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Current Essay Contest

Contest Partners: Jaan Tallinn, The Peter and Patricia Gruber Foundation, The John Templeton Foundation, and Scientific American

Previous Contests

What Is “Fundamental”
October 28, 2017 to January 22, 2018
Sponsored by the Fetzer Franklin Fund and The Peter & Patricia Gruber Foundation

Wandering Towards a Goal
How can mindless mathematical laws give rise to aims and intention?
December 2, 2016 to March 3, 2017
Contest Partner: The Peter and Patricia Gruber Fnd.

Trick or Truth: The Mysterious Connection Between Physics and Mathematics
Contest Partners: Nanotronics Imaging, The Peter and Patricia Gruber Foundation, and The John Templeton Foundation
Media Partner: Scientific American


How Should Humanity Steer the Future?
January 9, 2014 - August 31, 2014
Contest Partners: Jaan Tallinn, The Peter and Patricia Gruber Foundation, The John Templeton Foundation, and Scientific American

It From Bit or Bit From It
March 25 - June 28, 2013
Contest Partners: The Gruber Foundation, J. Templeton Foundation, and Scientific American

Questioning the Foundations
Which of Our Basic Physical Assumptions Are Wrong?
May 24 - August 31, 2012
Contest Partners: The Peter and Patricia Gruber Foundation, SubMeta, and Scientific American

Is Reality Digital or Analog?
November 2010 - February 2011
Contest Partners: The Peter and Patricia Gruber Foundation and Scientific American

What's Ultimately Possible in Physics?
May - October 2009
Contest Partners: Astrid and Bruce McWilliams

The Nature of Time
August - December 2008

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Tommaso Bolognesi: on 6/20/14 at 7:56am UTC, wrote Best regards Tommaso

Anonymous: on 6/20/14 at 7:54am UTC, wrote Hector, I'm glad that you ran the code. You are the first... It looks...

Hector Zenil: on 6/19/14 at 10:47am UTC, wrote Hi Tommaso, Very nice essay. I ran your Mathematica code and it looks like...

Lorraine Ford: on 6/8/14 at 4:25am UTC, wrote Dear Tommaso, Re "I don't buy the complexity viewpoint": As you know, in...

Lorraine Ford: on 6/7/14 at 1:07am UTC, wrote Dear Tommaso, Marvellous essay! It's a literary work; it's amusing; it...

Tommaso Bolognesi: on 6/4/14 at 11:08am UTC, wrote Thanks for the comments Robert. I see your point, and I agree that we may...

Robert de Neufville: on 6/4/14 at 4:54am UTC, wrote I seem to get logged out every time I write more than a short comment...

Anonymous: on 6/4/14 at 4:53am UTC, wrote One of the most interesting and enjoyable essays in the contest, Tommaso....


Georgina Woodward: "Joe, sensory products are what is seen. Illumination matters because it..." in The Sudoku Universe, Why...

fally jonash: "It is a well-maintained site where people can learn about various topics. I..." in A Wonderful Outcome

fally jonash: "Your article is very interesting and fantastic, at the same time the theme..." in In Search Of Other Earths

Joe Fisher: "Dear Georgina, The (INVISIBLE) “sensory products” you keep writing..." in The Sudoku Universe, Why...

Joe Fisher: "Dear Georgina, I failed to mention that although conventional chess game..." in The Complexity Conundrum

Joe Fisher: "Dear Steve Agnew, On December 7, 2017, I have emailed : “Dear..." in The Complexity Conundrum

Lena Smith: "All HP printers carry a unique qualities. if the product is still under..." in Conjuring a Neutron Star...

Lena Smith: "All HP printers carry a unique qualities. if the product is still under..." in Conjuring a Neutron Star...

click titles to read articles

The Complexity Conundrum
Resolving the black hole firewall paradox—by calculating what a real astronaut would compute at the black hole's edge.

Quantum Dream Time
Defining a ‘quantum clock’ and a 'quantum ruler' could help those attempting to unify physics—and solve the mystery of vanishing time.

Our Place in the Multiverse
Calculating the odds that intelligent observers arise in parallel universes—and working out what they might see.

Sounding the Drums to Listen for Gravity’s Effect on Quantum Phenomena
A bench-top experiment could test the notion that gravity breaks delicate quantum superpositions.

Watching the Observers
Accounting for quantum fuzziness could help us measure space and time—and the cosmos—more accurately.

December 11, 2017

CATEGORY: How Should Humanity Steer the Future? Essay Contest (2014) [back]
TOPIC: Humanity is much more than the sum of humans by Tommaso Bolognesi [refresh]
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Author Tommaso Bolognesi wrote on Mar. 27, 2014 @ 15:25 GMT
Essay Abstract

Consider two roughly spherical and coextensive complex systems: the atmosphere and the upper component of the biosphere - humanity. It is well known that, due to a malicious antipodal butterfly, the possibility to accurately forecast the weather - let alone controlling it - is severely limited. Why should it be easier to predict and steer the future of humanity? In this essay we present both pessimistic and optimistic arguments about the \emph{possibility} to effectively predict and drive our future. On the long time scale, we sketch a software-oriented view at the cosmos in all of its components, from spacetime to the biosphere and human societies, borrowing ideas from various scientific theories or conjectures; the proposal is also motivated by an attempt to provide some formal foundations to Teilhard de Chardin’s cosmological/metaphysical visions, that relate the growing complexity of the material universe, and its final fate, to the progressive emergence of consciousness. On a shorter scale, we briefly discuss the possibility of using simple formal models such as Kauffman’s boolean networks, and the growing body of data about social behaviours, for simulating humanity ’in-silico’, with the purpose to anticipate problems and testing solutions.

