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a train of thought

julia_ferraioli's picture
So I just wrote this long entry, and accidentally deleted it. I'll try to replicate it as much as I can! I was thinking about the role of computers in emergent phenomena, and how we've been looking at them. For instance, in the game of life or go or sim games, we use computers to simulate phenomena based on predetermined rules. But these are just simulations. The computer is doing the work, but beyond that, it really isn't doing anything. Even when we were looking at cellular automata, we followed a ruleset, key word being "ruleset". A specific set of rules that determine how the pattern is going to emerge. But again, they computer doesn't really do anything except the background work. It speeds the process up. Which brings me to the question, can a person create a program with no rules and no purpose? I've been thinking about this quite a bit lately. Let's take the the first part about the rules. Ok, you see a little bit of this in different types of algorithms, where the rules evolve according to what it is trying to do. But the second part about the purpose? Every single program I've written has been to solve some sort of problem or to accomplish some task. Even a program containing only an infinite loop has a purpose: to run forever. That is definitely forseeable and wouldn't count as emergent phenomena anyway. The process isn't static, you could solve a problem but the problem could change...but you still have a purpose. My answer would be no, it's not possible. A computer can model and simulate, solve problems, but there could be no program to create a model with no rules on which to base it. So computers, perhaps no, but networks is another story. I was looking around for a way to create a program with no purpose, when I ran across this short network story in an IBM research website. It's a little example using email patterns. If you read the story, consider a computer virus. Sure it has a creator and rules on how to propagate. But I find it very similar to our ant farm. Doug got the sand, the ants and the food, so he's actually the creator. And since there's a box limiting the space, that would qualify as one of the rules. However, the patterns emerging from the ants' tunneling is entirely their own, as is the trail of a virus. One person, Robert Tappan Morris, wanted to figure out the size of the internet. He intended the virus to be benign, but because of how the virus spread, it brought the internet to its knees. A phenomenon that he couldn't have predicted. This post ended up being a little different than my last one, but hopefully it's a little clearer!


LauraKasakoff's picture

I'm having trouble understanding how a program couldn't have rules. But maybe I just don't understand what a rule is defined to be? In my mind a rule is just a step in an algorithm a program follows and enacts. Even if these rules "evolve according to what [they are] trying to do" they are still rules. And before thinking about your post I definitely thought that a program could have no purpose, but now I don't know. I don't think that Morris' well-intentioned virus is an example of a program without a purpose, because although it had an outcome other than what he expected, surely Morris' program has at least one purpose (either the one he intended, or the unforeseen one). I can't think of a program without a purpose. Wouldn't it be impossible to create a program that had no purpose because in trying to create such a program it would have the purpose of serving as an example of such a program? And any program has an inherent purpose: to perform its rules. I didn’t think they were, but rules and purpose seem to be inextricably related. I can't imagine a program without both rules AND purpose, nor can I imagine a program with just one or the other. My gut tells me all programs must have rules and purpose. But it is an interesting question...
julia_ferraioli's picture

You're exactly right. Trying to create a program without a purpose is a paradox. I had read The Story of an Accidental Revolutionary, which is Linus Torvalds biography about how Linux came to be. After that I thought that it would be so cool to start an accidental revolution...but of course now I never can :) You make the point that I was trying to make far better than I did in your first paragraph. All programs have rules...this is probably why the question frustrated me so much to begin with. No, Morris' program would not be one without a purpose, but it's an example of emergent phenomena in computer networks. I was trying to say that while individual computers may not have the capability to show emergence in any way but simulation or modeling, networks might be able to do so. But I definitely have to agree with you on programs having a purpose and rules.
PaulGrobstein's picture

Along which lines ... The Game of Life, cellular automata, and Langton's Ant all have rules. But they also all result in things happening that were not in the minds of their designers, the people who created the rules. So, do the programs have a "purpose"? If so, what was/is it? Maybe part of the problem here is a need to clarify what exactly we mean by the word "purpose"?. That's part of the point ("purpose"?) of The World of Langton's Ant, and we'll talk more about it on Monday.
PeterOMalley's picture

Apparently this is going to be more of a philosophical course than I had planned on... but I think that's great! It seems to me that a key factor in defining "purpose" is the fact that it's assigned. What I mean by that is that the purpose in Lanton's Ant (if we grant it a purpose) is most certainly assigned by outside observers. Likewise, RTM's virus was originally assinged a purpose by it's creator, and then outside observers (including the creator, apparently) "assigned" it the purpose of destroying computers, or whatever it was. A good distinction to make, I would say, is who assigns the purpose. It can be assigned by the doer, as in, "I'm going to make a cake," by the creator, as in "I'm going to write a program that counts toes," or by an outsider, as in "Langton's Ant is building a road." The third one is, to me, the most interesting, for in it I see emergent phenomena. Where did the purpose come from? Of course, this doesn't go very far to define what a purpose is, but I always like to wax philosophical... (or linguistic, in this case. :) )