Category: Talks

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.


Chaos | The Great Courses

It has been called the third great revolution of 20th-century physics, after relativity and quantum theory. But how can something called chaos theory help you understand an orderly world? What practical things might it be good for? What, in fact, is chaos theory? "Chaos theory," according to Dr. Steven Strogatz, Director of the Center for Applied Mathematics at Cornell University, "is the science of how things change." It describes the behavior of any system whose state evolves over time and whose behavior is sensitive to small changes in its initial conditions.


W. Brian Arthur (Part 1) on The History of Complexity Economics

From its beginnings as a discipline nearly 150 years ago, economics rested on assumptions that don’t hold up when studied in the present day. The notion that our economic systems are in equilibrium, that they’re made of actors making simple rational and self-interested decisions with perfect knowledge of society— these ideas prove about as useful in the Information Age as Newton’s laws of motion are to quantum physicists. A novel paradigm for economics, borrowing insights from ecology and evolutionary biology, started to emerge at SFI in the late 1980s — one that treats our markets and technologies as systems out of balance, serving metabolic forces, made of agents with imperfect information and acting on fundamental uncertainty. This new complexity economics uses new tools and data sets to shed light on puzzles standard economics couldn’t answer — like why the economy grows, how sudden and cascading crashes happen, why some companies and cities lock in permanent competitive advantages, and how technology evolves. And complexity economics offers insights back to biology, providing a new lens through which to understand the vastly intricate exchanges on which human life depends.
This week’s guest is W. Brian Arthur, External Professor at the Santa Fe Institute, Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford, and Visiting Researcher at Xerox PARC. In this first part of a two-episode conversation, we discuss the heady early days when complex systems science took on economics, and how biology provided a new paradigm for understanding our financial and technological systems. Tune in next week for part two…