Sunday, August 6, 2017

The Relation Between Information and Decisions

If you are reading this, you have probably read the last two blogs which introduce the idea that information can be defined as a record of decisions. You will recall that the idea was based on considering the nature of the unit of information, the bit, and understanding it was a decision between two options. Using this as a foundation, many types of information were examined to see if they conformed to this definition as well – which they did.

Yet, the idea that information is made up of a series of decisions does not seem to have made our understanding of its nature any better. Though scientists treat information mathematically using Shannon’s work as a foundation, it is done so without a firm link to other physical entities like time, space and matter. Information floats around like an add-on to a world described by physics. And there seems to be no clear path to create a firm tie between information and physics.

However, when we examine the decision as an entity we find that we have some promising hooks to connect it to physics. The objective, then, is to lay out the many ways the decision can be tied to other physical entities like matter, energy, space and time. The hope is that by doing so we will also be able to find a way to connect information to the rest of physics as well.
Before we do that, we will try to distinguish more clearly between a decision and information.

A Decision as the Cause of Information

When we define information as a record of decisions, we mean that the act of a decision leaves a record of that event in some material form that we can detect. In other words, information is the material record which exists in time and space after the decision event that created it. The decision event is in the past, but the information remains as a record. Information does not exist before the decision event, but only after.
As an illustration, as I typed this sentence, I took a decision to type the word “As” to begin the sentence. This decision happened in my brain – the location where the decision event occurred. The word “As” appeared on the computer screen as a result. That word is the material record that we can detect. It started existing on the screen after my decision, from the moment I typed it. It then continued to exist on the screen, until the screen was refreshed. Of course, for the moment we are ignoring the complex series of events that happen between the decision in the brain and my fingers typing the letters. Ignoring that sequence does not diminish the arguments laid out so far.
Had I, instead of typing, decided to speak, the material record would have been sound waves, which may have lasted only for a fraction of a second. Had I used pen and paper, the writing would be the material record, the information, which may have persisted for years or decades.
Based on this understanding we can assert that the decision is the direct cause of the information coming into existence. There is no reason to believe that this link between a decision and information is not universal. It is explicit in the definition of a bit itself which represents the result of a decision between two equally probable options.

The Mind as the Cause of Decision

As far as we understand, a decision is something that happens in a mind/brain or in a computer. It is instructive then to probe a little deeper and try to understand the causal relation between the mind and a decision.
When we define information as a record of decisions, the word decision is used in its basic sense: “the act of making up your mind about something”. So, clearly the mind and decision are connected: it is an entity that can generate a decision. This has been accepted in psychology for a long time. William James (William James, The Principles of Psychology, Holt, New York, 1910) states that the mind is what provides Purpose, Attention, Interest and Decision. In other words, a mind can take decisions almost by definition. It then follows that a mind can create information based on the relation between a decision and information. While not terribly insightful, this provides a clear connection between the mind and information.
Even so, we cannot take this analysis much further as we cannot explain what the mind is or how it operates. We barely understand how the brain operates. We know that the mind and brain are connected but we cannot describe how the mind emerges from the collection of atoms we call the brain. For example, the emergence of consciousness, a key attribute of the mind, is not understood at all. Moreover, it is not clear that we can study the mind by studying the brain, any more than we can study Microsoft Word by studying the underlying microprocessor.
Not only do we not know how the mind emerges, we do not understand how the mind/brain entity can take a decision. So, in our exploration of the nature of a decision, the connection to the mind, while interesting, does not take us far. We know that the mind and brain are linked. We also know that it is the mind, in conjunction with the brain, that causes a decision. But that is about all we know: that the decision is an event that happens in the mind/brain.
Though the brain is composed of matter, the mind is not composed of matter. So now we can state the following: a decision is that event that forms a bridge from the material world to the mysterious, non-material entity of the mind. So, while information is harder to connect to the mind, a decision is an event that very clearly happens in the mind, in the brain. In turn, this decision is connected to information. So, in a real sense, the decision connects the non-material mind and the material in which information is expressed. The significance of this must not be overlooked: we have a non-material cause, the mind, for a material effect, the material record which is information.
Now, whether a decision can be caused by anything other than a mind we do not know. We have no experience of any other entity that can cause a decision.  At this point, the astute reader will immediately raise the question: what about computers? Don’t computers generate decisions? Yes, they do, but only those already taken by the programmer.
Computers can be likened to a chain of dominoes set up to topple in some long, complex way. The person who sets it up, takes all the decisions in advance on how the dominoes will topple. Then, when the decision is taken to push the first domino over, it begins a chain of events that unfolds. All the decisions of how it unfolds were taken in advance. The computer is very similar. All the decisions it can take is bottled in the program. Once the decision is taken to start the program, a chain of events unfolds in very complex ways that may make the computer appear intelligent. Yet, computers are just mechanisms to bottle decisions taken by a programmer. Unless we create a new computer architecture, that can take new decisions that were not programmed by the programmer, we will not have a machine that we can say is another entity that can take a decision.
Based on the above, we can set computers aside and conclude that, ultimately, the mind is the only entity that can take a decision. Which implies, in turn, that the mind is the only entity we know that can create information.

