Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Swarm Music

I'm currently reading a book called The Perfect Swarm, by Len Fisher. It seems to mainly be about how individuals, be it ants, bees, humans...etc, can follow simple rules to achieve things that individuals could not alone. It is a grand example of the total being much more than the sum of its parts.

Ants use such swarm logic to find the shortest path from home to food, for example. Simply put, success demands reinforcement of good choices, penalty for bad ones, and a tendency for newcomers to prefer good ones. An ability to learn from the past helps the optimization.

Given our highly interconnected age due to digital communication, the concept begs for application. One in particular comes to mind that could be both scientifically interesting as well as entertaining: using the swarm to create music.

This may be overly ambitious and the details would need to be hammered out, but here's a first pass. Assemble an online collection of musicians to act as the swarm. Establish a means of giving positive or negative feedback on aspects of the music by individuals. Encourage listeners to contribute creatively to the evolving system(s).

It might happen something like this. I write a simple guitar part, record it and host it on a group-accessible page. Another guitar player decides it should hit a B chord instead of a C on a particular part and uploads his own recording. People like this version more and hence judge it as an improvement, which contributes to a higher rating for the version. When another person views the page, the best-rated version is at the top and successively worse versions descend along the page.

Now suppose a third person is a more proficient guitar player, but isn't necessarily as good at creating new music. This person re-plays the same part but with higher skill. This version gets an even higher rating. Now maybe someone adept at mixing music downloads the piece and tweaks the EQ or adds reverb. Adding new instruments could start new pages and then those more complete songs could evolve independently. If participation was active, the piece could naturally assemble and optimize to the tastes of the group.

A sort of modularity is built-in. By this I mean that those proficient at particular deeds are naturally used for that deed; i.e. if a person is good at playing guitar, then when they do so the rating is likely to be higher for their recording than that of a less proficient player, or than if they tried to play drums. It is conceivable that the group would fragment into interconnected modules that specialized in particular aspects, much like the human body is fragmented into organs and appendages that cooperate to serve the same purpose.

There are of course practical hurdles. For instance, how many people would be needed to allow self-organization given reasonable demands of contribution? For instance, ants could not find the optimum route to a food source if the chemicals they released evaporated more quickly than could be laid down. Or, in reference to the tale of Hansel and Gretel, if the trail of cookies are being eaten, you'd better be quick in returning if you hope to follow them! In the context of this project, the contributions have to be numerous enough to keep the project alive and growing and individuals can only be expected to contribute so much.

A condition for the success of swarm behavior is that there cannot be competing goals. This is a bit qualitative and though one can conceive of goals more easily when it comes to obtaining food and not being eaten in the process, it's more difficult in the context of making music. Sure, we all want a great collection of songs, but great is defined differently for each member. Further, as the system evolves, so might the members concept of great; i.e. we may agree that the three guitar parts are independently great, but you may like them strung together in order 1-2-3 and I may prefer 2-1-3; in this way, it might be said that the goal evolves with the system. However, since the goodness is determined by the collection of ratings from the group, we might be able to say that the group goal does not change.

The benefit/penalty might be dealt out in points to your ranking as a musician depending upon how much better or worse you've made changes. It is common for such arbitrary point systems to affect the behavior of online community members. Higher ranked changes could be more easily accessible than lower ranked ones, perhaps being on the front page or at the top. These simple rules might satisfy the three requirements highlighted above of reinforced goodness, penalized badness, and bias towards that which was found to be good.

How could such a concept get started? Or better refined? Suggestions welcome.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

A Wasted Majority?

An oft-heard criticism internal to America is that we consume far more than our share, relatively speaking. Perhaps a good consequence/symbol of this was illuminated in a documentary I watched recently that noted America's second largest export is scrap metal. If this level of consumption is undesirable, it might be worthwhile considering potential causes.

Our society seems to dictate that most of us spend at least eight hours a day at our jobs. Otherwise, except in probably rare circumstances, it's difficult to survive as a normal member of society. This structure only works, of course, if the products being manufactured are being purchased/consumed. If levels of individual time are categorized as: self-preservation, partner/friend outreach, family nurturing, workgroup participation, cultural participation, and shared-knowledge contributions, is it any surprise that the balance of community focus might be obstructed when society typically demands that half of our waking hours are spent in one of the six categories (workgroup)? If our survival is largely based on our ability to produce consumables, is it a surprise that the American landscape has become a big shopping mall, as George Carlin has criticized? The choice doesn't seem to be that you work as much as your needs demand (as you define them), but that you either work a full time job and survive, or you do not.

