The Computational Beauty of Nature
Computer Explorations of Fractals, Chaos,
Complex Systems, and Adaptation

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Selected Excerpts - Section 18.0

[ preface | section 4.2 | section 10.0 | section 18.0 | section 22.0 ]

Section 18.0: Natural and Analog Computation

A technique succeeds in mathematical physics, not by a clever trick, or a happy accident, but because it expresses some aspect of a physical truth.

--O. G. Sutton

What is important is that complex systems, richly cross-connected internally, have complex behaviours, and that these behaviours can be goal-seeking in complex patterns.

--W. Ross Ashby

I see the world in very fluid, contradictory, emerging, interconnected terms, and with that kind of circuitry I just don't feel the need to say what is going to happen or will not happen.

--Jerry Brown

Soap bubbles, the mechanism behind associative memory, and approximate solutions to combinatorial optimization problems all share a common trait. Let's start with soap bubbles. With some soap, water, a small circular wand, and a good gust of breath, you can create a large number of bubbles, limited only by the endurance of your diaphragm and the volume of your lungs. Now, in your mind's eye, slow down the process of how a single bubble is made. It starts with a thin film of soap-water stretched across the circular opening of the wand. You exhale a sufficient amount of air to force the film to expand outward. As the film expands, it envelops more and more of the air that you exhale, taking on an oval-like shape. Eventually, a combination of air pressure and surface tension forces the end of the expanding film near the wand to contract. The film collapses into a point and the bubble breaks away.

Here is the interesting part. When the bubble is first formed, it is not in the shape of a sphere. Instead, the bubble may contain imperfections, making it elongated along one or more directions. With an elastic snap, the bubble wobbles back and forth, expanding and contracting along different directions, to finally coalesce into a near perfect sphere. But why does the bubble seem to ``want'' to be in a sphere? Why doesn't it look like a cube, pyramid, or football? Like a rubber band, a film of soap-water can be stretched but, given the option, rubber bands and soap films will always ``prefer'' to be in an unstretched state. Moreover, within the interior of a soap bubble there is a constant volume of air. Putting these two facts together, we see that the soap bubble has two conflicting goals that it must come to terms with before it can reach a ``relaxed'' state: It ``wants'' to minimize its surface area so as to minimize the amount that it is stretched while simultaneously maintaining a constant volume. Among the countless number of shapes that one could imagine a bubble taking, there is exactly one form that minimizes surface area while preserving volume, and that shape is a perfect sphere.

Flash back to your first course in physics and to some of the dynamical system ideas from Part III. If energy is the potential for change, then placing a ball on the top of a hill results in a system in a high energy state; that is, if we slightly perturb the ball, it will roll down the hill, resulting in a low-energy system. Similarly, a soap bubble in any shape other than a sphere is in a high energy state. As the bubble changes from non-sphere to sphere shape, it may overshoot the desired goal and temporarily move in the wrong direction, just as a rolling ball can be carried beyond the low point of a valley to momentarily move uphill. Balls can temporarily move uphill as long as they have sufficient momentum to do so. Momentum is responsible for the wavy motion that a bubble experiences as well.

The total amount of energy in either of these two systems is the sum of the potential energy---the height of the ball or the ``unsphereness'' of the bubble---and the kinetic energy, that is, the momentum of the moving portions of the systems. With this definition of total energy, a dissipative system will always move from a state of higher energy into a state of lower energy, and it will never go uphill. The energy doesn't just disappear, however. Instead, it is transformed and moved outside of the system, usually as friction but ultimately as heat. So when we say that the bubble ``wants'' to be in the shape of a sphere and that it ``prefers'' to be unstretched, we are really saying that all systems tend toward low energy states as time goes by. The energy low point for the system is the ``relaxed'' state.

But what has any of this to do with associative memory and combinatorial optimization problems? The lowly bubble and the mundane ball both turn out to be useful metaphors for distributed dynamical systems that can compute interesting things. Recall that the bubble ``wanted'' to minimize its surface area. Surface area is not a property of soap-water molecules, but of an entire soap film. Yet each molecule in a soap solution interacts only with a relatively small number of neighboring molecules. Hence, a global property---surface area---is minimized by only local interactions. Similarly, global properties such as the collection of neural activations that compose a distributed memory or the solution to an optimization problem may emerge from only local interactions.

In the remainder of this chapter we will examine artificial neural networks with fixed synapses that can act as associative memories and find approximate solutions to combinatorial optimization problems. In each case, we will be able to use a formula to set the synaptic strength of the neural networks; hence, learning, that is, the process of adaptively changing synaptic strength based on experience, will not be covered in this chapter. After looking at the neural network models we will once again turn our attention to energy surfaces to see how all of these things are similar.

[ preface | section 4.2 | section 10.0 | section 18.0 | section 22.0 ]
Copyright © Gary William Flake, 1998-2002. All Rights Reserved. Last modified: 30 Nov 2002