The Collective Computation of Reality in Nature and Society

The first computers were not invented by humans but by nature. The mantra of complexity science — that complexity arises from interactions among simple components — is wrong. The parts—whether cells, neurons, bees, or humans—are often wonderfully complex themselves but operate under many constraints and are prone to failure and myopia and, consequently, errors in information processing that can lead to a profound misunderstanding of the nature of reality. In this public lecture, Jessica Flack will discuss how nature computes. She will build on the above points to argue collective computation—computation by the parts together—evolved as a solution to imperfect information processing, sometimes resulting in recovery of the “ground truth out there in the world” and sometimes resulting in a collectively constructed reality that takes on a life and meaning of its own. Flack will also discuss how an understanding of computation in nature challenges us to broaden our understanding of computation’s theoretical foundations.

All things are words belonging to that language
In which Someone or Something, night and day,
Writes down the infinite babble that is, per se,
The history of the world. And in that hodgepodge
Both Rome and Carthage, he and you and I,
My life that I don’t grasp, this painful load
Of being riddle, randomness, or code,
And all of Babel’s gibberish stream by.
—Jorge Luis Borges, two stanzas from his poem, The Compass

Jessica Flack is a professor at the Santa Fe Institute and director of its Collective Computation Group. Flack’s interests include the role of collective computation in the origins of biological space and time, coarse-graining in nature, causality, and robustness.

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