Thursday, April 25, 2013

entropy the root of intelligence?



forbes | We have been taught to think of entropy as a bad thing. “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,” wrote William Butler Yeats in the aftermath of World War I, in words that still ring true today. Yet Yeats was both a Romantic poet and a Modern one, and he followed up this couplet with a more counterintuitive one, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst /Are full of passionate intensity.”

These lines have always been a kind of zen koan for me. Lack of conviction would seem to lead to “mere anarchy,” but so often we find that it is fervent, fixed beliefs that lead us astray. Throughout history, poets, philosophers and heretics of all kinds have tried to express the kind of openness of mind that leads to reliably good outcomes. In the 70s Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics introduced a generation to the intersection of science and Eastern thought. Now, we can add a computational physicist to that crowd.

Alexander Wissner-Gross, a scientist, inventor, and entrepreneur associated with both the Harvard University Institute for Applied Computational Science and the MIT Media Lab, has proposed a theory of “Causal Entropic Forces,” that seeks to formalize the “deep connection between intelligence and entropy maximization.”

Put on your thinking caps here. Wissner-Gross completed a triple major—in Physics, Electrical Science and Engineering, and Mathematics—and graduated first in his class from the MIT School of Engineering. His idea is really very simple, but he has the mathematics (see link to paper above) and visualizations (see video below) to back it up. In short, everything in nature (our minds included) seeks to keep its options open. Instead of seeing entropy as a form of destruction (things falling apart) Wissner-Gross shows it to be a state of active play.

Wissner-Gross and Cameron Freer, a mathematician at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, “developed an equation that … describes many intelligent or cognitive behaviors, such as upright walking and tool use,” according to an article in Inside Science. They see “intelligence as a fundamentally thermodynamic process,” where any given system engages in a “physical process of trying to capture as many future histories as possible.”