Key Implications

What we have described is a chain of cause and effect: the mind causes a decision; a decision causes information. We also saw that the only entity we know that can take a decision is a mind, and so the only entity we know that can create information is the mind. This has some interesting implications.
If the mind is the only entity we know that can create information, it follows that DNA must have a mind as a cause. When we see an anonymous document, we know it had to be a mind that caused it. We do not need to know the identity of this mind to know that a mind was involved. Similarly, DNA is pure information coded in the material of the nucleic acids that form DNA. Clearly, it could not have been a human mind that caused the DNA. This very clearly then points to a non-human intelligence. This was so obvious to Francis Crick, that he published a paper identifying the mind that created DNA as some alien life form that seeded the earth with life. (Crick).
Another implication is that the mind must be real if the mind is the cause of information. Anything that can create a detectable change in the material world must be real. Hence the mind must be real.  
There are those who maintain that the only real thing is the brain – and that the mind is not real. The motivation for this belief is the assumption that everything real must be explained by physics. If it cannot be explained by physics then it cannot be real. Physics only deals with matter and energy in space and time. The mind is not made of matter or energy so it must follow that the mind is not real. This position is held as a dogma, and not based on evidence.
In reality, the evidence opposes the dogma.
The existence of information is evidence that physics does not explain everything. If information is real then clearly there is more to the world then what physics can explain. Information is not made of matter or energy even though it is manifested in it. Clearly there are real entities that are not matter or energy. Another example of an entity that is real but not made of matter or energy is the set of the laws of physics. The laws are not made of matter or energy – they are information. If the laws of physics are not real, then neither is physics. 
Now some may argue that the brain alone is adequate to cause a decision. The brain is made of matter and energy so it is real and we do not need to invoke a mind to explain decisions.
The first problem with this position is that we don’t have any idea how the brain can take a decision. We barely understand how a single neuron works. The brain has about 100 billion neurons interconnected in an awe-inspiring network. We have no idea how that network produces consciousness or decisions. Asserting that the brain solely can explain decisions, without a mind, is baseless. It is an article of blind faith driven by the desire not to have to invoke something like a mind.
Having said that, there is one basis on which to argue that the brain is enough: that is to assume that the brain is a computer. We know that computers can take decisions. Computers are made of matter. It does not have this mysterious thing called a mind. The problem with this position is that any computer that we can think of, is effectively a method to bottle decisions taken by the programmer. So now we are left with the problem that, if the brain is a computer, then we must acknowledge the existence of the Programmer. This only makes matters worse for someone trying to evade invoking a non-material mind. They must now deal with a non-material super-Mind.  Assuming the existence of a mind is the simpler option.
In conclusion, we have shown how the decision is the key bridge between information and the mind. In our next blog we will explore the relationship between the decision and space and time.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Essence of Information

In the last blog we came to the conclusion that information is real -- yet elusive, when we try to understand what it is made of.  There appears to be a layer of reality in which we live that is not matter or energy but is something different. This layer is very familiar to us. Yet, this layer is not formally recognized by science even though science has been bumping into it since the discovery of the idea of entropy in the 19th century. Today, in the 21st century, we have yet to be able to frame a model of reality that includes this elusive entity we know as information. This should not be surprising. Our science today can still only deal with things that are matter or energy -- and information, as we saw, really does not qualify as either.
So, the question before us is: what is the stuff of information? Can we explain it in terms of other things we do understand? That is what we will tackle in this blog post.

Some Guidance from History
In general, we say we understand something if we are able to explain it in terms of more elementary constituents. As an example, until almost the 20th century, the atom was considered to be the smallest unit of matter. Dalton’s Atomic Theory envisioned the atom as a small indivisible, indestructible billiard ball type object. It was a fundamental constituent of material things that could not be divided into anything more elementary. Scientists did not really have a clue about what it was, and whether it really existed. At best, it was a useful model of how things were at the very smallest of scales. Only by late 19th century did scientists begin to suspect that the atom was made up of even more fundamental constituents. Today, not only do we know that the atom exists, we have a clear understanding of the more elementary particles and forces that constitute the atom. We now understand atomic behavior enough to make precise predictions on how atoms would behave under a given set of circumstances. This is not to say we have a complete understanding. Yet, now we can say that we truly understand the atom. As proof, we are able to manipulate events on a sub-atomic level, as we do for instance in a nuclear reactor. We would not be able to do that if we truly did not understand the atom.
For us the question is: can we try to understand information in a similar way? Can we inquire into the physical nature of information and try to understand it in the same way scientists have understood the atom or gravity? At first, this does not appear to be a legitimate question. Information has an elusive, non-material quality about it. Information seems to be something purely in the realm of the mind with no real physical existence unlike the material stuff around us. It almost seems like trying to understand in a physical way what beauty, or love, or emotions are.
However, as we saw earlier, a very simple examination of information suggests it is real and can exist independent of a mind. Further, we know that information can have real physical effects in the world simply by looking at any artifact around us. Consider a chair built to a certain design. At first the design only existed on paper. Then, when used to build the chair, this design had a very physical and measurable effect not only on the wood and the other materials, but also the builder. So, information has to be real if it is to have an effect on material things.
Fortunately, history has examples of seemingly elusive entities like information being corralled by diligent scientists. Consider gravity. Then, as today, people knew instinctively how gravity worked and how to work with gravity. Yet, people really did not know what gravity was or how it behaved in a quantitative way. Then along came Newton and connected the dots:  he connected the movement of the Earth around the sun, with the movement of the moon around the earth, and the reason the apple falls to the ground, and showed that everything is attracted to everything else by the same “force” called gravity. He then went on to work out a simple equation that described the gravitational force between two objects: the force was related to the distance between the two objects and the mass of the objects. Since then the law of gravitation has been found to apply to even the largest things in the universe like clusters of galaxies. In this way, something nebulous but familiar became very well defined from a mathematical and physical perspective.
Yet, we still do not know what gravity is – only how it behaves. Newton himself said “I have not been able to discover the cause of those properties of gravity from phenomena, and I frame no hypotheses.” In other words, we do not know what gravity is. We only know how to describe its behavior.
Our current understanding of information is similar to how gravity was understood in pre-Newton times: we neither understand what it is nor how it works. As an example, we do not understand how information is created;   or how it is recognized as information by the mind. But we are immersed in it and are born with an innate ability to wield it. It would be incorrect to say we know nothing about how information works because an entire field of mathematics has developed called Information Theory that is the basis of our communications systems we enjoy today like cellular phones and cable TV. So clearly we are able to use information. However, this again is like in pre-Newton times, when people had developed a working knowledge of gravity to be able to build bridges and machines of war like the catapult which flung rocks during a siege, even though they did not have an understanding of gravity as we do today.  

