More Complex

February 21, 2014

I’ve been thinking about a passage from a story all week.

The story was “Immersion”, by Aliette de Bodard, and I read it via the Escape Pod-cast, last weekend; mostly while walking out in the snow on Sunday morning. It’s a great tale about technology and culture, but the passage is this:

“[It was] conceived by a Galactic mind… every logical connection within it exudes a mindset that might as well be alien to these girls. It takes a Galactic to believe that you can take a whole culture and reduce it to algorithms; that language and customs can be boiled to just a simple set of rules. For these girls, things are so much more complex than this… they’ll never ever think like that.”

Maybe I’ve got the Galactic mindset already, because what I immediately thought after listening to that passage was “Does it make sense to talk about ANYTHING being ‘more complex’ than algorithms?” I’m not talking about particular algorithms here, but about the concept of ‘algorithms’ in the abstract.

If you’re not familiar with the term, an ‘algorithm’ is a defined set of rules for solving a problem, suitable for a computer to follow. (Though you don’t have to be a computer to use them; most recipes for baking or cooking are algorithms, for instance, as well as driving directions or other instructions to give to people.) In the field of software and computing, an algorithm is generally distinct from the specific program written in a particular programming language which implements it.

And not all algorithms are simple, by any means. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are algorithms used by Google, for instance, so complicated that no one person understands all the details of them, only the broad outline and their particular specialty component. Algorithms can, in theory, solve a lot of problems if they’re provided with the right information. There’s a field within computer science about unsolvable problems, or problems that we suspect can’t be solved without taking too much time to be practical beyond simple cases, but even then, you can get a long way with the right algorithm if you let go of the idea of the ‘perfect’ solution and are satisfied with something in the right ballpark.

And when it comes down to it, I don’t really think we, as people, have special powers in our minds that computers could never match or compare to. The human brain is a wonderful thing, yes, and we haven’t written algorithms that can math a lot of what we can accomplish. But that’s just because we’ve been working for thousands of years at culture, language, and customs, and only a few hundred years at writing algorithms.

I can’t wait to see what we come up with next. Though if we succeed in making computer programs that can write their own software and fiction, I may be out of work for a while. 😉

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