Author Bio

Tommaso Bolognesi (Laurea in Physics, Univ. of Pavia, 1976; M.Sc. in CS, Univ. of Illinois at U-C, 1982), is senior researcher at ISTI, CNR, Pisa. His research areas have included stochastic processes in computer music composition, models of concurrency, process algebra and formal methods for software development, discrete and algorithmic models of spacetime. He has published on various international scientific journals several papers in all three areas. His essay ‘Reality is ultimately digital, and its program is still undebugged’ has obtained a 4th prize at the 2011 FQXi Essay Contest ‘Is Reality Digital or Analog’?

Download Essay PDF File

Janko Kokosar wrote on Mar. 29, 2014 @ 20:47 GMT
Dear Mr. Tommaso Bolognesi

In principle, we speak very similar things, (and my old reference.) You gave a new reference for me (Teilhard Chaitin), who claims "A stone has a soul... but a very small one", similarly as I. I wrote there: "If it is assumed that consciousness exists outside the biological world, panpsychism is obtained, where consciousness is everywhere." "It is possible to go still further in a matter of the non-biological world, and there can be also some very low memory (but extremely low one) and a short duration of it."

I also write about consciousness of many people, but more about consciousness of two people.

You have concentrated on Tononi's principle of complexity, but my approach is a little different: "Memory is maintaining consciousness, and the quality of two consciousnesses is the same." It is more important for me, what is the smallest basic element of consciousness. It is not easy to say, how my and Tononi's principles are distinct. Other things are also important, for instance, qualia.

I hope that "Brain Activity Map Project" and other projects will give new information about consciousness.

I think that Linde tells a lot of things, connected with your or my essay.

The topic of the contest cannon be easily connected with physics, but you succeded.

Best Regards Janko Kokosar

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Author Tommaso Bolognesi replied on Mar. 31, 2014 @ 09:15 GMT
Hi Janko,

thank you for your comments.

I see you have links to two distinct essays of yours.

I am actually curious about the 'It from bit of bit from it' essay 'Proposal for Quantum Consciousness', since there you mention Tononi and the fact that you improve on his definitions. Did you find a way to come up with an alternative, simple and precise measure of the 'degree of consciousness' that can be applied to virtually any distributed dynamical system, such as, say, a network of synchronous boolean functions?

Thanks and good luck!

Joe Fisher wrote on Mar. 31, 2014 @ 16:19 GMT
My Dear Mr. Bolognesi,

I found reading your essay quite absorbing and I do hope that it does at least as well as your prior effort in the competition.

In my essay, REALITY, ONCE, I emphasize the fact that the biggest hindrance to understanding reality could very well be the English language. For instance you wrote: “Tomasi measures the amount of consciousness as the quantity of integrated information produced by a complex system.” I am somewhat at a loss wondering what information could possibly be integrated with other than it being a lesser amount of integrated information. Well what about the unintegrated information? I believe that my consciousness is unique, once. I believe that all information is not unique; therefore, all information is unrealistic.

With my very best regards,

Joe Fisher

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Author Tommaso Bolognesi replied on Apr. 3, 2014 @ 12:03 GMT
Hi Joe,

let me directly quote Tononi: `In short, integrated information captures the information generated by causal interactions in the whole, over and above the information generated by the parts`.

Tononi was able to find a formal way to measure the difference between the amount of information produced by a system when it enters a state, and the amount of information that its parts produce, individually, as that state change occurs. This difference must then correspond to the information produced by the interactions among the parts. These quantities can be measured by the notion of relative entropy, which essentially captures the amount of information produced when moving from one probability distribution (of system states) to another.

I see your point, that consciousness is UNIQUE, ONCE. But this does not prevent one to measure it, if you accept the idea that consciousness is a sort of side effect of the intricate structure of the brain, to which Tononi`s measures can be applied.

I am not sure I understand what you mean when you write that `all information is not unique; therefore all information is unrealistic`. Perhaps you mean that bits are generic, or all equal, and brains are specific, or all different. And you attribute the status of reality to things that are unique, specific, and not generic. In this respect you should probably conclude that the mathematical universe (as discussed by Max Tegmark) is the most unrealistic of all possible universes . . . Anyway, I tend to sympathize with Teilhard`s idea that the ultimate fabric of the universe is indeed made of indistinguishable, abstract, entities (the bits fit this definition), and that the evolution is such that more and more complex entities emerge, up to the brains, which are indeed unique.

Turil Sweden Cronburg wrote on Apr. 1, 2014 @ 14:30 GMT
Excellent essay! Thank you so much for writing and sharing this. Thoroughly enjoyable and thought-provoking.

I’d like to suggest that Pascal’s triangle might be the particular cellular automata that our reality functions with... This would mean that while it is unpredictable on any detailed level, without all, or nearly all, the previous information/states available, there are huge locally repeating patterns, as seen in all fractals, and so there is quite a bit of opportunity for prediction, with quite a bit of accuracy. (For example, the bell curve of variation in probability, and the triangular/linear growth and decline that we see in so many trends in all areas of behavior.)

“A binary cell cannot decide to flip itself, or change the boolean function that defines its behavior; but humans can.”

What evidence do you have of this?!

Also, I was surprised you didn’t mention Douglas Hoffstadter’s book I am a Strange Loop, which considers very similar ideas to your self-modifying code entities (and cellular automata, in general), but from a more philosophical and psychological point of view.

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Author Tommaso Bolognesi replied on Apr. 3, 2014 @ 10:45 GMT
Dear Turil,

you ask whether I have evidence that humans can flip themselves, in the sense that they can modify their behavioural rules, while cellular automata can`t.

I suppose this can be seen as an instance of the tough question whether we are completely determined in our behaviour by some fixed rule, or we enjoy free will. I believe there exists a scenario in which both things are in some sense true. This is made possible by the fact that this universe is multilevel.

At the bottom level - the ultimate spacetime scale from which everything emerges computationally, including humans - rules are algorithmic, and fixed; or, if they change, this is not under our control.

But at the much higher level of our direct experiences - say, the biosphere - we feel we are able to change our own behaviour. This is illusional, since, under this scenario, even the fact that I have decided to behave better, or worse, is determined by the rules and dynamics at the lower levels, and yet the illusion works fine for us, since we cannot directly experience the causal influences of those lower dynamics on what happens to us.