Seeking the Essence

This analogy to gravity is encouraging in that it gives us hope that we might find a physical basis for information as well.
We can begin this exploration by trying to understand what information is in the hope that it will someday lead us to understand how it operates. We can begin by asking about the essence of information. In other words: what is that core property of information that makes it what it is? What is that core property that, if information did not possess it, information would no longer be information?
To help illustrate what is meant by the word essence, consider the paper document again – the deed to the house you may own. It bears information about the house, the location, your name and a myriad other details to establish that you own the house described in the deed. Without this information, the document would no longer be a deed to your house. It would no longer be a deed. It would no longer be a document.  So we can say that the essence of the document is the information it bears. Without the information it would no longer be a document.
So, again, what is the essence of information?
Consider the act of creating information. Consider a painter who uses the medium of paint and canvas to give expression to his ideas. Note that the painter does not create the medium: he does not create the paint or the canvas. He selects the paint, selects the mixture of paints, selects the locations on which to put that paint and makes a series of choices that ultimately result in the painting. The choices are what the painter makes and has control over. With these choices he creates something new that did not exist. The painting is very real and can be sold for real money. The painting is not the paint or the canvas but is the record of the decisions that the painter made to create the unique painting. The painting is new information that is created and is ultimately a visual record of the painter’s choices.
It could be stated that the painting, in essence, is a record of choices. It is not the ink or any other material but purely the choices made by the painter.  If so, can we generalize this and state that all information is nothing more, or nothing less than a record of choices made by the creator of the information?

