A mind is like a parachute
It might save your life,
but you have to know how to use it first.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Seriously, "Hive-mind"?

Did I actually say "Hive-mind"  a while back?  What is this Star Trek?  We are not bees, or Borg, we are individual human beings.  But in order to make the best progress thinking about interrelationships among complex systems, sometimes it helps to oversimplify.  As long as when we get to the end we remember that our conclusions were based on a simplified model, we can get as fast and loose as we like with the technicalities.

Analogies are important to cognition.  Douglas Hofstadter said the analogy is "the motor of the car of thought."  (Yes, he's very clever like that, using an analogy to describe analogies.)

Analogies themselves are worthy of much more discussion, but for now it is sufficient to say that they can sometimes clear a path in our thought process that may otherwise be a harder slog.  From an analytical perspective, analogies are blue prints, laying out the relative relationships of key components to scale.  An analogy is not the thing it refers to any more than a blueprint is the building it describes.  You can't live in a blue print, but you can spot important relationships in components of the building, and you can work forward from the blue print until you have the real thing.  And, very importantly, you can fold it up and take it with you.  Analogies are the travel size versions of complex relationships.  Easy to carry but still essentially the real deal.

So when I say "Hive-mind" I am simply using a shorthand for the collection of all of our human experiences and the impact these experiences have on our collective activity.  We need not function with a collective higher purpose or enjoy some sort of explicit interconnectedness of thought.

Come and See My Perception Collection

In his book, I am a Strange Loop, Mr H. (Hofstadter is persistently difficult for me to spell for some reason), describes the human mind as a collection of recursive patterns which are collected and form bigger concepts which are themselves recursive, etc. until one arrives at a cognitive level where consciousness and, further up, higher intelligence resides.  This is exactly my kind of exploration because it is not terribly concerned about the actual architecture of the grey matter in our skulls (the hardware of our computer, if you will) but simply with how the mind forms "symbols", and symbols join to become "tokens", and tokens join to become "thoughts", and thoughts join to become "concepts" etc.  In other words, he is more concerned with developing some sort of working model of the software that inhabits our brain -- the programs we run in order to think.  It is an obvious and somewhat dangerous analogy to compare our brains to computers for several reasons I hope I will get to later, but it is a pretty good starting point for thinking about thinking.  Especially the recursive nature of software and of the human brain.

Recursion can get complicated, but in a nutshell it is taking a process and performing it on itself and then repeating that process for an arbitrary amount of time.  The classic example is the Morton Salt girl.   The picture above appears on the blue package of salt.  It shows the girl holding a blue package of salt. On that package is presumably a picture of a girl holding a blue package of salt with a picture on it of a girl....  and so on.  Recursion always ends with, "and so on."

A more mechanical example is taking a mirror and pointing it at another mirror, you will see a hall that seems to twist into infinity.  That would be "endless recursion".  Endless recursion is nice in theory, but in reality, as Darwin's mathematical friends once explained to him (when he suggested the earth may be infinitely old), "infinity is very strong medicine and not just a big number." [c.f. Coming of Age in the Milky Way]  No, for practical reasons, our recursions will all be quite finite thank you very much.

This is a Two Way Street My Friend

But the interesting thing about Mr. H's strange loop theory is that he stopped at the level of the individual.  This is probably because his chief interest lies in how individual minds function.  But the analogy he sets forth, and the mechanisms involved, map very well through small collections of human beings through larger groups, to nations and finally the global "hive-mind".  In other words the symbols and tokens that he sees arising out of recursive processes within the mind repeat through collections of human beings as well.  So while we could easily describe a human mind as being a collection of perceptions, we could just as easily describe a society along the same terms.  This has profound implications for the thought process.  Because each individual thought has an impact on the collective associations of thoughts in a community in very much the same way each concept in the brain has an impact on the collection of concepts.  And it is a simultaneously churning, top down and bottom up process in the mind.  The overall complex thoughts impact the way concepts and symbols are formed and are organized and these in turn impact the higher order thoughts which are produced.

But wouldn't you know, the same thing applies on the community level as well.  The mores and norms of our culture impact on our thoughts while our thoughts simultaneously impact on these mores and norms.

But here's where it starts to get really good.  The method of communication in the brain is both a physical and conceptual one.  The neurons actually carry electrical impulses around the brain but it is the mind which shuffles and organizes the symbols they represent.  The mind can organize itself very quickly and modify its activity in an instant based on the information it receives.  This is because electro-chemical reactions in the brain take place very quickly.  And the number of possible signals is immense.   From wikipedia:

The human brain has a huge number of synapses. Each of the 1011 (one hundred billion) neurons has on average 7,000 synaptic connections to other neurons

Now any one synaptic firing is not going to be noticed enough to have any impact on the human level, but with so many combinations taking place at such great speed, it is very clear that the complexity of conceptual organization could be very great and could be modified very swiftly.

Of course we don't know in any objective sense whether our brains function quickly or slowly.  Logic dictates that animals' brains simply allow them the capacity to respond to threats efficiently.  Any mental configuration which did not allow for changes in motor function and risk assessment quickly enough to avoid danger would never survive.  It does not matter what the "net speed" of our thought is, only that it is fast enough for our environment.  In an intergalactic context, our thinking may be glacially slow, but it is fast enough for our local competitors and that is all that counts.  To use a simple basketball analogy, if the local YMCA basketball league champs never have to face the Boston Celtics on the court, it does not matter that they pass the ball like old men.  All they need to do is pass the ball fast enough to compete against the other old men playing on the teams they meet in the gym.

All of this brings up some interesting questions that I want to speculate on.
-- How fast can we process data?
-- How fast can we think?
-- How many neural firings does it take to make a "thought"?

We can't necessarily nail down these answers, but we can do some interesting speculation and find that it leads to some interesting implications for the "Hive-mind" concept.  That will be for next time.  another time.

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