I also have in mind the argument used by Wolfram for preserving a (weak) notion of free will in a fully deterministic, computational universe. His idea is that it takes no less than 10 computational steps, in a simulation, to find out how the universe, or my life, will look like in 10 universe steps from now, since the computation that the universe is performing is irreducible - no shortcut. Thus, the rule at the bottom is fixed (no free will), but the emergent behaviour appears unpredictable, thus, in a sense, rule-free, spontaneous.

If this is a bit confusing, don`t worry. It is for me too. Trying to capture the notions of spontaneity, agency, creativity, free will, in a formal framework, is always troublesome. It is probably the hardest problem, when trying to formalise Teilhard`s cosmological views.

Turil Sweden Cronburg replied on Apr. 3, 2014 @ 14:36 GMT
Tommaso, thanks for clarifying. I fully agree with your assessment. My own approach, of using binary combinations of awareness has really helped me see both the simplicity and complexity of how things relate to one another, whether they are bits of data or humans.

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James Lee Hoover wrote on Apr. 9, 2014 @ 16:49 GMT

A learned and interesting adventure conversationally between generations. Your "humanity in silico" makes me think of ants under scrutiny, tagged and studied by higher powers. The social network metaphor is interesting and disturbing at the same time since it seems to accurately represent real life, though with different motivation for observations.

Not having any easy answers for steering billions of separate humans toward a viable future, I am impressed with the images you draw but I still don't know whether to feel optimism about our future.


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Author Tommaso Bolognesi replied on Apr. 9, 2014 @ 17:28 GMT
People and companies have actually started using data from social networks, e.g. for `sentiment analysis`, and you can easily imagine the good and bad purposes of this.

I merely sketched a possible positive usage of `humanity in silico` models, but I myself do not feel particularly attracted by this type of inquiry, while I enjoy much more the ambitious goals expressed by Tommy, Tomas and Alice in the dialogue.

In any case, I am completely aligned with you in not knowing whether to feel optimism about our future . . . which in a sense makes life more interesting.




You write that you `are impressed by the images` I draw: are you referring to metaphors or the actual drawing of Tommy on the couch? This drawing was inspired by a recent novel by Michele Serra (Gli Sdraiati) - unfortunately appeared only in italian - that I would recommend to anyone who has a 19-year old son, or has been 19 very recently.

James Lee Hoover replied on May. 20, 2014 @ 21:28 GMT

Time is growing short, so I am revisiting and rating. Your response to my questions and comments: "You write that you `are impressed by the images` I draw: are you referring to metaphors or the actual drawing of Tommy on the couch? This drawing was inspired by a recent novel by Michele Serra (Gli Sdraiati) - unfortunately appeared only in italian - that I would recommend to anyone who has a 19-year old son, or has been 19 very recently."

I was referring to the verbal images but really liked the drawing as well. Having a humanities background, writing fiction, and columns, I tend to appreciate vivid writing and imagery of all kinds, and do take note of political events that affect us. Not to do so, condemns us to the failings of delusional leaders with agendas of self-interest.

Have you had time to read my essay?


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John C Hodge wrote on Apr. 9, 2014 @ 18:15 GMT

Thank you so much for writing and sharing this thought-provoking essay. Your comments on my essay were very thought-provoking.

“…humanity is not ready to face its stormy future,…”. Life is not for the squeamish. We must face the storms or find peace in the cemetery.

I suggest for all my positivism, I think we are at “life” stage, not even “thought”. And...

view entire post

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Author Tommaso Bolognesi replied on Apr. 14, 2014 @ 15:52 GMT
Hi John,

similar to your essay, your message is very articulate, and dense with remarks and observations. I`ll take the liberty to react only to a few of them.

You observe that the goals of my three characters, Tommy, Tomas and Alice, seem vague and perhaps unachievable. Curiously I am more convinced (and attracted) by their long term vision, involving some form of the...

view entire post

George Gantz wrote on Apr. 15, 2014 @ 11:44 GMT
Tomasso - Wonderful and compelling dialogue! Thanks for the journey. However, I did find the overall message of your essay discouraging. My essay (Tip of the Spear) offers a possible counterpoint. So here are two questions:

How does the computational universe (and cellular automata) capture the transcendental effect of self-consciousness? I find it fascinating what happens to the precision and order of mathematics when self-reference is introduced - paradoxes everywhere! Just like quantum physics. Perhaps human consciousness bootstraps free will from quantum indeterminacy - giving us the power to change the computation.

On a different note, is there no room for hope (short of de Chardin's Omega) in the evolutionary trajectory of human civilization? After all, progress seems to have occurred through an emergent process based on human altruism and without conscious human direction?

Thanks! - George

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Author Tommaso Bolognesi replied on Apr. 16, 2014 @ 08:17 GMT
Dear George,

I had already spotted your essay, with its opening by Teilhard de Chardin (`for the second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire`), but you have been faster than me in establishing the contact. Be sure that I will soon comment on your work!

You write that you find the overall message of my essay discouraging.

In fact, you are the second...

view entire post

George Gantz replied on Apr. 16, 2014 @ 18:51 GMT
Tommaso -

I suspect (but cannot prove) that the paradox of self-reference in mathematics corresponds to a paradox of self-awareness in consciousness - and that consciousness will at some point prove impervious to empirical or theoretical explanation. Interesting also that we are struggling with paradox in quantum physics as well. What explanation can we give for this most interesting feature of the universe, if not a transcendent one?

Wittgenstein famously wrote " Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent." Being human, of course, I don't think we will ever stop talking about it.

Cheers - George

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Author Tommaso Bolognesi replied on Apr. 17, 2014 @ 08:56 GMT
Oops, I erroneously wrote my answer to you in the wrong place. Find it below, as an answer to Lawrence B Crowell. Sorry.

