September 12, 2004

The Universe, levels of information (and us)

Little something relating to friendly AIs thread, but on others too so I thought I'll make a new thread for it.

Axiom 1: The universe can be seen as information. The amount of information, the fineness of it, has been increasing since the beginning. While we can not say anything definite on the reason of this, we could postulate that the Universe wants to evolve.

Axiom 2: New levels of finer information need previous levels to build upon.

Axiom 3: Newer levels refine information faster than the old ones.

I'll explain first a bit how I came to these.

Big Bang. First there is minimal information: matter and anti-matter.
After some time particles start forming, so we have more distinctive entities => more information
Bit later we have atoms, electrons spinning around protons, which already is hell of a lot more information.
Atoms get together as stars, get old and explode spreading heavier elements around, until theres enough of them for planets.

This is would call the first level: the material level. It took a good couple billion of years for the Universe to evolve to this level. Very slow indeed, but the good thing with this slow approach is that the information is fairly durable: if you have information in the form of a planet, you have that information there for a very long time.

The first level is needed for the second: life. You can't have a good life without any material... and a reasonably peaceful planet within a pleasant distance from a nice and cool star. The basic approach with life-information is completely different to material-information. Where the latter is durable but slow, life is very fast but of very short duration. The solution to that problem is that life carries information from one generation to another, thus information is not lost when the carrier of it decays.

Life has been quite slow too in refining information: from the first one cell creatures to anything even crawling took hundreds of millions of years (or billions, a bloody long time nevertheless).

Some ten thousand years ago the third level appeared: technology. It can evolve incredibly much faster than life, but can not exist without life - the third level needs the second as a base.

Or does it? Could technology survive on level one - material - alone, without the life level in between? Can you imagine a machine operating on atomic level? And a network of these machines, the network also operating on the atomic level? And machines that eventually do not need any specifically ordered atoms, but can process information on any matter? Every grain of sand being a node in the planet wide cluster computer? I can imagine that.

What do you think? Is such cluster possible, and if so when? And where to after that? And if/when such technology comes to existence, how will it relate itself to (unnecessary) life? Will it save us from the ecological catastrophe or will it just look by as life ceases to exist on earth?

21 Comments: (go down to newest )

  • Blogger Steve Jurvetson ::

  • Special K,

    Sounds like you would like the ruminations of evolutionary dynamics on multiple scales and the discussions on these topics:

    • MEST compression, at the bottom of this page• An introduction to singularity studies:

    “The developmental singularity hypothesis and paradigm presently rests on the following conceptual elements and core assumptions:

    1. Evolutionary development of complex adaptive systems
    2. Local computational closure in hierarchical substrates (hierarchy theory and local optima in simulations)
    3. Global essential incompleteness of intelligence in all finite-state simulations
    4. MEST compression and MEST efficiency of computation
    5. Cosmological selection in the multiverse (both natural/chaotic and self-/development-directed)”

    • And a bunch more material midway down this page.

    • And taking the anthropic principle to the selfish biocosm hypothesis: the notion of evolution across successive universes.

    9:25 PM  


  • Blogger Steve Jurvetson ::

  • Dear Mr. "one letter off from a very cool Led Zepplin song",

    After reading this sequence on

    “3 to 4 million years ago
    collective rock throwing

    1.5 million years ago
    lever, wedge, inclined plane

    500,000 years ago
    control of fire

    50,000 years ago
    bow and arrow; fine tools

    5,000 years ago
    wheel and axle; sail

    500 years ago
    printing press with movable type; rifle

    50 years ago
    the transistor; digital computers”

    I had an epiphany. It reminded me of the axiom:
    "Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny"


    It started with collective rock throwing (I still have a scar inside my lip)..... then wooden blocks…. then FIRE IS COOL!.... then slingshots…. And wheeled bike…. then writing and my pellet gun.... and by 7th grade, the Apple ][...


