Introduction to Instructions

A subject one reads surprisingly little about is the centrality of instructions to understanding the world we live in. The concept of instruction use is at the same time both obvious and profound. All objects (and behaviors) can be divided into two categories, I call them type I and type II. Type II things require instructions for their formation, without instructions they never come into being. All type II things are products of living organisms (including the organisms themselves) or products of human ingenuity and inventiveness. Type I encompasses everything else. I have no doubt that if we ever discover intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, the worlds of those creatures will also be characterized by type II objects.  Why do I say this? Because without instructions, natural processes are too restrictive, too many complex (and useful) things simply cannot be achieved. The laws of chemistry and physics allow the formation of many wondrous things, but without instructions, most possibilities are beyond reach.

Type II objects are no less dependent on the laws of chemistry and physics than type I objects, but they also require something else, extra information for their formation. I like to call this extra information “instructions”, but algorithms, recipes, or blueprints also describe it. I think it is fair to say that anything permitted by the laws of chemistry and physics can be achieved if the proper instructions can be acquired and used. Without instructions, the possibilities are much more limited. Without using instructions, the universe has produced galaxies, stars, planets, weather, geology, even originated life. But the intricacies we observe in our world today are mostly dependent on instructions.

On the planet earth, instruction use is everywhere: all products of human technology require them and all living things are dependent on them (in the form of DNA). Without instructions, the Earth would be like Mars with water.

Recognition of the central role of instructions in our world, immediately raises the question of where instructions come from. For living organisms, the answer is pretty clear, every organism carries DNA molecules within its cells that encode information (instructions) required for the organism’s creation. The origin of those DNA sequences is three and a half billion years of evolution. For human made instructions, the answer seems at first blush to be even clearer, people thought them up. But is that really an explanation? “Thinking up” is not a recognized scientific mechanism. To understand the mechanism, we need to understand how the human brain works, and that is understanding we don’t currently have.

One can deduce something about the relevant brain processes by examining the requirements for producing new instructions. Instructions are characterized by information and long instructions encode a lot of it. Information must be accounted for, you can’t just conjure it up out of thin air. Computational theory tells us that information can come from just two sources: preexisting information and randomness. Randomness can be thought of as encompassing all possibilities, but is an unwieldy hard to use source. Preexisting information is much easier to use, but it is limited to things that are already known. Clearly human made instructions include things that were not known long ago. This observation suggests that the brain has a mechanism for acquiring new information (i.e. new to the world or even to the universe).

The evolutionary computation is a powerful way of extracting useful information from randomness. This is illustrated by the one-max problem whose behavior is explained on pages 153-158 of my book The Engine of Complexity, Evolution as Computation. In fact, evolutionary computation is such a powerful mechanism for extracting useful information from randomness, if the human brain employs this strategy, that fact alone would largely solve the problem of how we are able to create new instructions.

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