Archive for the ‘Natural Systems’ Category

The power of music

December 6, 2015

On Thursday, I went to hear the Scottish Symphony Orchestra playing in the City Hall, Glasgow. They played three pieces, but the one that made the strong impression on me was Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde”, composed between 1908 and 1909, but as powerful today as ever it was. It’s a long piece, a setting of some Chinese poems by Mahler, in which a contralto (Anna Larsson) and a tenor (Andrew Staples) sang against a whole orchestra. The programme notes included the texts of the poems in German and English: though I do have some German, having the text in both languages strengthened the effect. The programme notes say “…it is in fact a deeply felt farewell to life and the joy of life”, and one might imagine that one would leave the auditorium saddened by it.

But in fact, it made me re-evaluate where I am in my life: I’ve a couple of years before retirement, and (unlike Mahler) I seem to be in good health. I’ve just had a major grant proposal, to maintain the UK’s membership of the INCF, and to strengthen Neuroinformatics in the UK turned down by the Medical Research Council, and I’ve been thinking about ways forward. Mostly I was thinking about working on early auditory processing for robots and for hearing aids, about moving towards a position as an emeritus professor, and about playing more music.

But this made me think: “If not now when?”.

If Mahler could produce such a masterwork when everything was was on a downward spiral for him, why should I move quietly into retirement, or be hurt by the rejection of this proposal. Surely the answer is to think hard about what it is that I can do now, with more than 35 years as an academic, with more than 30 years experience of working at the boundaries between computing, neuroscience, and artificial intelligence. What can I do now that will take this work forward, that will use the experience that I have, that will take advantage of what I now can do?

And I think I know the answer to that: to try to bring together the different strands of Neuro research: Neuroscience (of its various forms), Neuroinformatics (as defined by INCF), Neuromorphic systems (of all the different types), in particular.

No, it does’t fit nicely into a research council proposal, but instead crosses three UK councils, MRC, BBSRC and EPSRC. Instead of the giant projects beloved of the EU (the Human Brain Project), of the US (the BRAIN initiative), let’s start something that brings together the different areas of research so that each can learn from the other. My experience shows me that, by and large, these different communities don’t talk to each other much at all. More can be gained by simply getting these communities to talk to each other, to share not only their data and analytical techniques, but their ideas, and their ways of thinking than by creating a big new UK brain research project.

And that’s my plan: to try to organise (and get funded, because without funding its hard even to hold meetings) a network that includes all of these communities, and gets them to work together towards both understanding the brain, and developing engineering from it, prosthetics and synthetic brain-like systems as well.

Where to start from? Probably a little quiet discussion and emailing of a number of selected individuals, followed by some sort of manifesto, to gather together a group big enough to build a proposal, followed by a proposal. And soon. If not now, when?




Additional thoughts on Zalamea’s book, and Pythagoreanism

August 18, 2013

Does Zalamea’s book offer us a new Pythagorean perspective? The mixture of his eidal, quiddital and archeal perspectives suggests to me a centrality of Mathematics that harks back to a Pythagorean viewpoint. Such a viewpoint is interesting to me, partly because it proffers a God with explicatory capabilities (the Universe is as it is because it conforms to Mathematics – or perhaps Mathematics is as it is because that’s how the Universe is): but, unless one can find a way to include ethics within Mathematics, it’s not at all clear that such a new Pythagorean perspective says anything about ethics. Indeed, perhaps it doesn’t say anything more than that the Universe is inextricably tied to Mathematics. And that is not really anything novel.

Yet the move away from a philosophy of Mathematics that makes Mathematics (in some sense) a tautology means that Mathematics and its philosophy is something more than just a human construction.

And perhaps there is still more: If I think of Zalamea’s quiddital Mathematics, I see the handiwork of God, whether in biology, or physics, or any other branch of science. But if I look at eidal or archeal Mathematics, I see possibilities that might or might not be in the actual Universe. I see connections between the possible workings of the Universe: perhaps we see into the mind of this Pythagorean God.

A Pythagorean God is not a deity that helps us directly to live our lives. It’s not a God in the usual sense in Abrahamic religions. A Pythagorean God is more in the background, more about the unity of the Universe, more about the underlying structure.

Zalamea and the Philosophy of Mathematics.

August 17, 2013

My holiday reading was F. Zalamea’s Synthetic philosophy of contemporary Mathematics, a recent (2012) translation of Zalamea’s 2009 “Filosofía sintética de las matemáticas contemporáneas”, translated by Zachary L. Fraser. I have to admire the translation first: my only other language is German, and I cannot imagine understanding the subtleties of this philosophical  book in anything except my native tongue. It’s readable, though it takes commitment, and some background in Mathematics (I have a degree in it, dating from 1973, but though I am an academic in Computing I really haven’t  studied Mathematics since then). I note that Tzuchien Tho describes the book as “dense bomb of a book” in his Almagestum Contemporarium.

