The Third Law of Life: Information is the Fuel that Powers the Engines of Life
INFORMATION + ENERGY = LIFE
The First Law of Life: Survive
The Second Law of Life: Make a Profit
The Third Law of Life: Information Powers Life
“With the advent of AI (artificial intelligence) our information fuel supply has increased from mere gasoline to fusion energy, expanding the horizons of our human potential beyond anything we have ever imagined.” -MH
Where is this future taking us?
To benefit from and control our new superpowers, we need to understand the information fuel that propels us and how information engines power natural biology, human societies, and machines.
Information: What do we think it is?
"Information? That's facts, numbers, and statistics, isn't it?
"It's the stuff my smartphone tells me. My calendar, messages, reminders—that's all information I use every day."
"Information is whatever I read on the news or see on TV. It's how I know what's going on in the world."
"It's what I Google when I need to know something, like a recipe or how to fix a leaky faucet."
"Information is history and collective knowledge—stuff that's passed down through generations and recorded in books or nowadays, on the internet."
"For me, information is personal. It's my medical records, bank statements, and private conversations. It's something that should be kept secure."
Information is the fuel that makes life possible
Every Life form, (For simplicity, I’ll use “Life” to refer to “every life form”) requires information to create every part of its physical body and to do every single thing it needs or hopes to do.
Information is only created by Life, and information is only useful to Life.
How does the engine of Life work?
First, Life observes: Life receives a small amount of energy from the environment, like sound, light, or temperature, and perceives it via sensors, like our human smell, taste, touch, hearing, and sight.
The incoming energetic pattern is compared to patterns stored in memory. If the pattern is recognized, it becomes information and is combined, using logic, with other information (the process of cognition) to create meaning and, perhaps, Knowledge - a useful mental model of the real world. Knowledge is any information construct (internal or external) that allows us to translate thoughts into physical action.
With knowledge, Life can invest physical energy to potentially harvest even more energy from the environment. With success, Life stores some of its excess energy as “wealth” and invests some of the wealth to obtain yet more information, build more knowledge, and harvest even more energy - a positive feedback loop endlessly fueling the variety and abundance of Life on our planet.
Stored energy builds “wealth” - fat, money, things, or knowledge. Enough wealth must be accumulated to make expensive and risky investments in growth, reproduction, and evolution. There is nothing certain about the success of these investments. All forms of Life must develop their own strategy for successfully growing, reproducing, and evolving across multiple generations.
Both animals and humans use information to gather energy and create wealth
In 1859, Charles Darwin published his landmark book, Origin of Species. He identified grazing, browsing, and hunting as the three methods by which animals harvest food. In 1980, I updated his observation by extending it to information gathering. Since information is a form of energy essential to all living organisms, this principle links human social behavior to the fundamental physics of Life and the universe itself.
Bacteria, birds, human beings, a company, a religion, a nation, and machines - the laws of information work the same for all of Life.
From the earliest bacterial mats (stromatolites), more than 4 billion years ago, organisms have grouped together, communicating and sharing information in order to improve their ability to harvest energy to survive, grow, reproduce, and evolve.
At first, organisms reproduced by making exact copies of their DNA, and some still do. However, copying the same DNA over and over isn’t ideal for evolving into more complex and capable organisms. Sexual reproduction, in which DNA from two individuals is combined, is much more effective.
Sex requires cooperative communication between independent individuals
The evolution of sexual reproduction was enabled by the ability of two independent organisms to communicate and cooperate and come together in order to reproduce.
For sexual reproducers, their species is defined as much by their communication as by their DNA. For us humans, information about potential mates and communication with them and their social circles plays a major role in our mate-selection rituals. Information and communication are much more important than DNA for shaping the evolution of the human species.
Life is dependent on bigger and smaller forms of Life
Most organisms exist as dependents within hierarchies of “superorganisms.” Our human body is a superorganism housing trillions of dependent cells and hangers-on, like bacteria, fungi, and viruses. Superorganisms consist of hierarchies of dependency: Our cells depend on the success of us, their superorganism. They can’t live without us, and we can’t live without them.
Every cell in our body is itself the superorganism for a host of internal dependent information life forms. The mitochondria in our cells were once free living bacteria. They have their own DNA and generate the energy that makes our lives (and virtually all other complex life forms) possible. Our cells depend on their dependent mitochondria, and we depend on our dependent cells and they all depend on us.
Information and communication define how superorganisms and each of their dependent members know what to do and when. Complex life forms include a variety of diverse internal information systems:
Small molecule signaling systems - Sodium, magnesium, calcium, and nitric oxide regulators, among many others.
Neurotransmitters - an entire complex information system devoted to passing information from one neuron to the next.
Large molecule systems - The myriad of proteins, kinases, enzymes, and mitochondria operating in thousands of interconnected information systems.
The DNA information storage subsystem - The library from which other systems obtain plans for doing what needs to be done.
