What Does it Mean to be Alive?
To find out, we go back to the beginning
Every organism alive today, including you and me, can trace its history in an unbroken chain of successful survivors - 4 billion years, back to the first Knowledge Constructor.
Can AI be alive? The complexity of our human lives is increasing faster than ever before. Our worldview is changing. Cause and effect are often not at all clear. We are questioning everything and searching for understanding. Who are we as a species? Where did we come from, how did we get to where we are and where in the heck are we going?
The agricultural and industrial revolutions expanded our access to resources of food and energy. The information revolution is expanding our access to information energy and resources. But what exactly is “information energy?” And how does information define what it means to be alive?
I have discovered a basic and simple formula based on information and energy that makes life possible in all its forms and complexity.
In this article, I lay out the basics of the Knowledge Constructor as a fulcrum for an ongoing discussion of how our modern world works and why we behave the way we do and where we might be going.
Spoiler alert - this is a semi-technical article, and I won’t be offended if it’s not your cup of tea. However, it is the foundation for what I will be talking about in the future, like how sex created Facebook.
Meet the Knowledge Constructor
At the 2017 Constructal Law and Second Law Conference on Thermodynamics in Bucharest, Romania, I presented and published my Constructal Theory of Information, proposing an archetypical life form called the “Knowledge Constructor.” Read the original paper here. For simplicity, capital “L” Life represents “all living organisms.”
The combination of information and energy defines the minimum requirements for Life to exist. The Knowledge Constructor combines the fundamental principle of all information machines with the energy harvesting and management required to create a self-sustaining life form.
Life uses knowledge to create and process information, know things, make decisions, and it uses energy to construct a physical body that can harvest sufficient energy to survive, grow, reproduce, and evolve.
What the Knowledge Constructor must accomplish:
These previous articles are the path leading to the Knowledge Constructor. You may want to refer to them as background for this article.
The Third Law of Life - Use information and knowledge to accomplish the first two laws.
In addition to these basic principles, every living thing must undertake the essential high-risk investments necessary to create a successful species that endures over time:
The path to success is constrained by the fundamentals of information and energy:
It’s a slow process to change physical information mechanisms, as in DNA mutations or the development of new physical features, e.g., better eyes. It took two billion years for Life to evolve photosynthesis and the cyanobacteria that generated the oxygen that makes today’s life possible two billion years later.
The ability to learn from experience is a much faster and more energy-efficient method to improve individual performance. Shared learning enhances the fitness of the species by multiplying knowledge. Effective communication is essential.
Humans have mastered the compounding of knowledge and are realizing exponentially greater returns on the energy required to create new knowledge. Of course, this requires exponentially increasing supplies of energy and resources.
The most fundamental driver of LIfe is the constant search for more energy and resources. Life expands its domains until all available energy and resources are consumed.
Growing larger in size often confers an advantage, but too much is detrimental.
Abundant reproduction statistically improves survival, but too many offspring create competition for resources, even among the same species. Reproduction is an energy-intensive drain for the parent, with no immediate compensation.
Evolutionary progress trends toward improved energy efficiency, e.g., birds get streamlined and customized wings. At every level, Life evolves within “an envelope of thermodynamic possibility.”
Specialization and dependency
As populations increase, resource limits are reached. Organisms either get together to cooperate or struggle to compete. They evolve to get smarter and stronger. They band together and specialize, creating the “superorganisms” that dominate today's Earth.
Each superorganism inherits the job and the motivations of the Knowledge Constructor on behalf of its dependent organisms. The trillion or so cells in our human bodies depend on us to go out and harvest energy to feed them and then build wealth so that we and them together can grow, reproduce, and evolve. We and our cells are all subject to the same Laws of Life.
So, how does the Knowledge Constructor work?
As the base algorithm for Life, the Knowledge Constructor must have core skills and components. Leave one out, and it doesn’t work at all. (See The Secret Life of Algorithms)
For the Knowledge Constructor to function as a life form, all of the following components must be included:
To receive energy from the environment, sensors are needed. For humans, these include light, touch, smell, sound, and taste, etc. Other life forms may have additional types of sensors.
Sensed energy patterns are compared with memory. If recognized, information - what we also call meaning - is created.
Incoming information is combined with stored information, either new or old, to create ideas and knowledge.
A useful mental model of the world. Knowledge can be thoughts stored in a mind, written in a book, stored in DNA codes, etc. It can be transmitted from one individual to another or many at once. Knowledge is an information construct that Life uses to translate thoughts into physical action.
Knowledgeable action allows Life to predict how, when, and where more energy can be harvested. Successful predictions build experience and potentially energy wealth. Learning compounds knowledge, which is the key to how Life continuously increases its ability to improve survival and harvest energy.
Capability for physical action
To do things in the real world, the Knowledge Constructor must translate knowledge into physical actions - the mind must control the body. It needs the knowledge of what it is looking for, where to find it, and how to coordinate its movements.
