Jesse Lawson

Software engineering, artificial intelligence, writing, and open-source tools

Apr 3, 2019 - blog

Introducing CARES: The Cellular Agent Research Experiment System

We need the tonic of wildness… At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.” ― Henry David Thoreau, Walden: Or, Life in the Woods

For about four years now, I have been architecting some philosophical foundations for what I believe is a promising new way of thinking about emergent intelligence. Today, I’m happy to annouce that I am ready to make a private project I have been working on public, and am soliciting other developer-scientists to join in and help make this a great thing.

What is CARES?

CARES is an open-source autonomous agent research system. You can view details about it on the product documentation page, or go straight to the repository on GitHub.

Building CARES was heavily inspired by my hypothesis that human evolution has been contingent on our ability to share information faster and more efficiently over time and with greater access to technology.

Essentially:

  • Human evolution is based on the sharing of knowledge.

  • If knowledge were quantized, each “unit” of knowledge would be an association between one or more other “units” of knowledge.

  • The more knowledge you share, the more you evolve.

“Ethnographically, this diversity [‘of social organizations, group sizes, kinship structures, and mating patterns’] is at least partially rooted in culturally-acquired and widely shared social rules” (Henrich, 2011).

Sharing of experiences has led to the development of social groups and culture, and natural selection favored genes that resulted in more pro-social behavior, which in turn resulted in generation after generation of offspring with “sociogenetically superior” traits.

My theory is that the sharing of knowledge combined with random variations in genetic characteristics passed down to offspring make up the formula for evolution. Oriented toward artificial intelligence, I believe that, eventually, sentience can be synthesized from the correct ratio of shared knowledge, genetic characteristics, and environmental factors.

In this way, the chief “goal” of a CARES experiment is to replicate observable characteristics that yield an emergence of sentience.

What is Emergent Sentience?

Over the last million years or so, people evolved the ability to learn from each other, creating the possibility of cumulative, cultural evolution. Rapid cultural adaptation also leads to persistent differences between local social groups, and then competition between groups leads to the spread of behaviours that enhance their competitive ability. Then, in such culturally evolved cooperative social environments, natural selection within groups favoured genes that gave rise to new, more pro-social motives. Moral systems enforced by systems of sanctions and rewards increased the reproductive success of individuals who functioned well in such environments, and this in turn led to the evolution of other regarding motives like empathy and social emotions like shame. (Boyd & Richerson, 2009)

A being is considered sentient if it has the capacity to feel or perceive. These feelings and perceptions generally come from sensory input, but not all beings with sensory inputs are sentient.* Or are they? Don’t they have objective experiences too, since we are fairly certain they’re not all connected to a hive mind?

*: Unless, of course, we consider that sentience is derived from our understanding of reality, and that in trying to describe a being’s sentience we have to admit that what we are ascribing to this being is a set of conditions derived from the experience of our own species. In other words, what if sentience is both 1) the capacity to perceive and experience objectively, and 2) a subjective condition? By admitting that our own concept of what is sentient and what is not is founded on the presupposition that we humans are sentient, we are using the lens of “human” to determine whether other beings are sentient–and this may mean that our whole concept of sentience is wrong.

In Facing Up to the Problems of Consciousness (1996), philosopher David Chalmers1 asks how objective experiences come to be objective experiences:

It is undeniable that some organisms are subjects of experience. But the question of how it is that these systems are subjects of experience is perplexing. Why is it that when our cognitive systems engage in visual and auditory information-processing, we have visual or auditory experience: the quality of deep blue, the sensation of middle C? … It is widely agreed that experience arises from a physical basis, but we have no good explanation of why and how it so arises. Why should physical processing give rise to a rich inner life at all? It seems objectively unreasonable that it should, and yet it does.

That our physical interactions with the world produce an objective experience within us represents a rich intersection between physicists and philosophers that has existed for some time. In 1896, the mathematician Ernst Zermelo theorized that the Second Law of Thermodynamics (“the total entropy of an isolated system always increases”) was absolute,2 and supported this theory with Poincaré’s Recurrence Theorem which states that, eventually, certain systems will return to their initial state.

To counter this, the Austrian physicist Ludwig Boltzmann argued that our universe started for some unknown reason in a low-entropy state. Later on, his assistant Ignaz Schuutz theorized that the vast majority of the universe’s existence is in a state of featureless heat death, and that it is only through a very rare thermal fluctuation causing atoms to repel and attract in new configurations that our entire observable universe comes to be. This “Boltzmann Universe” concept gave rize to the philosophical concept of a Boltzmann brain: a self-aware entity that comes into existence as a result of rare, random fluctuations of a state of thermodynamic equilibrium.

