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Key Takeaways from The Computational Boundary of a “Self” by Michael Levin
When I first came across this article from the New Yorker, talking about how a scientist named Michael Levin was working towards regenerating human limbs, I thought it would be just another pseudoscientific attention grab.
I read it anyway, because sometimes I like pseudoscientific attention grabs.
After reading I started following Dr. Levin on Twitter and it was clear that he was a unique and out of the box thinker. Upon reaching out he agreed to join us on The Vance Crowe Podcast, so we took to reading a few of his papers before the interview.
Compiled here are some key takeaways from my favorite of the batch: The Computational Boundary of a “Self”: Developmental Bioelectricity Drives Multicellularity and Scale-Free Cognition.
Sounds like a mouthful, but worth swallowing.
Starting off with Levin’s definition of Scale-free cognition:
‘Scale-free cognition’ is an attempt to synthesize ideas from theories of computation and control to identity common information-processing events occurring at multiple levels of organization.'
In other words, scale-free cognition is a model whose purpose is to better identify common cognitive denominators across systems of organization at various scales.
Think: Cells…Tissues…Organs…Organisms…Groups of organisms?…etc.
Ranking systems by purpose of activity
So what are those denominators? Levin puts forth a model for how the above mentioned groups of organization can be ranked by the degree of purpose in their activities. Here are the categories of that model’s scale with a set of questions that could be used to determine which category a system is operating within.
Active vs Non-active
Is the system doing something at all or not?
Purposeful vs Non-purposeful
Does what the system is doing have purpose?
Feedback vs No feedback
Does the system get any kind of feedback on its actions?
Predictive vs Non-predictive
Can the system predict its future state?
1st, 2nd, etc order of prediction and self reference.
Can the system reference its past actions in order to make better predictions and take better actions in the future?
For example, you would be in tier 5 of this model—I hope?
Tadpoles suggest we can regenerate limbs
Levin’s paper also points out how organisms with cellular remodeling stages suggest that self organization or body patterning doesn’t originate in the individual cell.
“For example, when tadpoles are perturbed in the laboratory such that their craniofacial organs are in abnormal positions, they still make largely normal frog faces because eyes, jaws, and other structures move around in un-natural paths and only stop when a “correct frog face configuration” is reached.”
So don’t feel bad for the tadpoles, they turn out fine.
These results are one of the main indicators for the potential of success in promoting limb regeneration in other organisms. If this same body patterning signal is able to be identified and manipulated in an organism like humans, we may be able to regenerate our own limbs through some kind of bioelectric therapy.
Can we solve for cancer with the same signals?
Similar to how this patterning signal may be the thing responsible for self organization, Levin goes on to suggest how the same or similar signals may also be the thing responsible for promoting cancer. Many forms of cancer are caused by cells that become isolated from the physiological signals that bind them to the unified networks of organization inside of our body. Furthermore, behaviors involved in a cancer cell are aimed at optimizing for one cell, so could this just be them reverting to a unicellular past when cut off from the organizing signal?
This would lead to a cell’s ‘scope of self’ as Levin calls it, shrinking, meaning that the ability to work towards temporally distant goals like organization is reduced.
“This view predicts that interference with (or restoration of) physiological communication among cells should be able to trigger (or suppress) cancer and that the relevant parameter (communication) is spread out over considerable distance and not confined to single cells (e.g., genomic damage).”
Cognitive Light Cones
An essential aspect of scale free cognition is the idea of nested selves in a system.
Levin proposes the following definition for an individual self operating in different cognitive scales of a system:
“The scale and types of goals that a system can pursue defines (determines) the boundaries and content of the putative “agent.” On this view, what defines a coherent, unified Self out of its constituent components and the surrounding environment is the set of parts that operate toward reaching specific goal states.”
This Segways into my favorite concept of the whole paper: the cognitive light cone.
Levin talks about the cognitive boundary of an individual as being the most distant set of events that this system can measure and attempt to regulate its goal directed activity.
He analyzes this concept within the context of the smallest scale, and proceeds upwards from there.
“The more a cell is connected to other cells in networks, the more processing capacity and the bigger the horizon of what the compound individual can potentially sense, remember and store. Individuals’ range of perception increases when integrated with others.”
Memory, anticipation, and other system capacities are suggested to increase as well through this nested self cooperation.
Here’s a diagram from the paper to better visualize the concept:
Macro example: The value of a network
Can individuals cooperating at larger scales increase cognitive horizon as well? My verdict is yes. Based on the colony illustration above and the tone of this paper, I would bet on a similar verdict from Dr. Levin.
For over a year and a half, I’ve been participating in a network we created for listeners of the podcast, and perhaps one of the reasons that the concept of the cognitive light cone resonated so much with me is because the idea is emblematic of my experience with this group. Together, we compare our perspectives of the past, and our bets on the future, to come to more informed conclusions about the world around us.
As the paper might say, this larger cognitive horizon leads to higher freedom amongst our agents.
While most of us are connected through the podcast, you can learn more about the Articulate Ventures Network HERE.
Next week, I’m going to talk about finding bliss in a ticking clock.
Be your self.