    4:43 AM  


  • Blogger epp ::

  • Steve. Regarding your second comment: I have said this before but I am completely convinced that patterns of energy which enable the process of evolution (attraction, formation, centralization, polarization, transmission, replication, release and transformation - as well as synergy, syncretism, synchronization and symbiosis) just repeat themselves on various systemic levels involving differing levels of complexity in the detail. This is something which I have concluded after years of research regarding energy processes. Of course anyone may disagree and enlighten me further - something which I always welcome

    The detailed information offered in your first comment makes me realize I know so little, practically nothing. Which is why I need to take time to read, absorb, digest and meditate on it before I can even begin to understand. It is a new world for me. But life is such that within the systemic formations that we have begun to operate in as humans, some are meant to understand the detail, others to summarize it and still others to provide an overview (aside from a host of other tasks delegated to people according to their strengths and abilities). I am wondering if you, or someone else can summarize the detail which I presently feel unable to absorb without taking extensive courses...

    Now, Kasimir. Your question is an interesting one to which I cannot answer with any kind of expertese. Yet, my intuitive response to this is that what you suggest is a contractive process - in contrast to the expansive process that is taking place in the universe. On the other hand, contraction is rarely the end of the story - patterns of expansion and contraction tend to show a repetitive wave-like pattern. So, once again, my intuitive response is that perhaps such a process might lead to a whole new dimension of life, as opposed to eliminating the need for it. Assuming this were the case, it would appear that life would still be needed to establish "portals" to this new dimension. Or is it paradoxically simultaneously both a higher and a lower systemic level with which we thinking beings have very little familiarity. Does it touch the "missing link" which spirituality has been trying to define...?

    The different levels you speak of, incidentally, can be addressed by way of the energy processes referred to in the beginning of this comment. The first (material) level deals primarily with attraction (magnetism), centralization (particle), transmission (wave) and release (radiation). It addresses the evolution of the light of electromagnetic radiation to a higher systemic level. Formation, polarization, replication and transformation enable the transition from the material level to the second (life) level. This second life level, although completely dependent on the aforementioned processes, can only survive, grow and evolve by way of synergy, syncretism, synchronicity and symbiosis. I think that the development of technology is still a life process, but it facilitates a process of transition to another systemic level which is characterized by an incredibly complex and advanced methods for processing, sharing and disseminating information. I am speaking way over and beyond what has been achieved so far by way of technology.

    Imagine wanting to know something and it is immediately revealed to you, after which you can immediately ask the next relevant question which is also immediately answered. Every answer is accessible in every grain of sand. This smacks of the mystic experience of the greater "all", (omniscience, omnipresence, omnipotence) whatever vocabulary is used to define it. It has the flavor of after death experiences described by people who have come back by way of resussitaion - with new knowledge that they could not possibly have otherwise known. Interestingly, mystics and all spiritual traditions tend to agree that we need to go through life to be able to achieve the level of consciousness and connectedness necessary for the "unity" in the life thereafter. Those who scoff at spiritual thought need not turn away in disgust. Just look at life's metabolic processes of renewal and recycling to see the interconnectedness and unity that is achieved through death processes.

    My comment is long - I am sorry. I am just wondering whether whether what you are suggesting is a "live" death...?

    1:28 PM  


  • Blogger Gisela Giardino ::

  • Oh, today´s strip is so apropriate for this topic... that I have no choice but to share it with you: Universe.

    Off Topic: Sorry I am quite off (from writing, I am reading you, though) these days, I have to cash a work, so I have to finish it first and seems "unfinishable" >=( So...talking about AIs, too, I say: "Hasta la vista, baby!!" and why not: "I´ll be back." ;-)

    3:08 PM  


  • Blogger epp ::

  • Oh boy. I just finally read some of the things that Steve's first comment linked to and I am amazed. I have hereby entered a field of study which puts into words many of the things that I had in my head and was unable to put into words. I am now discovering a new vocabulary for what I have been studying from another perspective and using "old" and limiting language. It will take time to learn the new language, I'm sure. My brain already feels it has reached its maximum input load for today.

    Although the above sentences seem related merely to a personal thought process, and not to the topic, I feel that there is a connection after all. What I mean is that given the "image" I already had formulated in my head with all of its various unnamable and inexplainable details (by reason of not being able to communicate them), the simple act of being connected to a form of information exchange that can enable this "image" to be communicated is bringing me to a completely new information level. I'm struck by wonder-awe and feel completely excited about this.