The immune system - A variety of quasi-independent information systems distributed throughout the body, from our gut bacteria to antibodies that have learned to recognize invaders and mark infected cells for destruction by killer T-cells and others.
Our nervous system is the highways and byways for moving information around our body and carrying sensed energy to our brain for recognition.
The hormone systems - hormones are information chemicals created and received by every cell. They are the “democracy” of the cells and control us independently of the nervous system and brain.
Intercellular computational networks - At the leading edge of modern biology, Dr. Michael Levin and his colleagues are discovering electrical communication and computation networks, the software that guides our development from embryo to adult and internally controls the ongoing function of our organs.
Our vaunted “conscious” mind is only aware of a tiny fraction of all the communication and computation that is going on within our internal communities and their trillions of cells. We are not able to understand their conversations carried on in chemical and electrical languages for the same reasons that we are not able to understand all the conversations in human society and among animals.
Can you hear me now?
The multiplicity of animal, human, and biological languages reveals another face of information: The transmitter and the receiver must understand each other for meaningful communication.
A huge amount of human communication is occupied with establishing a shared context - From “Can you hear me now?” to “Do you speak English?” to “What do you mean antidisestablishmentarianism?”
This “semantic context” applies to all communication, from cells in our body to digital Wi-Fi radio signals to elephants talking by stamping their feet and whales singing across the oceans. We can listen, but without a shared semantic context, we really can’t be sure what the elephants are talking about, or, without a smartphone, what the Wi-Fi is telling us.
We human beings have evolved communication technologies to create large-scale shared-context information storage and transmission networks. These have spawned many types of information-based superorganism life forms: Social, technical, philosophical, spiritual, military, commercial, political, etc.
Besides humans, many species, for instance, ants, dolphins, bees, birds, wolf packs and fish, are also organized and defined by complex and distributed communication-based social superorganisms. Wolf packs cooperate and succeed. Lone wolves, not so much. Without its information species, its pack superorganism, the biological species of wolves would not survive.
All of these communication-based superorganisms are themselves living species, held together by communication and fueled by information. Like all other members of Life, they need to harvest energy on behalf of their dependent members in order to grow, reproduce, and evolve.
The Information Revolution gets fusion power
The Agricultural Revolution enhanced our food supply and grew the human population. The Industrial Revolution enhanced our energy supply, with which we have evolved our modern technological world.
Today’s information revolution is the first to directly enhance our mind, the root of our human evolutionary advantage.
The invention of the printing press in 1450 allowed information to be spread widely and led to the scientific and industrial revolution. However, it was still up to us to make use of the information by using mechanical, manually controlled information engines, from paper and pencil to card catalogs to mechanical calculators.
The computer turbocharged our information engines
Just as the gasoline-powered automobile transformed our transportation lives, In a few short decades, we have leveraged information-powered computers, along with instant global communication, to create a real-time, global, “human mind.” But as powerful as computers are, so far, they are just mechanical calculators on steroids, limited to doing only what we have explicitly instructed them to do.
AI turns information gasoline into fusion power - no limits.
Slowly gestating since the 1950s, we have now entered the age of accessible machine learning and “artificial” intelligence, AI. AIs are general purpose information pattern learners. They can learn chess today, Swahili tomorrow, and how to talk to elephants the next day.
The advent of AI is a monumental advance in our human use of information. In one sense, it potentially makes all of the recorded information and knowledge of the human race available to us in a dialectical form - a conversation with our past. AI’s ability to make connections, erase language barriers, learn on its own, remember everything it learns, and infer meaning potentially gives it and us superhuman information capabilities.
The knowledge we gain from using AI to expand our intellectual worldview will transform how we use information technology and vastly increase our ability to harvest energy and create wealth - all based on the universal laws of information.
In this article, I have introduced information and shown that:
Information is a unique product of life
Information usage is a process that makes life possible
The “laws” of information operate in the same way for all life forms
Living organisms form hierarchies of information-based superorganisms
Information processing takes place in many ways and many substrates within living organisms and shapes human societies.
Sexual reproduction created species defined by communication and cooperation among independent organisms
Humans evolved technical communication and cooperation strategies that produced communication and information-based superorganism species like tribes, nations, religions, and companies.
Information technology has increased the human ability to maximize return on investment from information acquisition, processing, and knowledge creation.
AI promises to vastly increase our effective use of information and return on investment from its use.
In this brief article, I know you will have questions and comments. I am happy to clarify and add details, so please let me know if there is something you don’t understand or with which you disagree.
In future articles, I will describe the architecture and machinery that produces information for all life forms, dive deep into how knowledge works, the life of machines, AI, information and society, the search for the origin of life, and much more.
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Pi at the Center of the Universe - Why we can’t understand the complex world of today until we go back to the source that created it.
The Secret Life of Algorithms - Algorithms are usually the instructions, the programs, that run computers. Since both computers and Life are information machines of different kinds, it is useful to discuss the operation of both biological and human systems with the same term.