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Complexity Is Not Always a Bad Thing

It allows us to have an intellectual life

In a recent podcast, neurosurgeon Michael Egnor and engineering prof Robert J. Marks discussed the difference between a bag of jigsaw puzzle pieces and a text message like “The city will get your car towed if you do not move it within the next 8 minutes”:

Got your attention? That’s precisely what information does. It gets your attention. But what is information? How did those characters in a text message become important to you? Weren’t they just a string of letters and numbers? What, exactly, changed?

A partial transcript follows. The Show Notes and a full transcript are available below.

Robert J. Marks: In terms of meaningful information, I think it’s obvious. Michael, they used to say that it doesn’t take a brain surgeon to answer this or it doesn’t take a rocket scientist. Well, it turns out you’re a brain surgeon and I’ve done work for NASA and I got an NASA Tech Brief award. I guess that makes me a rocket scientist. So I think for both of us, the answer is obvious, yeah, that Mount Rushmore contains more information than does Mount Fuji. And it’s clear from the context that this refers to meaningful information. There’s more meaningful information on Mount Rushmore. There’s Lincoln and Roosevelt and Washington, and yep, what do we get? Well, if we get Mount Fuji, we just get a big chocolate gum drop. So yeah, there’s obviously more information on one than the other.

Michael Egnor (pictured): And we had spoken in a previous podcast about different types of information. Can we say what type of information the additional information on Mount Rushmore is?

Robert J. Marks: Well, yeah. This is an interesting question. Suppose we have two DVDs, both of which have the same storage capacity. One has the movie Braveheart. one has just random noise. Both take the same amount of bytes. Can we say that the DVD of Mel Gibson’s Braveheart has more information than the noise? Yes, absolutely if you talk about meaningful information.

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Information is the currency of life. But what IS it? How do we understand information in a universe that resists resolution into one single, simple system? The information in living things is directed toward purposes in a way that we don’t see in non-living things. The word for that is creativity.

Show Notes

  • 00:37 | Mount Rushmore vs. Mount Fuji
  • 05:11 | Specified complexity
  • 10:38 | How does a statue of Abraham Lincoln differ from Abraham Lincoln himself?
  • 13:18 | Achieving goals
  • 17:28 | Robots improving themselves
  • 19:10 | Bias and concealment in artificial intelligence
  • 20:59 | Mimetic contagion
  • 24:49 | Dangers of artificial intelligence

Additional Resources

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Complexity Is Not Always a Bad Thing