Large Grants
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Previous Programs

2018 Agency in the Physical World
Awardees; RFP download

2016 Physics of the Observer
Awardees; RFP download

2015 The Physics of What Happens
Awardees; RFP download

2013 Physics of Information
Awardees; RFP download

2010 The Nature of Time
Awardees; RFP download

2008 Foundational Questions in Physics and Cosmology
Awardees; RFP download

2006 Foundational Questions in Physics and Cosmology
Awardees; RFP download

Susanne Still
University of Hawaii at Manoa

Gavin Crooks
Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

Project Title

Foundations of information processing in living systems

Project Summary

Despite the huge amount of new data on biological systems, the question of "What is Life" remains outstanding. In particular, are there organizing principles whose action clearly separates living from nonliving systems? One candidate is energy efficiency. A more subtle possible principle is informational in nature, that of predictive inference. If a life form can predict some aspect of its environment, then it can respond more appropriately. We have recently pointed out that these two concepts are fundamentally related physically, by exposing the direct tie between energetic inefficiency and inefficient use of system memory: retaining memory that is not useful for prediction. We will develop these ideas further, paying particular attention to processing speed. Intuitively, there should be a trade-off between energy efficiency, and how quickly an organism has to act. Predictive inference is further affected by an organism's ability to change its own environment. Finally, we will explore if, on a microscopic level, quantum effects could allow for more efficient information processing. Altogether, the proposed research might lead to a sharper understanding of what it means to be alive, by providing an operational definition, based on information and the processing thereof.

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