Computational, cognitive and decision-making: how many monsters are stirring up science

Computational, cognitive and decision-making: how many monsters are stirring up science

Satan, as we know, likes to hide in details. Even in one letter of the alphabet. For example, at the end of an Internet executable program string: d stands for daemon.

Anyone who has exchanged e-mail messages has had to deal with the mailer daemon, a fake ghost that announces the bad consequences of sending emails to an unreachable address or jammed mailbox. And that’s not all: Various little freaks manage online games, live behind the scenes of search engines, sorting cookies by preference. There are more monsters on the server farm than in all the Gothic churches in Europe. They are the ones who run the digital cloud, doing the background work automatically.

The name does not come from the slang of first-generation sulfurous hackers, but from the pandemic model of Oliver Selfridge, an English researcher at MIT in Boston who designed a system to propel computers toward artificial intelligence in the 1960s. which was organized as a crowd. Dante’s devil who shouts at a supreme devil to make himself heard from his cybernetic pit: computational monsters, cognitive monsters, monsters that deal with data and images; And a judgment demon, above all.

Selfridge imported his devils-programs from 19th-century physics—paradoxically, the era of positivism. Specifically, the Cybernetic Daemon is the descendant of a fictional creature that has fascinated and cursed generations of scientists. And also writer, philosopher, pop musician, director. This is Maxwell’s obscure, painstaking, subtle, infected Imp. Joe Mob, in his many incarnations, pages from the essay by Jimena Canales The Shadow of the Devil – A History of the Monsters of Science, published by Bolti Boringieri. The little devil makes its first appearance in an 1867 paper written by James Clerk-Maxwell (considered one of the three great gods of modern physics, along with Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein).

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Scottish scientists describe a thought experiment in which a creature with such a strong ability is able to follow the motion of each molecule, operated inside a container, which is filled with gas and divided into two compartments. In its first version this theoretical character can only open and close a door, which is enough to accommodate all the hot molecules in one compartment, the cold ones in the other. Thus violating the second law of thermodynamics and arresting the entropy of the system. The implications are not insignificant: in this way it would be possible to achieve perpetual motion. A diabolical undertaking, indeed. Maxwell’s titular being becomes a demon a few years later, when Lord Kelvin qualified him in “nature”, thinking of the daemon of ancient Greek mythology and philosophy, a figure, little mediator between the human and celestial worlds. , a small door guard.

The little devil of thermodynamics precedes other scientific monsters, apparently more powerful, but less versatile and adaptable. The first is Descartes’s Malignum Genium, conceived by the philosopher of the scientific method in 1641: he is the great deceiver, capable of banishing the reality of the world and portraying the other as a singular baroque viewer. Capable of the trick of illusion, he can mislead the senses, but scientific inquiry is able to tear the background away. Famous for the exorcism: “Kogito Ergo Yoga”. I think that’s why I exist. In a certain sense, Descartes’ mystic is the progenitor of virtual and augmented reality, of fake news, of media traps that feed prejudice, Canales argues.

The Cartesian demon is followed by the hyper-natural intelligence of Pierre-Simon Laplace, a hardened mathematician and political transformationist, from Napoleon’s minister to the Marquis with the Bourbon Restoration. It is a deterministic demon who knows the position of every atom in the universe from beginning to end. It presents Einstein’s theory of time as one dimension, but is steeped in quantum paradoxes. These scientific demons are relatives of their eras: Descartes’ evil genius recalls the Gnostic Demurges he saved during the Renaissance; Laplace’s unit suggests the Supreme Being, the enlightened deity of the French Revolution. Maxwell’s Devil recounts the Scottish and Irish legends of goblins and Elves, the “little people” protagonists of the poems of William Butler Yeats and the Gothic tales of Arthur Macken.

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Compared to other scientific freaks, Maxwell’s existence demonstrates extraordinary vitality. The closest “sprites”, such as Camille Flammarion’s lightning-fast lumens and Albert Einstein’s elevator demons, had more opaque existences. The Little Devil, on the other hand, becomes more and more nimble, attributed to him the power to change the chemistry of celestial bodies, to reverse the course of time: he has survived various exorcism – at best. Known as Szilard-, he immersed himself in Quanta and has recently found applications in nanotechnology and a photon machine capable of recharging batteries. Somebody slipped it into the mechanisms of the blockchain, the vaults of cryptocurrencies. Stephen Hawking sits them at the edge of a black hole’s event horizon to explain the loss of information about particles being ingested by a cosmic monster.

Yes, Satan creates energy but consumes information. And it flows into the literature: Thomas Pynchon puts her inside the Nephastis machine, which though only works with a psychic; Stanisaw Lemm describes it as a bargaining chip for a space pirate. The Velvet Goldmine Band dedicated a ballad to him, and perhaps this little creature inspired one of the lesser known Beatles songs, “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”.

According to Karl Popper, Maxwell’s demon will overtake us all. At least as long as scientists are there to imagine it as a challenge, a flexible question mark that moves the hand of the unknown to which the Homo imagineer quoted by Canales is irresistibly attracted. Thus Maxwell’s little devil shows that he has the demonic power of superiority, to induce temptation.


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