    I'm not implying that I will now be "following the leaders" (though I believe I will be observing and learning from them, all right). This is partly because I do not want to get lost in mathematics (I tend to drown in detail) and partly because I sincerely believe (you may think I'm completely off my rockers here) that we do not necessarily need the "fancy" technology that is being developed, except to gain a higher level understanding of the potential "evolution" by way of information. This is because I sense that we are already superconductors capable of performing any function that may be delegated to any "machine" intended to perform certain information processing functions. I feel we are already doing this on an atomic level.

    Take the well worn words: body, mind, soul spirit. Simply put (although it is much more complex than this)the "spirit" is the part of us that deals with radiation (accelerative and expansive informational processes in space-time?). The "soul" is the part of us that deals expressedly with magnetism (contractive or compression processes?) The "mind" is the part of us that deals with waves - the transmission and reception of information in space-time. The "body" is the part of us that deals with particles - systemic evolution and development... (Bear with me, I'm getting extremely tired as I'm writing this...) Yet these four "parts" of us are also inseperable from the body, mind, soul and spirit of anything else that exists and deals with information on this or any other level...

    Oh, I'm too tired to make any more sense, sorry. I'll try again tomorrow or later or maybe I'll just let the matter drop. Just please understand that I am approaching all of this from a very strange and different point of view. I can "ride" waves and see and visit far away places in my mind and actually see what is happening there. (I have proof) I can gain access to information by attuning myself and allowing myself to become receptive to what I need to know about something or somebody. I can transmit energy to others in a way that they feel it and know it. I don't necessarily like it, but it interests me and I am trying to understand it from every possible angle. I am definitely not the only person who can do this, in fact I believe all of us can... Therefore this has not been a selfish pursuit. The last fifteen or so years of my life have been dedicated to enable everyone to gain access to and share all necessary information by way of their own beings, thereby helping to bring all people to higher levels of self- and other-consciousness.

    Good night.

    2:23 AM  


  • Blogger Gisela Giardino ::

  • Epp,

    Dunno what exactly to say, because I am writting this like an impulse after reading your words. Like a brust of happinness or something of the kind while I was reading it happenned to me...

    Thank you for sharing this. To me it happens something similar, you know these things we have in common, and reading them it fills me with a feeling of belonging, of companionship... a bunch of good things I have inside.

    You, for me, are part of the "others" you mention in your post from whom you are learning and achieving new levels of comprehension. I thank you for that, I thank you all for this actually.

    I am very happy. Far from words can explain. I am full if gratitude inside.

    As you see I am half "off", because I am following at least the weblog and multiply posts you make. Though I am silent. Hope I will finish my duties soon so I can put my head back to this space, here with you... which is my truest, inherent, real and beloved duty. =)

    Love you,


    4:38 AM  


  • Blogger OldCola ::

  • Admitting the first axiom is somehow hard for me.
    I do acknowledge the universe as an informational pack of energy/matter.


    The three axioms Kasimir present are tightly bonded to our understanding.
    Information is available even if there is not accessible by one of us. We perceive it as finer of increasing because it is more conveniently presented, not necessarily because this is truth! I don't understand why Distinctive entities => more information if the parts are the same and just a rearrangement is made.


    There is no reason to consider that "life" need material support and is impossible as pure (without matter) energy fluxes. Thus the moment of apparition of "life" can't be constrained to the post-matter era of the universe.

    Individuals may have short existences, but not life. Using as an example the Terran biosphere, life persist since the beginning of what we experience as it's emergence. The variant forms indicate adaptation to the biotope and specialization. Just tuning.
    The same may occur anywhere, in places unaccessible for us, under completely different conditions. This is speculative, but probable.

    The quantity of information processed per time unit, isn't higher for humans then for bacteria! OK, they don't write in any thinker's blog, but they do process information, they have to replicate/recombine their DNA in as little as a half hour, then divide to produce two new individuals, presenting enough differences at the genome and/or phenotype levels to be considered as unique. (nothing to do with the identical individuals, a myth born from approximations).

    And, why dissociate human technology from other living organisms accomplishments? From neural networks to velcro no big differences, except from the species concerned.

    10:32 AM  


  • Blogger kasimir-k ::

  • Old C:

    > Information is available even if there is not accessible by one of us. We perceive it as finer of increasing because it is more conveniently presented, not necessarily because this is truth!True. But aren't we tied to our perception? And based on our perception it seems that the universe now contains more information as it did shortly after the big bang, or does it not?

