Tag Archives: life

Everything’s an Algorithm (well, almost everything)

I started out at Ohio State University majoring in Fine Arts. Two years later, I switched majors to Psychology. When I graduated OSU, I went looking for a job, thinking I’d combine my fine arts background with the psychology I’d learned. Five out of five companies I interviewed showed little interest in fine arts, psychology, or any combination thereof. It was 1969 and all the companies were looking for computer programmers back then, so I went to work for Sears, Roebuck and Company as a computer programmer.

Sears had an excellent training program and I fell head over heels in love with computer programming. I remember my first day of training. We were told to draw a flowchart that would direct a hypothetical robot to enter our office building, go up three elevators, get off on the 47th floor, and go to our office cubicle. We hadn’t learned any computer language yet, so we had to write our instructions for the robot using basic English commands that wouldn’t lend themselves to misinterpretation, like “walk straight until you reach the first elevator” or “press the button with “47” printed on it”.

I later found out, after reading Donald Knuth’s “Fundamental Algorithms” (The Art of Computer Programming Vol 1), that a flowchart is a graphic representation of an algorithm. Knuth stated that algorithms were similar to processes, methods, procedures, or routines, but also possessed the following attributes:

  • finiteness: algorithms have to terminate after a finite number of steps. They can’t go on forever;

  • definiteness: operations (steps) have to be rigorously and unambiguously specified for every possible case;

  • inputs: data may or may not be given to an algorithm before or during its operation;

  • outputs: data generated by an algorithm’s operation that bears some relation to its input;

  • effectiveness: an algorithm must be able to be precisely performed within a finite period of time and must be exactly repeatable.

These attributes imply that not everything is an algorithm as the title of my post suggested.

Algorithms are the cornerstone of all computer and robot programming, including machine learning and artificial intelligence. The implementation of algorithms requires that the operations, cases, inputs, and outputs specified for each algorithm be converted to a format that can be processed by a specific machine or operating system. Computer hardware is built to perform certain basic operations efficiently. Unfortunately, the formats a computer can “understand” are usually incomprehensible to the average human. Computer software allows general or special purpose algorithms to be written by humans (or other machines) to operate on a specific set of computers.

Remember that algorithms are processes, methods, procedures, or routines with extra attributes. We’ve implemented them on computers and robots. Nobody ever said that algorithms are limited to just those systems though.

What about cellular organisms, bacteria, fungi, plants, and animals? What about human beings? Why couldn’t we substitute plastic for flesh, organs, and muscles, metal for bones, gold and wires for nerves, or vice-versa? What about life itself, the brain, consciousness, or love? Could there be an algorithm for life, consciousness, or love?

It seems reasonable to me to assume that life, consciousness, and love possess the following attributes:

  • they are processes;

  • the processes are probably composed of a finite number of steps;

  • the processes probably have inputs and generate outputs.

but life, consciousness, and love are currently missing a couple critical attributes:

  • we don’t know all the operations required or the cases in which those operations occur;

  • we don’t know how to go about encoding the algorithms to make them effective.

Maybe we don’t need to know all the operations involved in life, consciousness, and love. Maybe we just need to know enough to create viable processes or processes capable of bootstrapping whatever else they need whenever they need it.

There are more questions on this subject than answers. I’m ok with that. There’s no known algorithm for whittling a huge block of ignorance down to a beautiful piece of knowledge or for whittling a piece of goodness out of a huge block of evil. That’s probably because those are processes that go on forever,

or at least as long as hope springs in the human breast.

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Waiting for the Election Results

I voted. Having invested my political hopes and desires in the narrow slit of a pale blue cardboard box in the classroom of an elementary school near where I live I now wait for the results of our national elections to be announced. There was the moment I voted and there will be the moment the results are announced.

Events are the names we give to moments. We think we live from moment to moment, digitally, to use a metaphor that most high-tech people would relate to. Life, however, is analogue. It’s a continuous function that goes on between those moments, running over those moments in its blind fury and enthusiasm. To take a cue from Allen Saunder’s (not John Lennon’s) quote “life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans,” I would say that life is what happens in between the moments. Maybe it’ll go viral.