Quantifying Information – The Bit

It is rather surprising that, even though the nature of information is not understood, we know how to quantify it. We actually know how to measure information. In our quest, this gives us a great advantage. Without the ability to quantify information, we would have been even further away from understanding what information is. Not only can we quantify it, but we have mathematical models to describe how to transmit it over different kinds of information channels like wires, or cables or over the air.
Information theory was developed by Claude Shannon of AT&T and now forms the basis for how our global telecommunication works. Shannon established the mathematical frame work of what we know as information theory which is used widely in communication and computer science. In this theory he uses the bit as the basic unit of information. This measure of information does not say anything about the content. This is the clarifying and interesting thing about the way Shannon treated information: that information can be dealt with entirely decoupled or abstracted from the content of the information. In today’s terms, this idea of information is better conveyed by the term data.
We instinctively tend to confuse information about something with the something. But these are two very distinct entities. As an illustration, imagine a crystal drinking goblet. The goblet and the information about the goblet are two different but related things. Information about the goblet can be shared among people, can be discussed, can be stored on a hard drive, and can be remembered. The crystal glass does not lend itself to this kind of manipulation.
It is this abstract entity that the bit measures. It does not matter if the information is true or false; it does not matter if we understand the information. The information can be treated as a separate entity from the topic that the information is about.  When Shannon was formulating his mathematical models for the transmission of information, the content of the information did not matter. Shannon wanted to have a mathematical way of handling information that was general and independent of the content. And he used the bit to help him arrive at a quantity that he could use to model how information is transmitted. In our quest, we will similarly delve into the nature of information without being concerned about the content.
In simplest terms, the bit is the smallest unit of data. A disk drive in a computer stores data. Generally, disk drives have a fixed maximum capacity to hold a certain amount of data. This data is stored in terms of bits or bytes, where 8 bits makes 1 byte. A bit represents a decision.  A bit can have only one of two values:  0 or 1. It allows us to represent a choice – a choice between two equally probable options. We make these kinds of choices all the time. Consider the case when you are asked a question that calls for a simple YES or NO answer.  It could be other simple choices like UP or DOWN or LEFT or RIGHT or a 1 or 0. The point is that the answer communicates a decision between two options. The minimum number of options is two – hence the bit represents the smallest possible unit of data.
So the bit (short for binary digit) is the amount of information that is generated when a choice is made between two equally probable options. It is the answer that is given when a question with a yes or no question is posed.
This was also the view of the bit when the concept of the bit emerged. It can be argued that the invention of the idea of the bit ranks up there with the invention of the concept of zero. Shannon did not originate the concept of the bit, but introduced the idea to a wide audience in his famous 1948 paper titled "A Mathematical Theory of Communication" published in The Bell Systems Techical Journal. In it he acknowledges that the name bit was coined by a John W. Tukey. The actual concept of the bit was first clearly articulated by Leo Szilard where he was trying to provide an answer to a famous problem commonly referred to as Maxwell’s Demon.  In his 1929 paper titled "On the Decrease of Entropy in a Thermodynamic System by the Intervention of Intelligent Beings" published in Zeitschrift fur Physik, Szilard suggested a thought experiment where a measurement needs to be taken whether a molecule was in one half of a given container or the other. In it he defined a quantity y that could take one of two values, +1 or -1, depending on whether a gas molecule was either in one half of a cylinder or the other. Without going into the details of the experiment, the number y was the result of a binary decision. The point here is that the idea of the bit and of the decision is tied together.
Any information that you can conceive of can be represented as a string of bits – conventionally a string of 1s and 0s. All the information that is on your computer hard drive is stored as bits. All the photos, the documents, the programs – any and every information can be broken down and represented as a string of bits. For example the word C-A-T can be represented as 01000011-01000001-01010100 using the ASCII code, which assigns an 8-bit long string of ones and zeroes to each of the English letters, numbers and special characters.
If all information can be represented as a string of bits, and each bit represents a decision, then information can be viewed as, and even defined as, a string of decisions or a record of decisions; or a record of choices.
As we saw earlier, a painting is not the paint or the canvas, but is the record of the decisions that the painter made to create the unique painting. The painting is new information that is created and is ultimately a visual record of the painter’s choices. In other words, this new information in the painting is nothing more than a – record of choices of the paint colors, brushes and brush strokes chosen by the painter. In other words, the essence of a certain quantity of information is the set of decisions that make up the information.
This then begs the question: what is a decision? We will get into that a little later. For now let us stay at this level and examine the idea of information from this level before taking a deeper dive.
In trying to understand the nature of information, we also have a new definition of information: information is a record of decisions.
Before we proceed further, it is useful to pause and ask what the word record means in this context.  The word has multiple related meanings, and already includes the idea of information in it, making our definition less clear and ambiguous. Merriam-Webster defines record as “something that recalls or relates past events”. This is the sense the term is used here – the past events in this case being the decisions taken to create the information.
This view of information does not seem to be very interesting – a string of bits seems to be extremely drab and dull. The information that we are interested in is at a higher level – like books, and movies and photos. Does this view of what information is possibly apply to those examples? For example, can a movie be considered a record of decisions?

A Test Drive – over Known Roads

Let’s take our definition for a test drive over known roads – of examples of information that we care about. This is a valuable exercise to establish its applicability. While it applies to the notion of computer bits, we need to understand if it applies in a broader sense. You will see that it is not only consistent, but as a good definition can often do, takes us to a deeper level of understanding and brings new things under its umbrella that were hard to define.
Consider a simple example of information. My wife Sarah calls me on my phone and informs me that it is raining where she works. She might say something like, “George, it is raining here”. Clearly, this represents some information passed from Sarah to me. The question is: does this information represent a record of decisions?
During the phone call, this sentence that Sarah spoke was converted from a string of sounds to a string of bits by the phone system. So, right away we see that at a trivial level, this does comply with our definition of information.
Moving up a level from bits to words, Sarah decided to string together the particular choice of words and decided to give it voice. Taking it up another level, Sarah decided to convey the idea that it was raining. She decided to convey it to me, her husband. At an even higher level, she decided to pick up her mobile phone and talk to me – conveying and confirming the warm relationship with me, her husband. Everything about the phone call represents layers of decisions. Each of these levels, from the decision to connect with her husband, down to the level of bits – all represents decisions by Sarah and by the phone system. That simple sentence over the phone is actually a multi-layer record of decisions.
It will of course be noticed that all the decisions were not made by Sarah. The choice and order of words were governed to some extent by the English language. The rules of grammar were decisions taken by other humans. So, Sarah was wielding units of information of far higher complexity than the bit. But this does not in any way take away from the idea that information is made up of decisions. The main point that emerges from looking at this example is that not only does information consist of decisions at the bit level – it is decisions all the way up.
The above example is fairly general and covers all information that is recorded as words. However, information is not restricted to words alone. What about alternate forms like images and sounds which do not represent words? Again, we ask the question: does our definition capture these alternate forms of information? As an illustration, consider the case where my wife Sarah decides to take a picture of our children while I am away on a business trip. She decides to email it to me. That evening, I sit in a far-away hotel room, look at the picture on my laptop, and think warmly about my family. Clearly, this photograph represents information. The question is: does this information represent a record of decisions?
The photograph that glows on my laptop screen is actually made of pixels, millions of them, each a little square of a color at a certain brightness level. These pixels are so small that the eye does not see them as separate squares of light, but instead blend into one smooth image. Usually, each pixel is stored in the computer’s memory using 24 bits of data. So right away, at the primitive level the picture is a string of bits – each bit representing a decision taken by the digital camera used by Sarah when converting the light projected by the lens onto the image sensor in the camera. So, this photograph is a record of decisions at the bit level. Again, as before, this insight is not very illuminating or satisfying.
So, we move a level higher from the decisions the camera took, to the decisions Sarah took. Sarah decided to take the picture by pressing the shutter on the camera. Before she pressed the shutter, she decided on the location and composition of the photo – essentially she decided on the content she wanted to capture. She then decided to email that picture to me. At an even higher level she decided to express her love for me by sending me a picture. As before, each of these levels, from the decision to express love to her husband down to the level of bits – all represents decisions by Sarah and by the information transfer chain formed by camera à email à computer systems. Again, that simple photograph by email is a multi-layer record of decisions.
The example of the digital image can be extended to movies and videos. By a similar argument we can show that music can also be considered as a record of decisions. We see that the new definition for information – a record of decisions – holds up to common examples of what we consider information.

