Intentionality facade

In the pub on friday night Dan showed me his boids – virtual creatures that evolve in a virtual world according to a genetic algorithm (yes, these are the sorts of friends I have!). He told me that when he made mistakes in the code, the boids seems to evolve to take advantage of it. So there was a bug that meant that predator boids moved quicker when they were with other predator boids. What happened was that the boids exploited this bug and learnt to hunt in packs.

What I found was interesting was my reaction to this – “Cripes!” I thought “How the hell did they work out how to do that?!”. Even though, as a programmer, I knew exactly how much intelligence and autonomy these boids had (none). Even though, as a dyed-in-the-wool evolutionist, I could understand the directionless-logic of a genetic algorithm, some part of me leaped at the chance to ascribe intention to those little coloured triangles as they floated around the screen. Despite years of thinking about evolution, despite knowing that an evolutionary algorithm was an undirected process, that no boid made any decisions, that all that happened was that those boids which had some simple rule that made them associate with other boids moved faster and this made them more likely to be reproduced in the next ‘generation’ and that this meant that pack-like behaviour became more prevalent – despite all this, my instinct was still to ask “Why did they decide to hunt in packs and how did they see it would work”.

It made me realise just how alien the logic of evolution is, that someone like me who is theologically and intellectually predisposed to want to understand it still fails to grasp it instinctively.

7 replies on “Intentionality facade”

Reminds me of Karl Sim’s ‘Evolved Virtual Creatures’:

Conservation wasn’t defined in his virtual worlds, so: “For example, in some runs creatures evolved who achieved locomotion by exploiting a bug in the way conservation of momentum was defined in the world’s artifactual physics: they developed appendages like paddles and moved by hitting themselves with their own paddles.” — Hayles,

You may enjoy breve, an environment for these simulations, and a screensaver based on Sims’ work:

(If I understood it right, boids show simple flocking from just a couple of velocity and distance rules–with generations, the work you’re describing is fascinating and great to watch. How are the rules encoded?)

Most of the logic that I am aware of feels alien; satisfying but alien.

I like Dan Dennett’s essay, ‘Skinner Skinned’, in which he draws comparisons between Skinner’s reduction of human behaviour and a comparable explanation of the workings of a chess computer program. I don’t like to jump on the ‘we hate Skinner’ bandwagon, however, as there is something right about Skinner’s approach that doesn’t warrant consignment to room 101.
Skinner Skinned:

My head spins when I think about the continuum of life and death – I wonder if there will ever be a computer that fears (appreciates) for its life. Would that be good?

What’s the name for someone who thinks that, whatever sensation we have that we think is consciousness, its only because of the arrangement of atoms and forces in us, and so – whatever consciousness might be – other complex systems would be capable of the same?

One of the constant prey-predator boids’ evolved behaviours is chase and escape. Obviously a dead simple beginning: prey who’s random rules tend to push them away from predators live longer. Predators (possibly) co-evolve to counter this, so you get little chase-dances. (At the start of their world, randomly, prey sometimes chase predators too. They don’t get to pass their genes on!)

If the above statement about consciousness is true, ,somewhere in this simple evolved behaviour must be the tiny seed of fear for one’s own survival.

At least that’s what I think after a particularly strong coffee. p.s. I’ll get an applet version of the prey-predator boids done at some point soon.

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