When I was a kid I remember climbing into the car in Ohio and being driven down to Florida. There was Ohio. Then there was Florida. Nothing in between. Ohio was boring. Florida was a lot of fun. I almost drowned in the swimming pool at our motel. I remember going around and around underwater, having slipped out of my inner tube without the slightest clue how to get back to the surface. I’ve since learned to swim.

I used to sit in the waiting room with my mother waiting to get a shot. Before I knew I was going to get a shot was ok. Getting the shot was not a lot of fun.

Life is mostly like a waiting room.

I used to do things with my father. Damned if I can remember most of them now. If only I could have paid more attention. If only I could have committed everything we did together to memory. If only all of my life had been visible, tangible, to me. I have so many questions, but it’s too late now.

Oh, they’re announcing the results on tv. And the winner is …

Mike Stone

Raanana Israel

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Three Universes

The way I see it, there are three kinds of universe:
• The universe in which God created everything in it, from the smallest particle to the largest cluster of galaxies, and controls everything that happens in it, whether it’s our lives here and now or the movements of some distant cousin of a cockroach on some distant planet in some distant galaxy. I’m not talking about a vast team of gods divvying up the universe so that each god is only responsible for a small piece of it, but a single God responsible for a humongous number of pieces of it, twenty-four by seven, without ever missing a beat.
• The universe in which God set off the Big Bang fourteen billion years ago, which set into motion space and time itself, and all things we know and don’t know, which are still unfolding and unfolding in ways that nobody could possibly anticipate, things lovely and cruel beyond comprehension, including the apparent miracles of life, consciousness, intelligence, love, literature, poetry, science, philosophy, and an infinite bouquet of miracles that haven’t been born yet.
• The universe in which the Big Bang just occurred for some reason that currently escapes us but, if we work hard enough at it, we just might figure out the reason and, if not us, then someone or something else, or maybe not at all. And it occurred fourteen billion years ago, which set into motion space and time itself, and all things we know and don’t know, which are still unfolding and unfolding in ways that nobody could possibly anticipate, things lovely and cruel beyond comprehension, including the apparent miracles of life, consciousness, intelligence, love, literature, poetry, science, philosophy, and an infinite bouquet of miracles that haven’t been born yet.
Now, although I’d much prefer to live in a universe in which God exists, using the God-given intellectual equipment I was born with, I have never seen or heard any compelling evidence that He exists.
So it is quite obvious I don’t believe in the first universe above. Not only do I not have any evidence that it exists, it doesn’t seem possible to me that such a universe could exist. It would fall apart too quickly. It could not possibly be held together.
Now we come to the second and third universes. The second universe is just like the third universe, except for inserting God into the causal chain as the First Cause. Okay, so who made God? First causes are problematic that way. Also, God is not a sufficient cause. In other words, if you removed God from the second universe, you would have the third universe, which appears to be perfectly viable for the time being.
As for the third universe, I know that religious Creationists scoff at the idea that life could have developed in a primordial soup of organic particles in a pool of water shocked into existence by a random bolt of lightning, and from that soup sprang professors spouting Shakespeare. It seems far less likely than breaking open a sack full of coins, throwing them all into the air, and having them all land on their edges. First off, life from primordial soup doesn’t sound any more far-fetched to me than the first universe. Just for the sake of argument, however, let’s explore the sack-of-coins-landing-on-their-edges example. Consider the number of successes, in which the coins all land on their edges, the number of failures, in which they don’t, and the amount of time. Given an infinite period of time, not only will all the coins land on their edges at least once, they will do so an infinite number of times. Okay, let’s not talk about an infinite period of time. The probability is just a function of the number of coins being tossed, the likelihood of each tossed coin landing on its edge, and the number of times the coins are tossed. Back to our primordial soup: there were probably billions and billions of lightning bolts striking pools of organic molecules during the first billion years of earth’s existence. This sounds much less far-fetched than the first universe to me.
Do I see the unfolding miracles of the third universe with less wonder and appreciation than someone else who believes in the first universe? I think not. The more I know, the more I know there is that I don’t know. There is more humility in a scientist who confronts and wrestles his ignorance every day than in a person who believes all is known and he knows it all.