Lawrence B Crowell wrote on Apr. 15, 2014 @ 20:31 GMT

Your essay was interesting. I have to admit that early on in reading your essay my opinion was not entirely positive. It seemed to start out rather too mysterious. However, the overall theme of your essay later one, particularly once you got into the partition function and the conditional probabilities, became clearer. I had to read your essay twice in order to dispel my initial concerns with it. There is a qubit context to quantum foundations, and further I think that we may need to look at an open world perspective. This would be to treat quantum mechanics, or quantum gravity in particular, as an open system analogous to open systems approach to statistical mechanics.

The quantum foundations of the universe or quantum cosmology involve entanglements of qubits that underlie metric structure. Your essay then suggests that networks on larger scales are then “mirrors” of this underlying system. This does have some logic to it, for the loss of entanglement on a local basis results in entropy. This entropy is then given by a partition function of states. I think this partition function is most naturally the integer partition function, at least for qubits of a black hole. In an open thermodynamic structure this can result in locally high ordered structures or networks. This is maybe a basis for the existence of biology and consciousness.

Over all I found your essay interesting and entertaining. My essay touches on some of these issues, in particular with an argument for an open world view.

Cheers LC

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Author Tommaso Bolognesi replied on Apr. 17, 2014 @ 08:40 GMT
Dear George,

we might agree on the terminology, and call `transcendent` any feature of the universe that we are not able to capture by the scientific method. The substantial difference is whether one considers (pessimistically) this status of affairs as permanent, or (optimistically) slowly evolving to a better and wider scientific explanation of those features. Science has progressed every time an item has been moved from box 1 (`Magic` - e.g. lightning) to box 2 (`understood`). I see this as a one way process.

I must add that the ideas about measuring consciousness expressed by Tononi (and, more abstractly, by Teilhard de Chardin) sound quite plausible to me, and I would not be too surprised if in 10, or 50, or 100 years, the phenomenon of matter that becomes able to `reflect` (on) itself will be explained. Progress in robotics and artificial intelligence should help a lot in this effort.

And still, human imagination is so strong that I guess we will always keep finding interesting items in box 1, to keep our scientists busy.



Vladimir F. Tamari wrote on Apr. 17, 2014 @ 01:28 GMT

Congratulations for a really enjoyable essay and a great illustration of Tommy tied up by his devices like Gulliver (is that your drawing ?) Already my grandson of two years old is badgering everyone "wez yo ifon?" to play with.

The Internet as an emerging Noosphere is a credible scenario, and through your nice storytelling you take us to various other fascinating related concepts. One that struck me particularly is your ruminating about Wolfram and others' idea that the Universe is an evolving cellular system that runs on a bit of code.

Taking this idea furthest, at the smallest level you get to the point where the software and the hardware are one and the same. This is the root concept of my outline 2005 Beautiful Universe theory Spinning Bloch-sphere-magnet-like dipoles interact with their neighbours to create energy, radiation, matter as well as dark energy and matter. Space itself is defined by the node-node interactions, while time is not needed as a dimension but emerges when we monitor the state of the mutable Universe or local parts of it.

Your analysis conjures the frightening conclusion that if human beings are regarded as computable bits, then a Grand Programmer programs our behavior: A self-conscious Internet can steer humanity where it (the Internet) wills!

(time out for fervent prayers and supplications that it ain't gonna be so)

Best wishes from


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Author Tommaso Bolognesi replied on Apr. 17, 2014 @ 09:24 GMT
Hi Vladimir!

yes, that`s my drawing, but I sure can`t compete with your coloured pictures (including those in your 2005 Beautiful Universe essay).

And yes, one of the implications of the dialogue is that the future of humanity is in the hands of the self-conscious super-organism that emerges from the interactions of us humans. This might be the case even if one did not emphasize the computation-oriented character of the universe dynamics.

A scary picture? I am not sure. Maybe we are not exactly replicating the ant vs. anthill scenario, because a human has much more consciousness than an ant, and as such might be in a better position to interact with the emergent entity at the upper level. This is in fact what Teilhard postulates, when he talks about our relations with the Omega pole, but that, admittedly, is the most speculative part of `The Human Phenomenon`.

Best wishes to you, Vladimir


Vladimir F. Tamari replied on Apr. 17, 2014 @ 13:22 GMT
Thanks for your cheerful response Tommaso. All that I can add is that I sincerely hope that your optimism and faith in the human mind (or whatever is involved here) will be bourne out in the coming years, decades and centuries. Humanity has been slowly moving on a trajectory that has now become a self-propelling super- highway to a future full of possibilities and dangers. hang on tight!

Best wishes


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Georgina Woodward wrote on Apr. 21, 2014 @ 09:31 GMT
Hi Tommaso,

I have read your essay. An interesting presentation style. Lots to think about.

You wrote "It is well known that, due to a malicious antipodal butterfly, the possibility to accurately forecast the weather - let alone controlling it - is severely limited. Why should it be easier to predict and steer the future of humanity?" My immediate though was that human behavior is not chaotic and so is a lot more predictable. However a quick Google search and I found "Chaos in human behavior: the case of work motivation." Universidad de Barcelona, Spain. j.navarro PubMed Commons, 13th May 2010 Quote: This study considers the complex dynamics of work motivation. Forty-eight employees completed a work-motivation diary several times per day over a period of four weeks. The obtained time series were analysed using different methodologies derived from chaos theory (i.e. recurrence plots, Lyapunov exponents, correlation dimension and surrogate data). Results showed chaotic dynamics in 75% of cases. The findings confirm the universality of chaotic behavior within human behavior,......" Which I find really surprising.

I still don't think people are as hard to predict and steer as the weather. With training and/or conditioning they can become highly predictable. The work of Derren Brown hypnotist, illusionist, mind reader shows how easily ideas can be planted into people's minds which they then regard as their own thoughts. I don't have overt mind control in mind but subtle political -social engineering that drip feeds the desired behaviours. Smoking- not our future Its then a matter of deciding what direction will be promoted as desirable. The lesson of low fat diet advice leading to more heart disease and obesity should be heeded as cautionary tale. It shows that what we think is best for the people may not be.

