Apparently people are well aware of the theory of emergence, at least in the philosophical sense of the word. Emergent theory seems to be catching on in the computing world all over again. In the past, people have talked about emergence in the context of cellular automata and evolving algorithms.

After reading the Steven Johnson interview, I started thinking about emergence, first in computing and then later in a broader context.

My way of testing most theories is to first, mentally throw test cases at it and see if it survives enough to warrant more reading up on or thinking about. I began passing emergent theory through some test cases as I was driving on I-80 across the bay bridge. Being lost in thought while driving is probably not a thing to be done, or so people tell me. But I don’t personally know of anyone who doesn’t, so spare me.
Anyway, the first test case I thought of was Einstein’s theory of light as particles, just because they happened to be talking about it on NPR.

Emergent theory holds that, given a sufficiently large number of small units working together ( of anything really, as long as they’re of a kind, or work together, or are part of a system or process ), there emerges a behaviour or set of behaviours or properties that when looked at by an observer seem to be more than all the properties of all the smaller units combined, or, well, that’s my attempt to describe it. Th phrase “the whole is much bigger than the sum of it’s parts” seems to sum it up better. The key word in my explanation is “emerges” – hence the name of the theory.

Now, if you were to think of Einstein’s explanation of light, they’re composed of tiny particles called photons. As tiny particle they have certain properties, like being able to knock off electrons from certain metals, just like cue ball knocking off other balls in billiards. They have mass, they have momentum etc.. A bunch of photons travelling together somewhere show up as radio waves (electromagnetic waves). We see light as waves. That’s the only way we saw them before Einstein came along. A mass of photons travelling that way show off different behaviour. They seem to follow patterns that are normally associated with waves ie, frequency, wavelength etc.. This seems to fit perfectly with emergence theory. Taken singly, they’re photons with particle like properties, taken as a whole, doing the things they normally do, like travel off somewhere, they appear as waves with all the properties of waves. Similar to sand. A more closer to home example would be, if you take a bucket of sand and tip it, the flow of sand follows patterns similar to liquids, like water.

The other test case I threw at it was the biosphere, us, plants, animals, the ocean, earth etc. Every level of the biosphere you look at, whether it’s our bodies, or the US west-coast marshlands, or the structure of bacteria, or oceans, you can sort of make them fit into the emergence mold. Bacterias are composed of complex organic molecules, which by themselves exhibit just the characteristics that other molecules would. As a whole though, a bacterium exhibits much more complex behaviour and very different properties. It exhibits purpose, it exhibits dependencies, lifecycles etc.. in other words life. When I was thinking this, I stopped myself short. Emergence is way too generic a theory to apply towards life, and other life related concepts like, evolution, intelligence etc.
But is it?

Turns out a lot of other people have thought along the same concepts. There are theories on emergent evolution, emegence as a foundation for studying metaphysics, emergence in development and entire institutes set up to study complex systems and so on.
Stephen Wolfram of Mathematica fame even has an entire website, a book and examples dedicated to explaining “a new kind of science” based on cellular automata (and life and emergence etc..)

Maybe they’re onto something, I don’t know. But I’ve started looking at a lot of things with an “emergence” filter, to see if they follow the general principles. Try it. It’s a lot of fun and a sometimes jarring experience.
Try http://del.icio.us/tag/emergence for related links. A lot of the new links there are related to computer science, but there are others as well. Or google for emergence.

The computing aspect of emergence is interesting because you can actually experiment and test theories using simulations, older AI techniques like Genetic Algorithms, cellular automata or maybe even neural networks.


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