In other words, the entire observable universe as we know it can be traced back to a single random fluctuation in an otherwise “stable” system. This means that, theoretically, there could exist a homogenous Newtonian puddle of goop in which a burst of heat from a nearby volcanic eruption could cause its atoms to attract and repel one another in such a way as to result, eventually, in a functioning human brain. Of course, the implication here is that the complexity of such a resultant structure imputes a seemingly multidimensional exponential relationship between the resultant complexity of such a system and the likelihood of the exact order of random fluctuations and activity to result in said system.

That likelihood is very small, and yet here we are: sentient, philosophical creatures stumbling through life communicating with each other. It goes without saying then that just because something is ridiculously improbable does not mean that it is impossible. Yet despite this logical truth, we are still left with the largest question of all: “Why?”

In 1983, philosopher Joseph Levine coined the term explanatory gap to describe the difficulty that physicalist theories have in explaining how physical properties give rise to the way things feel when they are experienced. To illustrate, he wrote the following example: “Pain is the firing of C fibers”–meaning, in the most literal sense possible, that the concept of pain is due to the firing of Group C nerve fibers in the Central and Peripheral Nervous Systems. It is in pointing out this physical fact that one arrives at a conundrum: while it might be valid in a physiological sense, it does not help us to understand how pain feels and why we experience it the way we do.

This is known as the hard problem of consciousness; the act of thinking and feeling is the result of an enormous amount of information processing, and yet in all these physical processes (hands touching, eyes seeing, tongues tasting, nerves firing, glands secreting, etc.) there is subjective experience. How is this possible–and just what exactly is the “this” that we are talking about?

We consider ourselves to be sentient not only because we can have these subjective experiences, but also because we can ponder about why and how these experiences are possible. In a reality that has produced a universe from the random fluctuations of a thermodynamic equilibrium, one might be keen on feeling that humanitity is somehow special or unique,* when in fact even these thoughts for which we have no language to describe are only further examples of the downstream effects of a series of random initial conditions at the start of our universe.

*: There is an underlying challenge to the Intelligent Design argument here and, ironically, a counterargument is formed right in the mission of this project itself. If it is our goal to create a replication of conditions and associations that, over time, lead to the emergence of some kind of sentience, aren’t we hypothesizing that intelligent design is at least plausible?

This is where the study of emergent sentience breaks off from the study of emergent reality. Whereas astrophysicists and cosmologists will take these questions and start diving deep into the quantum particulars of what has caused and continues to cause the universe to be and expand, the field of emergent sentience is concerned with a very small sample of those fields, which can be summarized like this:

  • How does a puddle of Newtonian goop evolve into sentient life forms?

Put another way:

  • What conditions and events have to occur for a single-celled organism to be the foundation of a sentient life form?

To tackle these questions, experiments in artificial intelligence can be used to mimic a universe like our own but in a discrete way. The idea is that by mimicking the emergence of sentience in a discrete system, the sum total of all possible things that could happen approaches infinity in the same way that the sum total of all possible things that could happen in our own reality, and we are left with a system that is, for all intents and purposes, a new universe.

The anthropic principle, which states that the only universes that are observed are those with conditions and properties that have allowed observers to exist and observe them, is a guiding thought here. In fact, the Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg refers to it as a “turning point” in the modern cosmology because when combined with string theory it “may explain how the constants of nature that we observe can take values suitable for life without being fine-tuned by a benevolent creator.”3

There’s so much more to read and learn about emergence sentience that I don’t want to ruin the journey for you.

It is my hope that CARES is the first step in helping you provoke your curiosity about this fascinating field of artificial intelligence.

References

Boyd, R. & Richerson, P. J. (2009). Culture and the evolution of human cooperation. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2781880/

Henrich, J. (2011). A cultural species: How culture drove human evolution. https://www.apa.org/science/about/psa/2011/11/human-evolution)

This article references and uses material from the following Wikipedia articles, all of which are released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.


  1. See David Chalmers’ (1996) “Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness. “JCS, 2(3), 200-219. [return]
  2. See S. G. Brush’s (1996) “Nebulous Earth: A History of Modern Planetary Physics,” 129. [return]
  3. Weinberg, S. (2007). “Living in the multiverse.” In B. Carr. Universe or multiverse?. Cambridge University Press. [return]