I wish I had read this book earlier. Indeed, I wish it had been translated earlier. Why?

I’ve spent some time trying to understand Category Theory in the last few years, particularly as part of the INBIOSA project, which produced a book. The largest single element in that book  is the INBIOSA white paper, entitled  Stepping Beyond the Newtonian Paradigm in Biology: Towards an Integrable Model of Life: Accelerating Discovery in the Biological Foundations of Science. In this paper we (there’s 17 authors) discuss new ideas that attempt to move understanding of the foundations of biology towards something that might help to bring some mathematical  approach to the functioning of biological systems, towards something that might help explain living material in terms that aren’t just the biochemical equations, diffusion etc. As part of that we were looking for an approach that transcended the logical mathematics, used in what we were aware of the mathematical philosophy. One of our number, Ehresmann, was pointing us towards Category Theory, and certainly I , and presumably others too tried to understand what it was that Category Theory was really bringing to the area.

Now I’ve read Zalamea’s book I have a much better idea, not of the basics of category theory, but of why it was so important. It is a way of expressing how Mathematics works, of how Mathematics can be about Mathematics. Zalamea lights a way towards a new philosophy of Mathematics that brings together the constructive imagination of what he calls eidal Mathematics with the Physically based quiddital Mathematics, and the idea of Mathematics of mathematics in  archeal Mathematics (the italicised terms are Zaladea’s). He sees the recent mathematics of Grothendieck and (many) others as a revolution as important as Einstein’s in Physics, and sees this as requiring a related revolution in Mathematical Philosophy (or perhaps he sees this revolution as actually starting first, as he sees it based in the works of Lautmann who died in 1944, when Grothendieck was only 16).

Be that as it may, I think (and here I am but seeing through a glass darkly) that this different view of Mathematics can underlie a different view of biology. This richer philosophy seems to me to suggest that Mathematics can do more than describe the physical Universe: it can be the engine of that Universe, explaining how it operates. This is nothing new in Physics, but it is something new in biology. Can such a philosophy underlie a change in biology as critical as that of Einstein in Physics? Can it take the reductionist understanding supplied by systems biology, and show how this actually drives the biology? Can it go further, can we use the mathematics of Mathematics to understand how a Universe can become aware of itself? Can such a construction really help us to understand our construction of reality?

I’m back from holiday now. I’m writing this before all the other work that running a University’ Department (well, Division) takes over from trying to think about what really matters. In reality, I’d like to spend a month re-reading Zalamea, and following up more of the references. Then talking to the other authors of the the INBIOSA white paper, and trying to integrate these ideas into it (one month seems rather conservative here). But rather than simply writing it in my notebook, I’m putting it on my blog, so I can try to discuss it openly.

Does the nature of our understanding get in the way of our understanding of our nature?

October 24, 2011

What do I mean by this? I’m spending time somewhere between being a minor player in the Human Brain Project (FP7, proposed flagship), and considering co-ordinating an FP7 IP in FP7-ICT-2011.9.7: Dynamics of Multi-Level Complex Systems, (DyM-CS). The former aims to understand the Human Brain (I think), and the latter to understand multi-level complex systems (which surely includes the human brain, though there’s plenty of others too).

It’s not that I can’t or won’t help to write such a proposal: it’s more that I’m not convinced that such a full-fromtal assault on these issues is necessarily the way forward. I don’t think we’re at a level where we would even recognise that we do understand the answers (and I’m certainly not convinced that it would be good for society if we did understand the answers – even better drones? controlling the weather locally?). I do believe that we may learn a lot by finding out what we really don’t understand.

But to my original title: can we understand our nature? Can we understand what it is that takes a system of (biochemical/systems biological) reactions, and reaction cascades and infuses them with life? Is it simply a matter of there being a genetic set of machinery inside that maintains the equilibrium in the longer term, removing excess entropy? (The problem here is that it’s quite possible to imagine exactly that, but without it being alive: or would such an entity necessarily be alive?) And how does the multicellular organism gather together the single cellular living entities and infuse that with a unified purpose (I nearly wrote self-hood, but does a tree have a self?). And in the case of human (or ant) multicellular organism, how does the society (should the be family, tribe, or even nation state) gather the disparate elements of self-hood into one larger purpose?

Clearly these are difficult questions. Mostly, I believe that we can get to understand (in some sense) what the nature of these issues are (and I’m involved in an EU CA project, INBIOSA, in this area): but I do worry about what we might do with such knowledge. On good days, I think of imbuing mixtures of living tissue and mechanical support with an overall unified living ness – and sending such cyborgs to other planets (see my input to Grand Challenges 2002). And on bad days I have a more dystopian vision in which the whole concept is used for military purposes!