Good luck, Georgina

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Author Tommaso Bolognesi replied on Apr. 23, 2014 @ 09:11 GMT
Dear Georgina,

thank you for the comments and the mention to the essay on the chaotic dynamics of human behaviour. I understand that chaos in this case refers to individual behaviour: in certain situations, we tend to behave in chaotic, unpredictable ways. Nevertheless, I agree with you that in many circumstances our behaviour, as individuals, is more regular, and predictable.

My point, however, is that, even when the members of a population have, individually, a regular, predictable behaviour, it may happen that the resulting, overall behaviour of the population, as a whole, is chaotic, due to the emergent dynamics. The obvious example is that of cellular automata: all cells behave in the same, completely defined and predictable way, and yet the patterns that emerge can be highly irregular and unpredictable.

I see that your essay is published now. I`ll read it quite soon.



Thomas Howard Ray wrote on Apr. 21, 2014 @ 13:58 GMT
Nice, Tomasso!

I am also a big fan of Chaitin's metabiology and I think you hit it dead on: "In his book Chaitin mentions Wolfram and his New Kind of Science [9]. Well, one of the messages from that book is that the emergent properties of the computations of simple programs - software - might explain the complexity and creativity of the physical universe at all levels. Spacetime, before anything else, must be creative! And discrete! And algorithmic! Spacetime as a causal set [4] - an algorithmic causal set!"

While you seem to doubt that Chaitin's program either includes or can include consciousness, though, I think it is implied as an inherent characteristic of matter. (As you say, even a stone has a small soul.) This idea is formalized in Murray Gell-Mann's IGUS (information gathering and utilizing system) model of complex adaptive systems.

My own essay should be up soon. Looking forward to dialogue!


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Torsten Asselmeyer-Maluga wrote on Apr. 22, 2014 @ 11:09 GMT
Here my answer to your question:

Hi Tommaso,

thanks for your interest and sorry for the delay (Easter travel with my family and no internet connection...)

No, Lem is not at the origin of this idea. In his book, Lem wrote about the theoretical limits of human development. Here he discussed also the direct change of the human body (or the brain) also in the direction of genetic engineering but also as combination of technology and biology. But the main part in his argumentation is the evolutionary development of all kinds (technology, humanity and society). For me it was the first time that someone mentioned such a unifying principle and this was the main influence of Lem for me. (Quantum gravity is also such a unifying principle but this is another story....)

In the second part of your question, you mention a two-way process (technology influences humans). Yes, you are right that there is such an influence.

As model I would propose a coupling of the two evolutionary processes (also by a special rate, so not deterministic but probabilistic). Years ago we developed this strategy (and call it diochotomic strategie). Unfortunately we never published something and it is only contained in a PhD thesis (but in german). The corresponding equation was later found to be comparable to the Dyson equation in quantu field theory (but now with imaginary time, a usual trick to change from quantum field theory to statistical physics).

But your question reminds to make some work in this direction again.

Best Torsten

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Anselm Smidt wrote on Apr. 22, 2014 @ 16:40 GMT
Dies ist, was Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz Höhle tut. Das ist nichts Neues.

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Michael Allan wrote on Apr. 24, 2014 @ 03:52 GMT
Hello Tommaso, May I offer a short appraisal of your essay, a little on the critical side? I would ask you to return the favour. - Mike

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Jonathan J. Dickau wrote on Apr. 28, 2014 @ 01:43 GMT
I liked your essay a lot Tommaso..

I did not know about some of the musings of Teilhard de Chardin before reading your essay, but his message resonates very strongly with me, and I am glad you brought it to my attention. As it turns out; he lived not far from here for a time late in his life, and his final resting place in in the same township where I reside. Of course, everything has changed; the St. Andrews monastery is now the campus for the Culinary Institute of America, but some folks still remember TdC's Hudson Valley connection.

I find the insights you discovered through de Chardin are similar to the views expressed by Arthur M. Young in his "Reflexive Universe" book. Young details how the evolution of consciousness and the cognitive faculties follows a similar pattern as the evolution of form in Physics and Biology, and unfolds in seven stages. I have attached a document supplementary to my essay, which details my adaptation of this theme to the playful process of learning, but it also speaks to the work of de Chardin - as I cover the entire evolutionary spectrum of the learning experience, or the grand arc of all learning.

We will have to compare notes again later, but for now; good luck!

All the Best,


attachments: Playful_Flow_of_Information.pdf

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Author Tommaso Bolognesi replied on Apr. 28, 2014 @ 09:53 GMT
Hi Jonathan,

yes, I`ve read that TdC has spend his last years in New York City, and that he is buried in Poughkeepsie. I`ve recently found that in this period he used to walk in Central Park, where he once met a young girl, Jean Houston, with a dog called Champ (which is the name I borrowed for the dog in my essay). They had interesting conversations, as reported by a grown up Ms. Houston:

Author Tommaso Bolognesi replied on Apr. 28, 2014 @ 10:28 GMT
. . . and thank you for the pointer to Young`s `Reflexive Universe`, and to your addendum `Playful Flow of Information`. Reading your notes made me think that it would be nice to be able to see the seven steps implemented in terms of the features of some formal model - to see whether they become the essential features of an artificial universe too. I am not familiar with Young`s book, but I`ve found on the web a summary of Chapter 4 that seems to provide this implementation in terms of particles, molecules, and the physical world. No mention to the computational aspect, though. This is all very interesting, and . . . time demanding!

By the way, I also liked your essay a lot; it was one of the first ones I've read, commented, and rated.

Jonathan J. Dickau replied on Apr. 28, 2014 @ 14:45 GMT
I meant to post here..

But my reply to you ended up below. Sorry for any confusion.



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Jonathan J. Dickau wrote on Apr. 28, 2014 @ 14:29 GMT
May it please you to learn..

