Large Grants
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Current Program

2017-18 Agency in the Physical World
Submit RFP by February 1, 2018
Previous Programs

2016 Physics of the Observer
2016 Awardees

2015 The Physics of What Happens
2015 Awardees

2013 Physics of Information
2013 Awardees

2010 The Nature of Time
2010 Awardees

2008 Foundational Questions in Physics and Cosmology
2008 Awardees

2006 Foundational Questions in Physics and Cosmology
2006 Awardees

David Wolpert
Santa Fe Institute


Artemy Kolchinsky, Santa Fe Institute

Project Title

Observers as self-maintaining non-equilibrium systems

Project Summary

The concept of an “observer” is central to many fields, including cognitive science, artificial intelligence, quantum physics and statistical physics (e.g., in the form of Maxwell’s demon). In all these fields observers are systems that acquire information about an external system. Traditionally such information has been quantified using Shannon’s measure of syntactic information. In this project we propose a measure of semantic information (i.e. information has “meaning” for the observer) that is grounded in statistical physics. In our approach, information is semantic to the extent that it is used by the observer to maintain itself over time as a coherent entity. We analyze the consequences of this measure for the physics of observation. In our approach, “being an observer” is not a simple yes / no trait. Rather, our definition of semantic information quantifies the degree to which one system observes another. This will allow us to identify the set of observers contained within any physical system, including the appearance (self-organization) and dissolution of observers, and to study how networks and hierarchies of observers relate to flows of information and energy in a larger encompassing system.

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