There’s a discussion that’s long lurked in a dusty corner of my thinking about computationalism. It involves the definition and role of algorithms. The definition isn’t particularly tricky, but the question of what fits that definition can be. Their role in our modern life is undeniably huge — algorithms control vast swaths of human experience.
Yet some might say even the ancient lowly thermostat implements an algorithm. In a real sense, any recipe is an algorithm, and any process has some algorithm that describes that process.
But the ultimate question involves algorithms and the human mind.
One of my earliest posts was Analog vs Digital. A few years later, I wrote about it in more detail (twice). Since then I’ve touched on it here and there. In all cases, I wrote from the perspective that of course they’re a Yin-Yang pair.
Recently I’ve encountered arguments challenging that “night and day” distinction (usually in the context of computationalism), so here I’d like to approach the topic with the intent of justifying the difference.
I do agree the grooves on a record, and the pits on a CD, are both just physical representations of information, but the nature of that information is what is night and day different.
As a diversion for the weekend: Have you ever wondered why computers run so hot? No? Okay, I’ll tell you. It’s actually kind of a hoot. (We’ll get back to the more serious topic of algorithms and AI, and wrap up that series, next week.)
You kind of have to wonder. Humankind has gone from oil and gas lamps, to incandescent copper filaments, to fluorescent lights, and now to LEDs. The trend here seems towards cooler more efficient light sources. But computers seem to need bigger and bigger fans!
The short answer: It’s all those short circuits!
I’ve written here before about chaos theory and how it prevents us from calculating certain physical models effectively. It’s not that these models don’t accurately reflect the physics involved; it’s that any attempt to use actual numbers introduces tiny errors into the process. These cause the result to drift more and more as the calculation extends into the future.
This is why tomorrow’s weather prediction is fairly accurate but a prediction for a year from now is entirely guesswork. (We could make a rough guess based on past seasons.) Yet the Earth itself is a computer — an analog computer — that tells us exactly what the weather is a year from now.
The thing is: it runs in real-time and takes a year to give us an answer!
Early this year I wrote an article comparing how we store music in digital versus analog form along with a followup article exploring the contrast between them. There is another major consideration that predominates when it comes recording information these days. Quite simply: what are we going to record onto?
How many of you remember (or have even seen) eight-inch floppy disks? How about five-and-a-quarter floppies? Show of hands if you’ve ever actually used a three-and-half inch floppy? Some of you might not even know what a “floppy disk” is!
Not very permanent, were they. Now consider the Rosetta Stone.
One of the cool things that happened in 2013 is that Voyager 1 has left our solar system. This time it was really, for sure, no kidding! There have been some previous occasions where it left, but this time we really mean it. (Truth is, it’s still way inside the Oort cloud, so in some sense it’s merely left the city for the ‘burbs.)
Say rather that Voyager 1 no longer flies in skies affected by the sun. The heliosphere, the giant fart bubble around our solar system, is filled with our sun’s gassy emissions. Outside that bubble is the galactic ass gas of a billion other suns. Voyager 1, for the first time in human history, samples farts not our own.
It got me thinking about our interstellar golden record: Earth’s Greatest Hits!