What is Emergence? Ask the Ants
What is Emergence?
Put simply, it is when the sum of the parts has properties not found in any of the parts. It’s the old adage, “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.”
But what does that mean?
Take the first of many examples throughout this post: water. Water is wet. But what is wetness? Individual water molecules aren’t “wet”, but somehow wetness emerges as a property of millions of water molecules interacting together. The property “wet” applies to the sum of the parts, but not the parts themselves.
The phenomena can be seen, from a more philosophical standpoint, as order arising out of chaos.
At its most basic, that is emergence. And it happens constantly, often in ways that don’t immediately come to mind.
History of Emergence
The idea of emergence, under a different name, has been around since the time of Aristotle in ancient Greece. The term itself is believed to have been coined by the psychologist G.H Lewis who said “The emergent is unlike its components…and it cannot be reduced to their sum or their difference.” Emergence is heavily tied to the study of evolution.
The idea of a paradigm shift, which you may have heard of, refers to emergence. Thomas Kuhn used it in 1962 to describe a tradition-shattering change in a discipline.
In the past three decades, we’ve entered a period of applying what we’ve learned. This means that we are begin to actively work with emergence. We seek to build software or model systems using the phenomena we’ve seen in nature. We can use simple rules to engender complex behavior.
If this all sounds more theoretical and less grounded than most scientific concepts, that’s because it is. The phenomenon of emergence is still not entirely well understood. Dedicated study to its mysteries has only just begun.
Examples of Emergence in Nature
The examples of emergence are far too numerous to list here, but it can be helpful to have some in mind. When trying to wrap your head around the concept, refer back to these.
Perhaps the most classic example of emergence is ants. Ants themselves are stupid in the sense that they can’t think. But ants are also miraculous. They can build gigantic colonies, go to war, and even farm. And yet, there’s no centralized decision making. Ants operate autonomously, responding only to the local environment and their genetics. The complexity and sophistication of an ant colony are emergent properties of the interactions of those ants.
And it’s found all throughout nature. From the ripple patterns found in sand dunes to the complex fractals of snowflakes, it’s all emergence.
Even aliveness emerges from things that are not alive. This can be considered the phenomena of life, which is in a sense an emergent property of chemistry. Atoms interact to make molecules. Molecules make proteins. Proteins make cells. Cells make tissue. Tissues makes organs. Organ make animals. At each levels, new properties emerge. Which brings us naturally to…
Examples of Emergence in Humanity
Just as humans have many emergent properties, we also interact to create emergence. Much like cells, through our interactions we create communities and civilizations. Nations have their own distinct identity with emergent properties like culture. Culture is more than just people, it is something created by their interaction.
The stock market is a great human example of emergence. There are precise regulations and rules for governing the stock market, yes. And yet, the stock market isn’t controlled by any one entity. Million of entities interact constantly to create the actual realities of the stock market.
Another is the Internet. Certain properties and rules of the internet have emerged despite no central authority. The power law – a few sites will be linked too often and most will not – is an example. So is the small-world network, where almost any site can be connected to any other through a small number of links.
Traffic is yet another good example. When hundreds and hundreds of cars are all on the road, they begin to behave in a certain way. The cars act with spontaneous order, despite being mostly non-communicative, based on shared rules.
Finally, language is a good example of how emergence can happen. People communicate using language. Sometimes people begin use language a certain way to communicate. When enough people begin using language in that way, the language changes.
Strong vs. Weak Emergence
One of the ways to understand emergence is to distinguish between weak and strong emergence. You’ve probably already been doing that with these examples. For some you might say “yes but of course people behave coherently like that.” For others, you might have been stumped to describe how something new emerges.
Weak emergence refers to predictable patterns of emergence, like traffic, or a baby being born. Rules and principles can be substitutes for a central authority and allow the system to function.
Strong emergence, on the other hand, is another story. A completely novel, unpredictable form arises. Its properties can not have been guessed from understanding what came before. Stories told on TV were not predictable from books. Systems become chaotic during strong emergence.
Order Out of Chaos
So why is this order out of chaos? Well, if everyone is at a surprise party, everyone knows where to hide. If they’re at a birthday party, they all know when to sing. These are “coherent interactions among entities following basic principles.”
In terms of application, it can be helpful to realize that simple rules are best. We don’t need to overcomplicate something in order for our rules and processes to be effective. This was one of the chief advantages of Seymour Cray designs when building the first supercomputers.
Perhaps the coolest part of emergence is that it makes us think. How can a bunch of small things create something entirely new when they interact? And yet the entire universe is built on this. It can be easy to see with physical things such as the interactions of galaxies or atoms. But that doesn’t mean it only applies there.
A great and thought-provoking question is whether consciousness is an emergent property of our brain. If so, it’s possible that a sufficiently complex artificial system could have an emergence and achieve consciousness. This would be a true instance of AI.
While well beyond our current abilities to know for sure, this will likely be one of the great areas of scientific study in the coming decades.
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