Physical actions require the expenditure of energy. They must, on average, produce an energetic gain that can be stored as wealth for future needs. See The Second Law of Life - Make a Profit
Sense, Think, and Do is the mantra of Life.
The Knowledge Constructor principle is repeated in an endless variety of forms, materials, and functions. The complex Life that we see today results from specialization. Hierarchies of information and energy dependency have evolved. However, it’s not yet clear how the components of the first Knowledge Constructor were assembled from the raw materials of the universe. It’s a mystery that reveals how little we really understand about the universe that we live in. There is much to look forward to in our human progress.
If you are interested in a deep dive into a modern knowledge constructor, click here. C elegans is a 1mm long nematode with exactly 302 neurons in its entire brain and a life span of a few weeks. It’s a fascinating story of how information and energy can create a physically simple but astonishingly complex and sophisticated creature, which has survived more than 60 million years and populated every part of the globe.
Origin of the Knowledge Constructor Principle
The Turing Machine
In the 1920s, a famous mathematician named David Hilbert proposed a series of unanswered questions for mathematics. Among them was the question of “computability.” It was clear that mechanical calculators could be built to solve specific problems, but solving a different problem required redesigning the machine. Could a single machine be designed to solve ANY math equation?
In 1936, A young graduate student, Alan Turing, took on the challenge and, in short order, created the “Turing Machine,” which was based on nothing more than a conceptual mechanical typewriter that could read, write, or erase symbols on a paper tape. With it, a program of instructions could be loaded, and any problem could be computed. It worked, and with Turing’s proof in hand, the race was on to build working electronic computers.
While the Turing Machine architecture was explicitly applied to computers, the principle he articulated was, in fact, the fundamental operating principle of all information machines, including the Knowledge Constructor. It’s important to note that while all information machines work by manipulating symbols, Life is NOT a digital computer and does not process information in the same way.
The Knowledge Constructor
Like the Turing Machine for computers, the Knowledge Constructor provides a simple model from which all life could evolve - information + energy.
In practice, Life got together, communicated, specialized, and began building knowledge-based biological tools to manufacture body parts like cells, shells, claws, legs, eyes, fins, wings, etc. We humans contain billions of information machines running our lives and making all the parts necessary to keep us alive.
And just like the rest of Life, we humans build knowledge-based tools and machines to enable and expand our human capabilities to harvest energy, grow, reproduce and evolve.
Humans are inexorably driven by the same built-in drives and information processes that motivate every living thing on this Earth - the Laws of Life.
The epic journey of evolution is long, slow and dangerous. There are no guarantees, only the possibilities that we the living create for ourselves.
Every living person, animal, plant, fungi, and bacteria can trace their ancestry in an unbroken chain of survivors all the way back to the first Life. Your and my ancestors survived and reproduced without oxygen for more than two billion years. They learned how to make oxygen and then learned how to breathe it. They evolved during the Cambrian Explosion, developed backbones, lived as fish, crawled up onto land, and survived global extinctions like the Deccan Traps and the comet strike that wiped out the dinosaurs. They developed warm blood and fur. They learned to care for their young and pioneered intelligence as a way to get ahead. And we, the living today, carry the torch of life in our hands, passed from survivor to survivor on the 4 billion year journey of life - forward into the unknown future.
Don’t forget - for a deeper dive, Meet C. elegans - a modern Knowledge Constructor with a 60 million year record of survival.
With this brief introduction to the Knowledge Constructor and the Laws of Life, the stage is set. We can now move on to fill in the bigger pictures, including:
How sex created Facebook
The evolution of sexual reproduction opened the age of species that are defined primarily by their communication and cooperation, not just their DNA. Schools of fish, colonies of ants, and wolf packs exemplify socially bonded species. Humans developed information technology to create social species, including tribes, city-states, nation-states, religions, companies, Facebook, etc. These social species share the same motivations and behaviors as the lowly Knowledge Constructor.
Life is a vast sea of nested hierarchies of information machines, which group together and specialize to form superorganisms. Our cells cooperate to keep our personal superorganism body working, and we do our best to take care of their needs. How this happens is one of the most exciting stories being revealed by leading-edge biologists.
Machines as human life forms
For thousands of years, people have built machines that incorporate parts of the Knowledge Constructor, with human operators filling in the missing pieces, usually logic and memory. We think of them as machines, but as I will demonstrate, they are an integral part of Life itself. Now, with the advent of AI, the distinction between humans and our machines is blurring and creating a new worldview.
What powers evolution? How did it start?
Life is not defined by what it is made of but by how it behaves. Through new insights, including The Constructal Law of Physics and Assembly Theory, we learn that energetic flow, interaction with matter, and history are integral to the evolution of life and the universe itself. With these new tools, we can begin to speculate about how life might have started from inanimate materials.
The Cosmological perspective
What part do we humans play in the vast cosmos that we have been privileged to catch a glimpse of?
Since we exist, is the potential to create life baked into the universe?
Will all life work on the same principle as life here on Earth?
Does the Knowledge Constructor reveal a universal law of nature?
Thanks for reading The HeyerScope: I Think I See! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.