Mike Stone
Raanana Israel

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The Other Side of Consciousness

It has been said that nobody has ever come back from death to tell us in any really credible way what happens to our consciousness after we die. Of course there have been a lot of near death experiences or experiences of being flat-line technically dead and then revived. People have described a tunnel and a brilliant white light at the end of that tunnel or floating over their dead bodies and watching the people standing around, listening to them. Then they are gently pulled or yanked back into consciousness and our banal daily world.

I would venture a guess that the reason some of us experience these phenomena is that we don’t always die all at once. Once the signal is passed down to all the cells in a body that it’s time to die, the cells start to power down, to stop their functions that differentiate them from non-living organic matter, functions like organization, using energy, growing, responding to changes in the environment, and reproduction, but it takes time to shut down all the cells in a body and, while some of the cells might be dead, others might be still alive and at least partially functional.

If the brain were the first to shut down before the rest of the body, then dying would be a lot easier on us. People often say that it’s a blessing to die in one’s sleep. I think that people are more afraid of dying than they are of death. We mortals don’t seem to be equipped with the ability to conceive of our own deaths, the end of our consciousness forever and ever, in spite of the fact that we all die and many of us have seen someone else die.

But the brain is not always the first to shut down. Imagine for a moment that your conscious mind is trapped in a brain that is trapped in a body that is in the process of shutting down. Our minds are used to being in control of our body functions. Whenever we are in unpleasant situations we try our best to overcome them or to escape them. This experience of entrapment goes against our previous experience and programming. “What can’t be, is happening to me!” screams silently in the outer space of our minds. Maybe we think to ourselves, “This is finally it! I’m really dying now. But I don’t know how to do it or even what to do. I wonder how long it will last.”

But the body has its own logic. Dying is a natural consequence and part of living. The body doesn’t need the brain to tell it how to die. All the mind has to do is to relax and record what is happening for as long as it can.

I am certain that the mind achieves some wisdom or understanding in the last moments before death that would benefit all living mortals if only that dying mind could somehow pass on to us that wisdom, what it’s like to transition to the other side of consciousness.

But nobody really has, have they?

Mike Stone

Raanana Israel

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Part 6: Choice; Chapter 32: Some Chose Death

Sangor looked across the table at the Rat. He had never seen an adult Rat in his life, only Rat children. Even though they were both sitting, it was obvious that the Rat would tower over him, standing up, though Sangor was not considered short by any means. Small head, long neck, lanky muscular body and arms, dark blue skin, blue eyes, and blue hair. He looked like he’d come straight from the mine his father had worked in, the mine that had eventually killed him. This Rat would have been invisible in the mine if he’d have stripped off his clothes and closed his eyes.

Sangor calculated the odds in his head: there was just him and this Rat. Maybe Sangor could take him. Maybe not. Anyway he wasn’t sure how he’d find his way back to the river. His best bet was to check out the lay of the land. Funny how they had no maps of this part of the world. He wondered about that. Sangor should try to find out what he could and then, when the time was ripe…

“Where are my friends?” Sangor asked Lem testily.

Lem responded after a moment, “Are you feeling any better now?”

Sangor said cautiously, “I suppose so… What about my friends, the other captives?”

“They are facing the same dilemma you are facing at different tables in different parts of the forest,” Lem answered.

“What dilemma is that?” Sangor demanded to know.

 “Whether your time line ends abruptly or extends into a future that you cannot imagine,” Lem answered.

“What do you mean?” Sangor asked his captor.

“Whether you choose death or life,” Lem explained patiently, “but you’ve already chosen, haven’t you?”

Sangor had already chosen life. He had concluded from his captor that the Rat army was vastly superior to the Sap army and, one on one, they seemed quite formidable. It was also clear that the Rats knew the Uncharted Areas far better than his friends and he ever could hope to know. The smart thing to do would be to bide his time and wait for an opportunity to present itself.

As it turned out, the choice was not so obvious. More than half the captives chose death; well, they didn’t actually choose death per se. They decided they’d be damned if they were going to play nice with the stinking Rat sitting across the table from them. They’d overcome the Rat and make a break for it or die trying. Almost before the Sap captives thought about lunging across the table at their captor or running away from him, the Rats reached across and snapped their time lines, almost as easily as snapping their necks.

All the Rats were Lem.

Mike Stone

Raanana Israel


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