    > I don't understand why Distinctive entities => more information if the parts are the same and just a rearrangement is made.I consider the rearrangement as increasing information.

    > There is no reason to consider that "life" need material support and is impossible as pure (without matter) energy fluxes. I think it would be good to give a name to that kind of information, as it is so different from what we now perceive and call as life. What would be the distinctive features of this form? What differentiates it from energy fluxes of cosmic background radiation? Or is background radiation exactly this life form?

    > The quantity of information processed per time unit, isn't higher for humans then for bacteria! Ok, but isn't a human being far more information than a bacteria being? And human beings create information more, at least more complex information, than bacteria beings.

    > And, why dissociate human technology from other living organisms accomplishments? From neural networks to velcro no big differences, except from the species concerned.Damn right! But the remarkable thing with both velcro and neural networks is, that there one form of life-information has copied information from other forms of life-information, and started producing technology-information out of that. And the life-form that 50 years ago was able to copy burrs' hooks is now copying neural structures.

    So what are your views on the acceleration of information increase? What significance has the fact that we perceive acceleration? And do you think that technology will always need (biological) life to support it, or will it someday manage on it's own?


    Steve, you were very much right, I'm really enjoying reading those texts! Very interesting, and many new pieces found for my own picture of the universe and everything. It's also somebody explaining things that I have thought better than I would be able, and that is good.

    8:17 PM  


  • Blogger OldCola ::

  • Whatever referential you use to describe the universe, the description will be the same if you go done to the elementary components level. Except if you admit as an à priori the increase of the amount of the components, at least one of them.
    I haven't any reason to think that information is generated de novo. Rearrangements doesn't affect the description if the resolutions isn't changed.
    You may accept to use the "term" cell to describe some amount of energy/matter/information cluster, but if you go down to the atomic level (for example) to describe it the "term" cell isn't useful anymore.

    Life should be able to replicate, by definition. Thus background noise can't be defined as life. To define reproduction one need to define individuals as well. Those parts of a biocluster able of reproduction. That's differentiate life from other features of the universe.

    I don't see any information increase at the universe level, even if the projection to the limited perception field of my one tend to make me think that some processes are faster.
    A human is much more energy/matter/information then a bacterium. This is a evidence, but also du to the "much more" part. Isolate a segment of the human genome, equal of that of the bacterial one and you have the balance. I discussed the celerity of information processing, no amounts. It would be as comparing a small stone with Himalay, and discuss masses.

    To answer the questions of the final paragraphs:
    The feeling that there is acceleration may be du to the fact that we are better tuned and we dispose of more equipment to perceive how many information is processed per time unit. Our sensitivity is increased, not what happens around.

    If by (biological) life you mean DNA/RNA based species, I will answer no, it's highly probable that life will be able to "take off" and use some more robust support. This seem to be necessary for expansion. But I wouldn't say that non DNA/RNA species will manage on there own. They will be extensions of the present life forms of our biosphere. An evolutionary step.

    7:11 AM  


  • Blogger kasimir-k ::

  • While I ponder the information matters I'd love remind you of the sea in Lem's Solaris - it appears to be one being covering good part (or was it all, can't remember) of the planet's surface, and there are no other individuals of that specie (being such an enormous creature there would immediately be "this planet is two small for both of us..." situation). So this form of intelligence would not classify as life, as it does not replicate?

    6:34 PM  


  • Blogger OldCola ::

  • Kasimir,
    I'll avoid to answer the question about Solaris, as Lem did it already:

    One should not speak of a "thinking" or a "non-thinking" Ocean, however the Ocean certainly was active, undertook some voluntary actions and was capable of doing things which were entirely alien to the human domain.The vision of the Planet Solaris was very important for me.  Why was it important?  The Solarian globe was not just any sphere surrounded by some jelly - it was an active being (although a non-human one).For me, active will be, not alive. And the intelligent part could be discussed. Never considered chameleons camouflage as a proof of intelligence, the same for any mimetic behavior.

    excerpts from Stanislaw Lem, December 8th, 2002 .
    bold characters by OldCola

    7:17 AM  


  • Blogger Steve Jurvetson ::

  • I’m not sure if I understood the debate about bacterial vs. human DNA and the informational density of their encoding…. But I would point out that equal lengths of DNA in each organism are not equivalent in information density, perhaps in a Shannon sense, and certainly from a systems biology perspective. Bacteria have one gene : one protein encoding. It’s a simple 1:1 mapping.