There exists an algebraic system in which that progression is already encoded, the octonion algebra. There are seven imaginary dimensions in the octonions, and if you interpret imaginary components as depicting change or motion, it is easy to see this is related to process. In fact; one might even say that octonion algebra is sequentially evolutive.

P.C. Kainen comments "Of course, multiplication in the octaval arithmetic fails to be either commutative or associative, but that could be a blessing in disguise. If multiplication depends on the order of the elements being multiplied together and even on how they are grouped, then at one fell swoop, geometry enters the calculation in an organic way."

This has been a subject of my research for a number of years, and I would be happy to compare notes, save you time by directing you to known results, ... You have already saved me time by summarizing things in your essay that strongly support my work.

All the Best,


attachments: 2_octophys.pdf

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Edwin Eugene Klingman wrote on Apr. 28, 2014 @ 20:24 GMT
Dear Tommaso,

Your essay has a delightful structure, and Tommy comes off looking quite good in it!

In your comment on my essay you ask about non-linear system stability. I suspect that you are addressing, by referring to nonlinearity, the Wolfram automata/Game of Life observation that with a change in one cell or automaton, as you say, "an avalanche of modification causally spreads...

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Mohammed M. Khalil wrote on May. 4, 2014 @ 12:09 GMT
Hi Tommaso,

Great essay! I find your presentation style very interesting. I learned a lot from your essay, especially about the philosophy of Teilhard de Chardin and the work of Tononi.

Thank you, and good luck.


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KoGuan Leo wrote on May. 6, 2014 @ 10:24 GMT
Dear Tommaso,

Sublime! I rated it a ten (10. Having self-aware Qbit like you, we have no fear of the future. Our world is Leibnitz's world, the best of all possible worlds.

Best wishes,

Leo KoGuan

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John Brodix Merryman wrote on May. 7, 2014 @ 23:53 GMT

Complexity is also prone to instability and periodic crashes. While we cannot compute the exponential increase in complex systems, other than computing every step, we can, with some perspective of distance, estimate the likelihood of them crashing. Like individual lives, they can crash early, or they can crash late, but they will crash because complexity tends to only compound until it becomes unstable. Like computer programs or old blood, it just gets too much bad code built up to be able to sustain it within the platform.

So you don't necessarily have to view the human situation as completely unpredictable, due to its complexity. There are a number of issues, from finance to physics to population to economic growth, which are all showing signs of imminent crashing. One effect of a crashing system is that it provides a large amount of released energy. So the question I would ask, is there some way which these forces can be directed in an overall positive direction, or possibly one crash used to facilitate a positive direction for others and to be truly optimistic, I think there is.


John Merryman

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George Gantz wrote on May. 9, 2014 @ 00:54 GMT
Tommaso -

The comments have slowed down but the scores are heating up. I hope you continue to do well. Not having a direct email I thought I would let you know that we just got back from a fabulous vacation in Italy - 5 days in Tuscany, 1 in Orvieto and 2 in Rome. Fabulous! Here in New England all the villages are in the valleys and the mountaintops are for viewing. Italy is upside down! This simply shows the power of the fitness landscape in directing human behavior - if you are mortally fearful of marauding bands, attacking armies or wild animals, hilltops are a place of safety and refuge. I was also overwhelmed by the sense of common purpose and commitment it took to build all those fortifications and cathedrals - or the aqueducts and magnificent fountains in Rome. If humans can do these things, then perhaps we can also determine how to steer humanity's future.

Ciao! - George

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Author Tommaso Bolognesi replied on May. 12, 2014 @ 06:58 GMT
Hi George,

I am glad that you enjoyed your 5 days in Tuscany. You did not mention Siena, which is an excellent macro-example of a city where houses tend to climb the hill. And I agree, by looking at some of the past achievements of humanity (architecture, but also music!) one may indulge in some optimism about the future.

I see that scores are heating up and I am a bit puzzled by the current ranking. This is a somewhat unusual version of the contest, for which it is harder to establish whether an essay is relevant to the theme. I am already looking forward to the next one!



Anonymous wrote on May. 15, 2014 @ 22:00 GMT

If only more 19-year olds and their friends were so well read, thoughtful and expressive when immersed in the digital world. Well, I too can dream, can I not?

All the dreaming aside, is this your message: As humanity isn't a totally free self-standing entity, we cannot steer its future in isolation from (a) humanity's "inside of things" like DNA and all the vast implications of DNA as software and (b) humanity's "outside of things" like "the atmosphere along with the malicious antipodal butterfly already testing humanity's steering strengths. We'll have the necessary knowledge someday in the Noosphere as a conscious entity, Omega, and only then will humanity be in a position to steer.

Your idea of "humans are social atoms" made your essay still more intriguing. I am now dreaming of a whole new genre of science fiction.

-- Ajay

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Ajay Bhatla replied on May. 15, 2014 @ 22:02 GMT
Sorry, spent too much time dreaming and got logged off!

The above is from me.

-- Ajay

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Luca Valeri wrote on May. 20, 2014 @ 22:39 GMT
Dear Tommaso,

what a beautiful essay. It took me very long time to comment on your essay. I wanted to prove you're wrong. The ultimate language of nature is not software! But I couldn't. (How would you prove you're wrong?)

In my essay I state that the generality and unity of physics is originated from formalizing the very precondition of the possibility of scientific knowledge. Where scientific knowledge is the ability to learn from the past to predict the future. If we can predict something, we can compute it. In my essay I ask if there is a being beyond physics. I say that each human being in its uniqueness does not comply with the definition of a physical object. He cannot be predicted. I confess I find the argument myself a bit cheap.

I had many thoughts reading your essay and I might post them in a later time. For now I just want to say that in my very short essay I talk about two topics that are also part of your essay ( in a very different although not such eloquent way): The creation of information/structure and how it is compatible with the growth of entropy and a derivation of relativistic space time from the qbit.

I hope you find the time to read and comment on my essay.