What would economists have to say about a world in which people had the freedom to choose how many hours a day they worked? Does the 80/20 rule offer any insights? For instance, if 20% are by far the most productive and are responsible for 80% of production, could the remaining 80% be better served focusing on other layers of organization, like child-care or community services? In other words, can their efforts be measured in a way that don't necessarily involve dollars and cents? For instance, what of a person that can sit at home and play with abstract mathematics and physics, contributing to the shared knowledge category? Although it might be difficult to ascribe a monetary value to their theoretical contributions or set up an institution for supporting them financially, it's probably a good idea to have people doing what they do best. Companies are known for not financially supporting pure science as much as applied science since the short-term payoffs are likely to be less. This is reasonable from a business standpoint and funding from government attempts to fill the gap, but is there no other way for society to operate that takes advantage of the people that are willing and capable to do such things? Obviously a complete restructuring of societal mechanisms is an idealistic and romantic notion, but there might be benefits to being skeptical of the capitalistic/democratic presumptions that have done wonders for the world so far, but may not remain sufficient to keeping our communities healthy in ways that are measured by means other than economic productivity.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

A Question for Cosmologists

The following thoughts were prompted by trying to figure out what the question, “Is the Universe infinite?” is really asking. “How could it be?” I ask. If we know the age of the Universe is finite, and we know that the fastest anything with energy/information can travel is the speed of light, isn't the “size” of the Universe merely the age multiplied by the speed of light? But how is the Universe defined? Some say that space is infinite and that the matter is expanding into it. But, if my limited understanding serves me, wasn't there no space before the Big Bang and the existence of matter? Also, there has been much work done on particular periods of inflation. Is this not the Universe starting from a smaller size and getting larger? If so, at what point did the Universe go from being finite to infinite? Is the theory that precisely at the Big Bang, space was made infinite, and then inflation caused it to be more infinite? I'm not even sure the word “infinite” has much meaning in this case. If there is a boundary of any kind which cannot be exceeded, how can one call this infinite? Because it always has the possibility to keep expanding? Perhaps they are saying, “The Universe will be infinite in size after an infinite amount of time.” Well, so be it. This is more a statement of the future of the Universe than its current state; a statement that the Universe will forever expand.

Maybe I'm simplifying, but it seems to me that the entity which includes all the mass and energy created in the Big Bang should be called the Universe; and if current time and maximum speed are finite, so its size must also. What am I missing?

So what of this boundary that marks the edge of the Universe? If you've read about General Relativity at all, it's likely you've seen the expansion of the Universe analogized to the following. There is a balloon with an array of equally spaced dots drawn on its surface. Now, blow up the balloon further. If you look at any single dot, all of its neighboring dots are moving further away. If you do the same analysis to one of the aforementioned neighboring dots, all of its neighboring dots are also moving further away from it. It's a beautiful demonstration of how all things can be moving further apart from one another simultaneously.

But our space is in three dimensions, whereas the surface of the balloon is in two. Ask yourself: what is the “boundary” in the case of the balloon? Is it the surface of the balloon? In the analogy, if each dot symbolized something like a galaxy, then the entire surface of the balloon would be the whole universe. So is the question, “Is the Universe infinite?” actually asking how much the balloon can be blown up? Assuming a balloon that doesn't break, maybe the concept is that we are blowing up this balloon in our living room and once it gets big enough to hit the walls and ceiling, that's it: the Universe is finite. In that case, however, the “Universe” not only consists of the surface of the balloon (which represents all the galaxies and space), but also the room in which it's being blown up. This is a higher dimension than that which the surface of the balloon exists.

In the case of our 3-D space expansion, that would mean the “room” exists in four dimensions. When we ask if the Universe is infinite, are we really asking about the size of the room in four dimensions? If so, there's no wonder why I was confused!

I would venture to make an educated assumption that our fourth dimension in this case is time. Just as saying that the size of the room being infinite suggests the balloon can become infinite as well, is it not equivalent to say that the Universe being infinite is equivalent to time being infinite? Once again, this seems like a statement about the potential of the future, not about a current property of the Universe.

Just to confuse matters more, let's think about what it means to be on the surface of this 3-D balloon. Aside from small fluctuations, everything is moving further away from us. Check. It's common knowledge that as we look into space, we are in a very real sense looking back in time, due to the fact that it takes time for light to travel from the object to our eyes. So everywhere we look, it happened in the past. The location of the “present” is right here. But of course, “right here” is different depending on if it's you, me, or some being in a different galaxy. We're all simultaneously in the present and past, depending on who you ask. I guess it becomes a question of “whose present?” and “whose past”? I always imagined the edge of the Universe to be some source of light, hauling ass at 300 billion meters per second “outward”, as if I was in the middle of the balloon watching it's surface expand outward. But this is not accurate. It seems we are all simultaneously on the “edge” of the Universe, which is defined by the present time and we are being propelled “outward” into the future.

In sum, I still don't think I understand the question: “Is the Universe infinite?” It seems to me, with my limited knowledge and probably faulty logic, that it is equivalent to asking if time is infinite. But that seems to depend on the fate of the Universe and isn't a property of it in the same sense as “total energy” or “total mass”. Whether the Universe collapses into the “Big Crunch” or expands forever is an interesting question, but if that is what's meant by asking if the Universe is infinite or not, please clarify!