Information in Nature

So far, the reader may concede that the definition appears to cover those examples of information which are intentionally created by the human mind. But what do we make of information that is discovered? Like those found in nature: the arrangement of pebbles in the bed of a stream, or the patterns created by leaves being blown around. Surely you might say, there were no decisions taken, yet there is information there. Science is all about discovering the order underlying nature. Surely, this definition could not cover those cases. Scientific discoveries in general can be viewed as our understanding of the underlying order that is present in nature. How does this type of information be termed a record of decisions when there was no one taking decisions? Setting aside biology for the moment, most scientific investigations are about things that are “natural”, with no obvious evidence of involvement of any type of mind. Examples are study of the earth, the atmosphere or metals etc.
There is a subtle point to be grasped here. As mentioned earlier, the information about something is distinct from the “something”. The scientific discovery represents knowledge we have gained that did not exist before. However, the phenomenon that we discovered pre-existed our knowledge. So, the scientific discovery is the information we draw from the phenomenon that was discovered.
To illustrate this, consider a hypothetical case where a geologist happens upon a new type of rock. As soon as he discovers the rock and realizes it is new, he has already started creating information about the rock. The decision to declare as new, the classification and the naming of a new rock, all are examples of new information that the excited geologist creates. This new information is a record of decisions taken by the geologist. As new questions are raised and answered, new information is created which is a record of the decisions of that entire process. Ultimately, science is about classification and trying to fit the new into an existing framework. This represents selecting between existing classes or creating new ones. All these can ultimately be described as decisions.
The key is that our observing things in nature and creating any kind of sense around the observation is the act of creating information – creating it by classifying according to known categories. Classification is nothing more than taking decisions about the buckets to place the new discovery in. Until these decisions are taken, there is no information about the phenomenon discovered.
This even holds for discoveries that are about long lost information. Consider archeologists who discover writings, or a treasure map. This is discovery of information that was generated by another mind. The discovery is still new information about the ancient information. The scientists may not be able to understand the ancient writing or decipher the ancient drawings. Most likely they will not know the identity of the person who created the information. Nevertheless, they are not in doubt that it is information generated by humans in the past.

Information and Life

This brings us to information we find in nature that is unmistakably information yet could not be human in origin – the DNA molecule. It is found in every cell of our body. It is best described as a library of recipes for building all the proteins needed by the animal. These recipes are written in a language with only four letters, unlike English with its twenty-six letters. Each letter is represented by a short molecule called a nucleotide. Essentially, DNA is a long molecule that is a string of nucleotides. Our DNA is about three billion letters long. It is nothing short of information – it is detailed instructions on how the cell can assemble proteins. 
How do we know it is information? Well, the DNA is a language with 4 symbols. Each symbol is known and each symbol is equally likely. Local molecular forces do not favor any one symbol overt the other.  We do not understand the language, but we know it is a language understood by the machinery in our bodies. There is nothing else like it in nature. The closest thing we can compare it is language itself.
 When Watson-Crick team was unraveling the mysteries of the DNA, it was the scientists who were creating the information about the DNA. But the information stored in the DNA was not created by the scientists. In some ways the discovery of the DNA is similar to the discovery of a library of a long lost civilization. The information about the library was created by the archeologists; the information stored in the library was created by unknown, long-lost minds.
So does the definition “a record of decisions” hold for DNA? The word decision seems to unambiguously connect information to a mind. We are used to thinking about information as something that is independent of the mind. But, as we have seen, the word decision is integral to our definition of information. For decisions to occur, a decision making-entity must exist – at least as far as our goes. Decision-making entities are associated either with a mind or with a computer. But minds created computers to execute decisions. Essentially, computers are devices that bottle decisions. Based on our collective experience then, we have to assert that for decisions to exist there must be a mind.
The problem is that, unlike earlier examples of information that conformed to the definition, we cannot immediately identify a decision-maker.  In effect this definition appears to smuggle in aliens or a God. To set this aside as an obstacle, first let me point out that not knowing the mind that created information does not in any way cause the information to cease being information. When we read an anonymous piece of text, it still remains a piece of text; it is still information even if we cannot identify the mind that generated the text. Second, DNA calls for a decision-making entity that is not human; it does not automatically demand aliens or a deity. Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of the DNA when faced with this challenge, decided that DNA must have originated from an extra-terrestrial intelligence (Crick). But this is not the only avenue. Natural selection, which is at the heart of the theory of evolution, by its very name suggests a process that could produce decisions.
If you, dear reader, are someone who is ready to dismiss this definition, because accepting it will force you to believe in aliens or a God, allow me point out that this will not force you into an intellectual corner. The definition appears challenge the evolutionary view that nature did all the creating of life. But it does not. What the definition actually does is to create a new scientific question: can nature take decisions?  Or, using our definition, we can reword that question as: can nature create information? As Paul Davies and other thinkers point out, that the real problem to be solved when investigating the origin of life is the origin of biological information (Davies, 2000).  So, not only does this definition hold, but it is not in conflict with current thinking around a natural origin of life.
To summarize our test drive, we have seen that our new definition does apply to all known types of information. Yet, there is still something missing: the definition does not seem to capture the notion of the content that is associated with the word.