    In humans, there is a much more complex mapping between genes and proteins, involving various nested feedback loops. The coding efficiency of human DNA extends beyond the leverage of feedback in the electrical, physical and chemical domains, to the complex interactions between genes. The human regulatory genes produce proteins that respond to external or internal signals to regulate the activity of previously produced proteins or other genes. The result is a complex mesh of direct and indirect controls. By analogy, our genetic code is a dense network of nested hyperlinks.

    (also, thanks Epp and K-man for the feedback on the links. John Smart has always been interesting to me, ever since he led a session on evo dynamics at our nanotech conference. I also posted an expanded version of the recapitulation ruminations on my blog to see what other ideas might come up.)

    8:27 PM  


  • Blogger OldCola ::

  • Steve,
    I didn't say 1(one) gene but 1(one) DNA sequence, this is quite different!
    And gene overlapping (with a common DNA sequence) is a quite frequent situation in bacteria and bacteriophages. BTW, I think the first evidence for overlapping genes was found on a phage.
    The percentage of described (not potential) overlapping genes is higher in procaryotes, and in favor of a higher information density is simpler organisms.

    The gene/protein 'mapping' is more complex in eucaryotes in fact, and I had the opportunity to comment on one of your posts about that.

    None of these observations is evidence of accelerating information processing, and that was the topic I was addressing here: The quantity of information processed per time unit, isn't higher for humans then for bacteria!.

    And please, when you are discussing about the complexity levels over the raw DNA sequence, give a chance to quite simple systems such as the bacteriophages; simple is an euphemism.

    9:19 AM  


  • Blogger Steve Jurvetson ::

  • Good clarification. So from a Shannon sense, the encoding in bacteria is more information rich. How does that tradeoff with the representational complexity of the regulatory genes in humans?

    And when you say “The quantity of information processed per time unit, isn't higher for humans then for bacteria!”, you mean a “human cell” not a human, don’t you? (or a comparison of a human to a comparable number of bacteria as the human has cells) If you really do mean 1 bacteria is similar to 1 human, then I’d be real interested in how you come to that conclusion.

    I do try to have respect for “simple” and parsimonious encodings, whether bacterial or in cellular automata. On a lighter note, here is a good example of the opposite: computer archaea…. =)

    4:27 PM  


  • Blogger OldCola ::

  • Steve,
    Yes, when I say The quantity of information processed per time unit... I am talking about similar quantities of either bacteria or human DNA, more then individuals.

    Your question : How does that tradeoff with the representational complexity of the regulatory genes in humans?
    HUGE genomes, with most of the sequences non encoding for any proteins.
    HIGH redundancy of systems allowing complex and sensible adaptation to variations of the environment.
    APOPTOSIS; take off any cell isn't fitting well.
    Great expenses for a better result.

    7:15 PM  


  • Blogger Steve Jurvetson ::

  • De-Fizz: interesting points. Looking beyond DNA and cells, there are very different systems needs. Bacteria have some quorum sensing and signaling, but they don't have the same degree of federation and symbiotic complexity as a human. So it does not seem like an apples and apples comparison. If one does want to reach that level of complexity, has a better way been demonstrated?

    Bacteria have a very different lifeboat strategy. Huge populations, fast reproduction rates and high mutation rates allow some of them to adapt to just about any environment. Humans try to preserve more of their members (sacrificing cells, but trying to preserve longer lives for the system). And this has been important for higher intelligence and the accumulation of learning across generations.

    Back to the lighter thread, it turns out that the home computer photo in my prior post was a photoshop hoax. Here is what the original looks like.

    4:52 PM  


  • Blogger Rezlaj ::

  • It's very interesting what you suggest. I do believe that what you are saying is possible. There's a book by Greg Egan called Permutation City which plays with this idea of having a computer that exists outside physicality or location. It also plays with the concept of conciousness not being intricately intertwined with our biology.

