earlier, similar things have been known to happen.

It made me think about violence that sometimes occurs after something like a sports victory. What is it about celebration that drives an urge in people to destroy things? How does, "Hooray, the Patriots won the Super Bowl," turn into "Let's overturn some cars"? (This actually happened when the Patriots won the Super Bowl, I lived in Boston at the time.)

The only thing I can come up with is that the elation and energy created by some joyous event needs some sort of release. You could run a marathon, but somehow destruction is more satisfying, its certainly faster. If you've ever smashed something in anger you know it seems to release some of the energy boiling inside you. Why this is, I don't know. I don't really know where I'm going with this, I guess its still much more of a question than a thought.

Why does happiness sometimes give us the urge to destroy?

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Factoid in The Age of Turbulence

I asked for and was happy to receive a copy of Alan Greenspan's, The Age of Turbulence for Christmas. I've been a long-time admirer of the former Fed chairman's policies for quite a while. He is also inextricably linked in my mind to the sunny economic weather that the United States saw in the 90's and the relatively mild economic shocks following the dotcom bubble bursting. (Yes, its debatable whether Fed policy after the bubble helped inflate the housing bubble whose deflating we are now dealing with.)

The book is excellent, its smart and insightful. I've been interested in economics and finance since I was about twelve. For me, the book also gives me a more in depth accounting of many financial events I've heard about or lived through from an insider's perspective. I think its great because its one of those accountings of events where half the names I might have heard Tom Browkaw say. The other half didn't make enough noise to reach the thirty minute script that America takes to be the sum of what had occurred on that given day.

One fact that I have a feeling will stay stored in my brain for quick cocktail party recall is that from 2000 to 2007 Venezuelan oil production fell 25% from 3.2 million barrels per day to 2.4 million. This is due primarily to Huga Chavez's installation of political cronies in the national oil monopoly. Chavez's government has been saved by rocketing oil prices. As a result, he is free to placate the public with bread and circuses while biting the US hand that feeds him. (America is Venezuela's largest buyer.) Due to our dependence on oil for transport we are currently scarcely able to act to counter Chavez's arms building and rabble raising in South America. Hopefully Venezuela will find a new leader or we will free ourselves of dependence on it for oil and therefore be able to act before Chavez becomes violent, which I fear is where he is heading.