Taking the definition for a Test Drive – over a New Road

Our new definition not only holds for known examples of what we consider information. It also helps clarify some distinctions that were harder to articulate without this definition.
Consider our crystal drinking glass again. Beginning from humble beginnings as sand, it ends up, in the hands of a glass craftsman as a thing of beauty. If I were to place an equivalent pile of sand next to the cup, the difference is painfully obvious. But, if we stop and try to articulate what the essential difference is between the pile and the glass, we would be hard pressed to give voice to what our mind perceives so simply. Everything is different, the color, the shape, the texture, the beauty, the utility, the value. Yet at the same time, at a material level, it is very similar – they are both made of the same stuff – silicon dioxide.
Our definition allows us to clearly articulate the difference: the crystal cup has information in it that the pile of sand did not have. Putting it another way: sand + information = the cup. The cup represents a record of decisions taken by the glass craftsman when he or she gently shaped the molten sand to his/her will.

The Essence… and a Step into the Unknown

We are now able to articulate what the essence of information is. To remind the reader, the essence of information is that core property that makes information what it is. It is that core property that, if information did not possess, it would no longer be information.
Our definition tightly relates information to the decision. Take away the decision and there is no information. Clearly, the decision is a key part of the essence of information. We can now take a bolder step and assert that the essence of information is nothing but decisions.
This seems anti-climactic to say the least. The idea that information at its core is nothing but decisions is not really very intuitive or illuminating. After all, we do not really know what a decision is. Sure, we understand decisions in terms logic and reason. But we do not understand it from a physical point of view. A decision, like information, does not seem to be of matter or energy. It is not clear how our physical laws govern decisions – if they govern them at all. Further, a decision seems to actually muddy the waters.  It is commonly associated with a mind – another debatable and mysterious entity. So instead of providing clarity, this step seems to only pull in a new set of vaguely understood entities.
We now have an important choice before us. We can seek comfortable answers that explain information in terms of matter and energy.  Or, we can tentatively step out beyond matter and energy and recognize that maybe, a decision is a new beast – that information is a new and little understood entity that we need to understand, and we may not be able to understand it purely in terms of matter and energy. This immediately of course threatens to open science into a whole new set of ideas that may undermine well established beliefs of how the world works. However unsettling this may seem, it has to be explored with honesty lest we miss out on new advances that we cannot even dream about today.
We seem to stand at the edge of a precipice, with the comfortable sciences we know today behind us. In front of us is the murky vastness of the unknown. For some perspective on this choice, consider that we have been at the edge of a similar precipice before in the history of science. When the idea of energy was first postulated, it was considered as giving into supernatural ideas, even occult ideas. The scientists who first proposed it were considered to be playing outside the acceptable bounds of science. Yet, over time, the concept of energy was tested, accepted and integrated into mainstream thinking. Today, science would be inconceivable without the concept of energy. The advances we have made in our understanding of the universe and in technology could not have been dreamed of when the concept of energy was first proposed.
I am firmly of the opinion that we stand again at the edge of such a precipice. Behind us lie the comfortable sciences related to matter and energy – and out ahead of us, in the fog, lie new ideas waiting to be discovered. This step – away from matter and energy and into the unknown – is important if we have to find new perspectives on nature. I invite you to join me as we venture out into the new unknown.
The first step on this journey is to examine what we have just found – the idea that the humble decision may be a fascinating new object waiting to be examined in this new light.

© 2011 George Valliath

Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Mystery of Information - Real but Elusive