    I just thought of another book by Isaac Asimov which is actually pretty close to what you are saying. It's called Nemesis. This one's about a concious planet. It is a huge conciousness that encompases the whole planet. It gives the impression in the book that its body is composed of every part of the planet, just like we have skin, the planet has seas and mountains.

    What I believe is a bit different though. I think that conciousness exists on a non-physical level. Conciousness consists of patterns of energy, matter, whatever. In this body we are a pattern of neuron firings. So, I think there could be life (in the sense of a concious being) on that material level as long as it describes the proper pattern. We could put this pattern we have in our brain on almost anything that could actually describe it and run it. We are an abstraction that needs some physicality to exist because this universe is defined by matter and the laws of physics.

    If there was a conciousness that expanded the planet, and I'm not saying it doesn't exist today, I don't think it would let us destroy the biological life. And, if you think about it, there has never ever been a period in history without a incurable disease to fight. We kind of beat the deadlyness of cancer through prevention and in comes AIDS to the scene. I think that's the planet's immune system telling us to behave.

    5:34 PM  


  • Blogger Popa ::

  • Hey, the living being in Nemesis was not the planet itself, but a lot of cells scatered on its surface.

    7:51 PM  


  • Blogger Popa ::

  • Kasimir, do you know that information according Shannon is defined as entropy? So your first axiom is just the second thermodynamic law. This is the kind of thing that makes me believe that Shannon deserved a Nobel.

    7:58 PM  


  • Blogger Gisela Giardino ::

  • Hi everybody,

    I will make a very short entry, maybe a dull one, I am quite asleep...

    First, I was urgently moved to say that this vision of the Univierse as it is suggested by Kasimir and followed with others´ comments, it was an antromorphization of the existance of the universe. It reminded me automathically to that hot thread about memes and Evolution we had at Orkut (a pitty I cannot link it from here)...

    Now, thinking it further...

    First: what I say is obvious. We will never get rid of our humanlike perception of anything unless we changed our condition. So the antromorphization is not under discussion simply because it is inherent to it.

    Second: HoweveRRRRR (with a rolling and very porteña R) I go forward triggered by Poppa JP´s comment (dunno why exactly yet) ;-)

    This is not a humanlike conception. This is an alivelike one. [I am sinceresly sorry if I am terribly wrong. My background is not vast in this field.] I mean since the Big bang the dead things around the universe haven´t "evoluted", they haven´t built higher levels of information (and finer ones) in their "inmortal" existance. There is no algorithm, no "survival instinct" in them.

    Or is it the creation of life from the dead proof positive?

    Do stars get a grose and finer amount of information when the become white dwarfts?

    Is the condition of the Earth, that could be interpreted as more evoluted than the moon´s for example, a testimony of the Universe´s evolution?

    Is Evolution (as we understand it like an algorithm, to sum up) just inherent to living things and their living minor componnents, being studied by a living observer as well?

    How do we explain black holes under this ideas?
    Are they the most evoluted places ever?
    The most complex?
    The smartest?
    ...uh? ;-)

    Orm as Jp said, could it be possible the we are talking of evolution in the fields of the alive and about entropy in the land of the dead?

    Of course, don´t ask me about the distinction between alive and dead because I don´t have the slightest idea. Maybe I am posing part of that answer in my own comment...

    Am I tricking myself?!

    Sorry, far too many questions. But maybe you can punch me down like a marionette in one sentence.

    People, i am glad to be back. And Steve, you owe us a pic of your lip with the scar. Is a testimony for the group, undenniable! At least you have to show it to me, I am... the... mm... le´meseee... errrmm....

    "Coordinator in chief" ...Yes.


    8:04 AM  


  • Blogger Gisela Giardino ::

  • ah! I miss this talking about steve´s scar...

    "Suppose a man who was not blind beheld the many bubbles on the Ganges as they drive along, and he watched them and carefully examined them, then after he had carefully examined them they would appear to him empty, unreal and unsubstantial. In exactly the same way does the monk behold all physical phenomena, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and states of consciousness-whether they be of the past, or the present, or the future, far or near. And he watches them, and examines them carefully; and, after carefully examining them, they appear to him empty, void and without a Self."

    -from the Majjhima Nikaya translated by Nyanatiloka

    8:13 AM  


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