Best regards


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Author Tommaso Bolognesi replied on May. 22, 2014 @ 09:52 GMT
Hi Luca,

here`s a first quick reaction to your post.

Your first question is, essentially: how could one disprove the computational universe conjecture? Very important question indeed, in light of the fact that any serious physical theory should be such as to be possibly disproved.

So far, this conjecture (recently termed `Bit Bang`) rests upon the wide experimental evidence...

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Luca Valeri replied on May. 23, 2014 @ 11:44 GMT
Hi Tommaso,

I replied on your comment in my blog.



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Conrad Dale Johnson wrote on May. 23, 2014 @ 16:38 GMT

I had a very good time with your fine essay. I liked being reminded how important it was for me back in the 70's to discover Teilhard de Chardin, with his wonderfully grand view of the stages of being, the physical and biological and human. Though a lot of important ideas have emerged since he wrote, it's still a tremendous challenge to envision a perspective that includes these...

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Aaron M. Feeney wrote on May. 26, 2014 @ 02:41 GMT
Hi Tommaso,

I'm still reading your fascinating article, I will come back and comment on it soon. However, I wanted to inform you today that I've responded to your excellent questions and observations on my page, and I would very much like to receive your feedback which I know will be of the highest quality. If you do wish to comment further there, please make sure to attach your post underneath my misplaced post (i.e., place it underneath part one of my two part reply). This will ensure that part one and part two do not get separated from one another.

Also, you might enjoy my reply to George Gantz. It offers a series of very important points that I would have put in my paper if I had had more room.

You have given me a lot to think about, and I am grateful.



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Member Marc Séguin wrote on May. 27, 2014 @ 01:52 GMT

Thank you for a very well written and fascinating essay. I agree with you that the idea that our universe could have emerged from a computer program is quite intriguing: it resonates with Max Tegmark's thesis that the universe is nothing more than an abstract (mathematical) structure, that when "seen" from the inside acquires the emergent property of physicality. Have you ever looked at the work of Bruno Marchal of Université Libre de Bruxelles, and of other like-minded thinkers that hang around the Google Group "Everything List"? You might find it interesting.

Good luck in the contest!


P.S. Thank you for the comments you left on my essay's forum: I have answered you there.

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Author Tommaso Bolognesi replied on May. 29, 2014 @ 16:06 GMT
Oh yes, I had an interaction with Marchal when organising a workshop here in Pisa, back in 2009, and with Jurgen Schmidhuber who also was in the 'Everything List' Google Group if I well remember. However, I tend to prefer concrete simulation activity over discussions of more philosophical nature.

Thanks for pointing out. Cheers.

Anonymous wrote on May. 27, 2014 @ 21:38 GMT
Hi Tommaso,

Excellent thought provoking essay.

I like: Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) The appearance of the human phenomenon marks the point at which the fabric of the universe achieves the ability to reflect itself.

I question: DNA as software. I personally think DNA crosses the threshold between quantum phenomena and the classical world. Wolfram has done good work... but more insight is needed and perhaps a breakthrough is needed on his cellular life theories.

I like very much Tommy's conclusion: The next stop for humanity, to answer your question, is Superlife.

Sounds good to me.

Wishing you the best,

Don Limuti

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Member Daniel Dewey wrote on May. 29, 2014 @ 14:41 GMT
Hi Tommaso,

You have a very original style! And I'm glad to see Chaitin's book mentioned; I've just read the shortened paper version of his metabiology, but I think they're very interesting ideas. Your connection to cellular automata is also interesting. It would be great if it were possible to make substantive predictions or decisions based on this kind of model.

Best wishes,


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Author Tommaso Bolognesi replied on May. 29, 2014 @ 16:19 GMT
Yes, Chaitin's metabiology is quite interesting, but certainly still at a preliminary stage. Yet, it proved quite useful for providing some balance in my essay, representing the missing software oriented treatment of the second of the three stages discussed by de Chardin in his book: Prelife (Wolfram), Life (Chaitin), Thought (Tononi).



i think we have cross rated our essays. In any case, I did.

Douglas Alexander Singleton wrote on May. 29, 2014 @ 15:54 GMT
Hi Tommaso,

I just did a very quick read through of your essay (the dead line approaches :-( ) and like it very much. Part of the reason is there are *some* points of connection with things in my essay (your discussion of complex systems which has some connection with the unknown unknowns or "black swan events" of Taleb I talked about in my essay, but as you noticed not in as much detail as was maybe "promised" in the introduction). You go into much more depth on the issue of complexity as well as connecting to computation [As a side note my main area of work is field theory so I tend to view things in terms of scattering amplitudes, Feynman diagrams, path integral etc. You as a computational expert frame things in terms of computability, or the automata of S. Wolfram. If a football player -- either US football or the football played by everyone else -- were to write an essay about steering the future it would probably involve lessons learned from playing sports. In fact my HS physics teachers was also the HS football coach (this is often the case especially in small schools in the US) and most of his examples involved football].

Oh I also liked the literary device of presenting these ideas as a discussion between you and your nephew (and Alice via Skype). And also the idea of the ant-hill (and to a greater degree human societies being more than just the simple sum of their parts -- i.e. some emergent complexity. In fact if one looks at individual humans with their hosts of bacteria, viruses, fungi, parasites, symbiotic organism(useful and malicious) any individual is more than a sum of their parts. Anyway sorry I had to rush through the reading of your excellent essay, but I hope to give it a more through read later.



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Anonymous wrote on May. 29, 2014 @ 17:41 GMT
Hi Douglas,

we had already an exchange in your thread (it is hard to keep track of everything here!). Thanks for reading my essay, and for your comments. I just react to one of them, appearing in square brackets [...]. Often is has been observed that descriptions of the universe, across history, have been influenced by the current technology - from the clockwork universe of Pascal,...

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Author Tommaso Bolognesi wrote on May. 29, 2014 @ 17:43 GMT
I am not anonymous, in the sense that I am the Anonymous above.