Walking into the international transit lounge at Heathrow airport, I was greeted by a startling sight. It was the summer of 2007, and the seventh and last Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, had just been released. The transit lounge was mottled with the orange and black book cover, behind which hungry eyes were devouring the last saga of Harry Potter. It sold 15 million copies in the first 24 hours worldwide and then went on to sell 44 million copies.
So, what was it that these readers paid money for? Was it the paper and the ink? Clearly, it was not. What they eagerly stood in line to buy were the ideas that had originated in the mind of a certain JK Rowling. Rowling had become a very wealthy woman with the money that flowed from the book series. It was not just the ideas that people bought, but it was every turn of each word that JK Rowling chose to express those ideas. Essentially, the readers paid for each decision taken by JK Rowling on the choice and order of words. They did not care about the ink and paper – they cared about the information carried on the ink and paper.
Information is a strange and mysterious thing. It is a big part of our lives, yet it is not very well understood. It is hard to define. Our scientific laws do not explain it. Yet, everything from books, to music, to movies is information. The commerce around information is huge; it is more than an industry – it is classified as an economic sector. The sector consists of sub-sectors such as publishing industries (including software publishing); motion picture and sound recording industries; broadcasting industries, including traditional and Internet broadcasting; telecommunications industries including mobile phones; web search portals, data processing industries, and information services industries. (NAICS)
With the arrival of computers, cell phones and smart phones we are immersed in an ocean of information that we have to swim through every day. Yet, if asked to define it, most of us would stumble in trying to define something that is so broad and pervasive. Dictionaries define information by providing alternative words or examples, such as data, knowledge, or a message, but do not actually tell us what it is.
The words we hear from people we talk to everyday is information. Human minds, more than those of any other animal, seem to be well designed to deal with this ephemeral thing called information. We know it when we see it. We know it when we hear it. If we see words scrawled into the wet sand as we are walking along a beach, we immediately pick them out from all the other patterns the waves and wind may have created. When a skywriter creates words in the sky, we can immediately distinguish them from what the winds have done. Our minds seem to have the ability to recognize information at an instinctive, sub-conscious level – seemingly without effort. We also appear to have an ability to create it as well – another innate ability. Language seems to be as old as humanity. From exchanging nods with other people to exchanging notes by email, writing books, painting, creating sculpture and playing music, we can create information and render it in multiple media. Not only do we create information for utility, we create it for pleasure and derive meaning and significance from this act of creation.
Elusive but Real
While pervasive and innate, information has an elusive quality. It is not in the ink and paper.  You would not be satisfied if, instead of a book, I offered you the equivalent amount of paper and ink. Nor is information in the glowing pixels on your screen. The same information can appear as paper and ink, or as glowing pixels and we do not see an appreciable difference. It does not seem to be tied to a particular physical medium. The US government website (NAICS) echoes this when, in describing the Information industry, says: “Unlike traditional goods, an ‘information or cultural product' such as a newspaper on-line or television program, does not necessarily have tangible qualities, nor is it necessarily associated with a particular form.” The US government seems to be saying that this large economic sector deals with something that may not be tangible and is not necessarily limited to a single medium.
Even though information is not tangible, we need our senses to detect it. Strictly speaking, our senses do not sense information – our brain does. The senses can sense only things that are material or energy: our senses can detect optical, mechanical, thermal and chemical stimuli. Our eyes can sense light, our ears can sense sound, our skin can detect pressure and temperature, our tongue can distinguish chemicals in our foods and our nose can detect chemicals in what we eat or inhale. All of these sensory inputs are gathered and integrated by the brain into information about the world around us. The brain seems to act like a sensory organ – but for information. It almost seems like an independent sixth sense.
Curiously, information is not tied exclusively to any one of the five senses. We can read with our eyes, we can listen to words with our ears. We can even read with our skin as shown by those who read Braille. When my children were in elementary school, we had a game where they would write words with their finger on my back and I had to guess the word. Amazingly, if they wrote slowly and big enough I would be able to guess the words. Essentially, I was reading with the skin on my back. It was not very efficient, but I was able to read.

Not of this world?

There is a startling aspect to information – it does not seem to be made of matter or energy, yet it seems to have the property of location. If it has location in space and time then it exists in our world – even though it is not matter or energy.
First, we need a thought exercise to better establish the idea that information is not matter or energy. Consider a paper document – say, an important document, like the deed to your house. Assume we smudge the print on the deed to a point where it is completely unreadable by any means. Now the deed ceases to have information and it ceases to be a document. It is just some ink smudges on paper. For want of a better term it is a non-document.  As we transformed the document into a non-document, we retained its key physical properties including its weight, its volume and its chemical composition. Essentially, nothing changed physically. Yet, everything changed – it changed dramatically from a document to a non-document. It had information, and then it did not. Instead of declaring that you own the house, it says nothing about the house or the ownership.  If that were the only copy, the difference between the document and non-document might be your ownership of the house. What changed?  We know it is not matter or energy but whatever changed has to be linked to the information. Whatever did not change is not related to information and can be discounted.
If we look at what did not change, we can conclude that information does not possess mass (weight) or volume. The ink, though smudged, is still present on the paper in the same quantity as before it was smudged. If the mass and volume did not change it means that information is not matter. Matter has mass and volume -- without mass or volume, matter would not be matter. Clearly, mass and volume are essential properties of matter – but not of information.
If information is not matter, then could it be energy? Going back to the thought experiment we can ask what is the difference in energy in the document and in the non-document? Before we smudge the document, the energy in the document consisted of the multiple forms of energy including thermal, chemical, and electrical and nuclear energies. Take for example the thermal energy which represents the energy present in the vibrations of all the molecules in the document. After smudging the ink, it is clear that the thermal energy is not going to change significantly. This means that the information is not energy. If anything, the thermal energy would increase due to the energy of smudging. But it does not tell us that information is made of this energy because this energy was added from the outside during the process of smudging and can be discounted.
Without belaboring the point, this illustration helps us understand that information is not matter or energy. This is consistent with the idea that information can be transmitted and duplicated in a ways not possible with energy or matter.
Even though information is not matter, it seems to possess one key property of matter: location. As an illustration, consider our paper document again. Clearly, the paper document has a location. Maybe it is located in your drawer at home or it is located on the desk or located in your lawyer’s office. The point is that it has a location – it is somewhere, and not elsewhere. An imaginary box can be drawn around it and we can state confidently that it inside that imaginary box. All material things have location – everything that is made of matter or energy has location.
Can we conclude then, that the information borne by the document has a location too? At first, the answer may seem obvious: of course the information has location! It is located where the document is located. While this may seem pretty obvious, it is not clear why it should be so. After all, we know that information is not matter or energy. If so, it is not necessary that information has location because location is a property of matter and energy. Could it be that information only exists in our minds? Perhaps the location is in our heads. Perhaps it does not even exist in the natural world. Perhaps it is just a figment of our imagination.
Again we need a thought exercise to see that information does have location. Consider some pirates of old, who have buried a treasure map on a remote island. Years go by, and all the pirates who were witnesses pass away and soon the treasure map on the island is forgotten to man. Centuries later, a lucky couple vacationing on the remote island finds the treasure map. They decipher the map, locate the treasure and become very rich. Question: what is the location of the information of the treasure map?
Clearly, during the time when it lay undisturbed over the centuries, it was not in any human mind. Those who knew about the map were dead, and those who were alive did not know it existed. The information entered the young couple’s minds only when they came to the location of the treasure map. At that instant, the information that was on the treasure map was now also in their minds. Clearly, the information about the treasure cannot be said to exist only in the mind. We can further assert that the information was located along with the map, buried in the sands of the remote island. Not only does it have location, but also it was not a figment of anyone’s imagination, because there was no one’s imagination for it to be a figment of. The only way to reconcile these observations is to acknowledge that information is real and has location. Or at least, to acknowledge that stored information has location as a property.
We then have to conclude that information is real and exists in our world even though it is not made of matter or energy.

