Chris Gorski in Physics Central:
Alexander Wissner-Gross, a physicist at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Cameron Freer, a mathematician at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, developed an equation that they say describes many intelligent or cognitive behaviors, such as upright walking and tool use.
The researchers suggest that intelligent behavior stems from the impulse to seize control of future events in the environment. This is the exact opposite of the classic science-fiction scenario in which computers or robots become intelligent, then set their sights on taking over the world.
The findings describe a mathematical relationship that can “spontaneously induce remarkably sophisticated behaviors associated with the human 'cognitive niche,' including tool use and social cooperation, in simple physical systems,” the researchers wrote in a paper published today in the journal Physical Review Letters.
“It's a provocative paper,” said Simon DeDeo, a research fellow at the Santa Fe Institute, who studies biological and social systems. “It's not science as usual.”
Wissner-Gross, a physicist, said the research was “very ambitious” and cited developments in multiple fields as the major inspirations.
The mathematics behind the research comes from the theory of how heat energy can do work and diffuse over time, called thermodynamics. One of the core concepts in physics is called entropy, which refers to the tendency of systems to evolve toward larger amounts of disorder. The second law of thermodynamics explains how in any isolated system, the amount of entropy tends to increase. A mirror can shatter into many pieces, but a collection of broken pieces will not reassemble into a mirror.
The new research proposes that entropy is directly connected to intelligent behavior.
“[The paper] is basically an attempt to describe intelligence as a fundamentally thermodynamic process,” said Wissner-Gross.