Douglas Alexander Singleton wrote on May. 29, 2014 @ 18:04 GMT
Hi Tommaso,

No I already did rate you essay, I just apologize that I did not have a chance to read in more detail since there are many different themes at play. But in any case I did read enough it understand this was a very good essay and so I rated it accordingly. My statement was just to say that I might not have completely gotten all the deep details from your essay which has several levels.

Again good luck with the contest.



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Author Tommaso Bolognesi replied on May. 30, 2014 @ 08:07 GMT
Ok, great! In fact, I myself might not have completely gotten all the details from my essay! :-) What I mean by this is that, when attempting to put under the same umbrella such diverse things as spacetime, darwinian evolution and thought/consciousness, you easily run the risk of not being a professional expert in all three areas. But the effort is in part justified by a Schroedinger quote, that goes roughly like this (I only have the italian translation):

`We clearly perceive that only now we begin to collect reliable material for combining in a single complex the sum of all areas of our knowledge; but, on the other hand, it has become almost impossible for a single mind to dominate more than one small specialized area. I do not see a way out from this dilemma, other than having someone trying to formulate a synthesis of facts and theories, albeit using second-hand and incomplete knowledge of some of them, running the risk of having people laugh at him/her`.

Aaron M. Feeney wrote on May. 29, 2014 @ 23:48 GMT
Hi Tommaso,

I liked the concept of the benefits that may be derived by modelling different groups and institutions as cellular automata, but I wonder how this would be accomplished. Nevertheless, it is certainly an important idea to explore, and it, along with many of the other ideas you discuss in your essay have added to the richness of this forum.

I have rated your essay with these points in mind.



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Anonymous wrote on Jun. 4, 2014 @ 04:53 GMT
One of the most interesting and enjoyable essays in the contest, Tommaso. It was fascinating to consider this question through the lens of Chardin, Chaitin, Wolfram, and Tononi.

I agree that the operations of physics can probably be thought of as a form of information processing. The idea of developing into a broader collective form of consciousness is very appealing.

I do think we may be in more control of our collective destiny that you seem to suggest. Complex adaptive systems like society, as you say, do exhibit order at some levels. Just as we may be able to predict and alter the climate without being able to control the weather, we may be able to shape our social evolution without being able to determine the specific fate of each individual.

Well done, in any case. Good luck in the contest!


Robert de Neufville

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Robert de Neufville replied on Jun. 4, 2014 @ 04:54 GMT
I seem to get logged out every time I write more than a short comment...

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Author Tommaso Bolognesi replied on Jun. 4, 2014 @ 11:08 GMT
Thanks for the comments Robert. I see your point, and I agree that we may be able to control to some extent the dynamics of a complex system. For some reason, though, I am much more attracted by the spontaneous dynamics that these systems may exhibit, that seems to outperform us in terms of creativity.


Lorraine Ford wrote on Jun. 7, 2014 @ 01:07 GMT
Dear Tommaso,

Marvellous essay! It's a literary work; it's amusing; it expounds the complexity viewpoint very well. I think this is a top essay.

However I don't buy the complexity viewpoint - I will post more about this later.



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Lorraine Ford replied on Jun. 8, 2014 @ 04:25 GMT
Dear Tommaso,

Re "I don't buy the complexity viewpoint":

As you know, in my essay I claim that there are at least 3 invalid assumptions underlying the ideas of physics (and that these perverse and unenlightened ideas about the nature of reality underlie the attitudes that are destroying our planet).

Well, another invalid assumption of Wolfram, Chaitin, and physics in general, is that numbers just exist, no explanations necessary. This is a Platonic viewpoint.

But I think that there is no Platonic realm - this universe is all there is. So given that restriction, what are the numbers that are found when fundamental reality is measured; what does this mean about the nature of reality? I think that there is necessarily a physical reality behind numbers (as I try to explain in my 2013 essay): I contend that numbers are (what I call) hidden information category self-relationships. I think the information category/information relationship way of looking at things is a better pointer to the nature of reality than e.g. the cellular automata viewpoint.

I contend that information is indistinguishable from/identical to physical reality; and that information is subjective experience. So, at the foundations of reality, information is subjective experience of e.g. information categories like mass and charge. I also contend that the physical outcomes of "free will" can only be represented as the creation of new (usually temporary) "rules", where law-of-nature rules are information category relationships. I contend that the views of Wolfram and Chaitin etc. imply that the universe is a very dull place, where nothing truly new ever happens: the "truly new" being new "rules".

Best wishes,


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Member Hector Zenil wrote on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 10:47 GMT
Hi Tommaso,

Very nice essay. I ran your Mathematica code and it looks like a fine random number generator, could you perhaps explain what is going on step by step? It is intriguing.

- Hector

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Anonymous wrote on Jun. 20, 2014 @ 07:54 GMT

I'm glad that you ran the code. You are the first... It looks indeed like a random number generator. More specifically, it creates a random permutation of the first n integers on-the-fly. At each step the code takes a pair (pi(n), pos), where pi(n) is an n-tuple representing the current permutation of the first n integers, and pos is an index between 1 and n. The step creates a new pair (pi`(n+1), pos`), where pi`(n+1) is a permutation of the first (n+1) integers obtained from pi(n) by inserting integer (n+1) at position pos, and pos` is the number found at position pos of tuple pi(n). The computation is started from tuple pi(2) = (1, 2) and pos = 2.

You can trace the evolution of variable pos (like you do when tracing the dynamics of a Turing Machine head on the tape), or look at the whole permutation pi(n) (seen as a function from range (1..n) to itself), and you get the `foggy` picture of white noise, or deterministic chaos.

I found this minimal deterministic code while experimenting with algorithms for building causal sets by using permutations - an idea originally suggested by Alex Lamb, alternative to the stochastic, `sprinkling` technique used by the Causal Set Programme people (Rideout, Sorkin, ...).

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Author Tommaso Bolognesi wrote on Jun. 20, 2014 @ 07:56 GMT
Best regards


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