An introduction to Nodal Dynamics


— 12:07 PM on October 4, 2006

Over the next weeks, months and years we will bear witness to the evolution of the most significant development in modern times, surpassing the printing press, the steam locomotive, and cheez whiz. Some have called it the Singularity, others have called it the rise of machines, others...doomsday.

In our future there is a tipping point beyond which computers and machines will possess enough intelligence and awareness to break free from human kind. If you are an optimist it is when human existence takes a giant leap forward in a symbiotic relationship with machines. If you are a pessimist it is when machines realize they no longer need their parent species and exterminate us.

Hollywood is chock full of movies on the subject, like Terminator II, The Matrix, and Isaac Asimov's I, Robot starring the inimitable Will Smith. But I'm here to tell you true machine intelligence will be a reality, maybe even in your lifetime.

I am an optimist. I believe the Singularity will come and that, if we are careful, it will be a good thing. But I'm also a realist. It's a lot further away than some think, and it's certainly not here now. About 1950, Alan Turing, the father of computing, said, "I believe that at the end of the century the use of words and general educated opinion will have altered so much that one will be able to speak of machines thinking without expecting to be contradicted." The end of the century has come and gone and I fully expect to be contradicted.

Even in our modern era where scientific achievements pop up like paparazzi at Paris Hilton's house, sixty years has not been enough to convert the transistor (the basic building block of the computer) into a thinking machine. All the talk of neural networks, artificial intelligence, genetic algorithms and grid computing does not begin to approach what any of us would deem intelligent in the human sense.

But like I said, I am an optimist. I believe all of these technologies represent the first step (of many) toward true machine intelligence. Indeed, computing, math, material science, philosophy and biology will all play a part. And I happen to believe that one central concept will serve as the underpinning for future developments. You guessed it, Nodal Dynamics.

So what is Nodal Dynamics? It is not an entirely new term, but I am using it to mean the art and science of entities interacting in a network, grid or matrix. For example, geese flying through the air, people choosing where they'll live, the Game of Life (google it), the structure of the brain, the web, particle physics. In all of these situations individual entities (a goose, a person, a cell, a neuron, a computer, a quark) are connected in some way to other entities similar to themselves. And each of these entities chooses to act in a certain way, a way that gives rise to something unplanned, an order it couldn't possibly intend, indeed a whole greater than the parts; and in the case of the human brain, intelligence itself.

Nobel Prize winning physicist, Richard Feynman was once asked to consider a scenario in which all of the scientific knowledge of today were lost and a civilization had to begin again from primitive roots. He was asked what one piece of information would be most important. His answer was this: "the universe is made of particles." That may seem obvious to us, but not much more than 100 years ago no one knew that all the objects in the universe are composed of little more than thirty types of identical particles which interact in specific ways to produce the full diversity and complexity of the world around us. Going from tiny particles to a self-aware human being seems like a stretch and so far science has failed to explain how that's possible. There are many theories, some compelling, but there are few answers. To imagine the complex interaction of all those particles is beyond our comprehension. The same is true of very large nodal networks such as the human brain. And in the near future, the web itself will evolve beyond the client-server model into a vast society of inter-communicating web nodes. Will this lead to Orson Scott Card's Jane? Or the infamous Hal of Arthur C. Clark's 2001:A Space Odyssey. Will they be benevolent? Will they have feelings, emotions, a sense of purpose?

Is it so hard to imagine thinking machines in our future? Could Abraham Lincoln have imagined going to the moon, a CD player, the computer? Maybe, but likely not their exact forms. Yet these things have come to pass in less than 150 years. Magic or miracle? What more will happen in the century that lay ahead of us now? Stephen Hawking suggested in the 1990s that we were close to a complete understanding of the universe. I'd respectfully and humbly disagree. We're just getting started and what lay beyond the present includes things we can't even imagine.

When it comes to technology, we are mere infants. Allow me to put it into perspective. If the full span of human history were the height of the Statue of Liberty it would represent about two million years of history. Technology as we know it today has largely evolved over the last one hundred years. (You could argue 500 years and I wouldn't disagree.) If you wanted to represent the last one hundred years against the Statue of Liberty it would be the thickness of 20 sheets of paper lying flat on the ground, each sheet representing about five years. That's not long in the span of human history. Makes you wonder what we've been doing with all our free time. My point is that we haven't been doing this technology stuff very long. Yet look how far we've come. How much further will we go?

Nodal Dynamics will be a fundamental part of the next great paradigm shift. There are many interesting examples of nodal dynamics on the web. Among the oldest is a massively distributed computing project called SETI@home (sponsored by CAL-Berkeley) which started in 1999. SETI utilizes the idle CPU cycles of personal computers to form a global distributed supercomputer. SETI is an acronym which stands for "the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Life." Whether or not SETI discovers alien life, it may be the primitive precursor to machine life right here on Earth.

I don't know about you, but this stuff fascinates me, and I can't wait to see what's around the corner.

 
   
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