Information and Life

There is another more intriguing fact: information is found in nature and further, it is central to life itself. At the heart of every cell is the amazing DNA molecule which for all intents and purposes is the library of recipes for the proteins in our body. The DNA library is where the cell mechanism turns when it needs a new supply of proteins to sustain life. Life, like information, is very hard to define. We know it when we see it, just like information. Life itself seems to be defined by information – by the organization and design inherent in it.
Paul Davies, in his book The Fifth Miracle discusses the problem of the origin of life and states that that the real problem to be answered is the question of where “biological information came from”. He goes on to state, “I have come to the conclusion that no familiar law of nature could produce such a structure from incoherent chemicals with the inevitability that some scientists assert”.  Davies is arguing why it is futile to look to conventional physics and chemistry to explain the origin of DNA molecules – which he calls “impossible objects”.

Information and Matter

Davies’ observation lines up well with the idea that information is not matter or energy.  Our scientific laws describe things that are only matter or energy. But we observe that though information is not matter or energy, it is real and has location. So here we have something that is real that we do not, and cannot understand in terms of the scientific laws known to us. So, if information is real, it strongly suggests that our scientific laws do not describe our world fully – only parts of it. The implications of this cannot be ignored. Especially for those endeavors that try to explain the big picture like the Big Bang, the formation of the earth, and the age of the universe.
This thinking is not new. For example, Gregory Chaitin, a mathematician in the nascent field of algorithmic information theory, raises the question “What if information is primary and matter/energy is a secondary phenomenon?” [Chaitin, 1999, The Unknowable In other words, he is wondering if information somehow under girds the natural world that we observe. The point is that information and matter/energy may be distinct. The latter may not account for the former. Instead matter and energy may be nothing more than information.  Everything we see, touch, hear, smell and taste may be information.
This idea may sound utterly incomprehensible. Yet, as our understanding of the atomic world increased over the 20th century, scientists increasingly lost the physical picture of the atom and gained a picture that was full of – numbers.  Quantum mechanics, the science of the atomic world, deals with a world that is very unlike our normal-sized world. In quantum mechanics, things seem to come in chunks, or quanta, – including things like energy and charge.
For example, the electron is described as a particle. Yet, the word particle here is not what we think it means in common usage. When we think of a particle, it is a particle made of some material. For example, a dust particle may be small piece of sand or dry skin. In all familiar cases a particle is always a particle of something. However, the electron is not a particle of anything – it is just a “particle” that has set of numbers associated with it. Some of these numbers describe its mass and charge. Others describe it’s relationship to the atom. But that is all we can say about what the electron is – it is just a particle of numbers.
This key point cannot be missed — an electron is nothing else, but numbers! It is not that these numbers describe something – these numbers are all there is. In other words, information is all there is! As the physicist Hans Christian von Baeyer says in his book Information “If the wave function is nothing but a storehouse of information needed to make correct predictions, then the stuff of the world is really, at bottom, information”. Here he is talking about the wavefunction, a mathematical construct, used to describe how the particle and systems of particles change over time.
So, this intangible thing we call information, which we seem to have an innate ability to create and consume – that is not matter or energy, but yet possesses location and is real – is also found in nature and is at the heart of life itself and is what the atomic world seems to be made of. If we better understand this mysterious thing called information, we may be able to draw back the veil on a vast territory as yet unexplored by science to develop a new and deeper understanding of our world, our minds and ultimately who we are as humans.

© 2011 George Valliath