Physical Intelligence

About a month ago, the web was all agog over the announcement of DARPA’s Physical Intelligence program — Wired wrote:

The idea behind Darpa’s latest venture, called “Physical Intelligence” (PI) is to prove, mathematically, that the human mind is nothing more than parts and energy. In other words, all brain activities — reasoning, emoting, processing sights and smells — derive from physical mechanisms at work, acting according to the principles of “thermodynamics in open systems.” Thermodynamics is founded on the conversion of energy into work and heat within a system (which could be anything from a test-tube solution to a planet). The processes can be summed up in formalized equations and laws, which are then used to describe how systems react to changes in their surroundings.

Now, the military wants a new equation: one that explains the human mind as a thermodynamic system. Once that’s done, they’re asking for “abiotic, self-organizing electronic and chemical systems” that display the PI principles. More than just computers that think, Darpa wants to re-envision how thought works — and then design computers whose thought processes are governed by the same laws as our own.

I’m currently at the Proposer’s Workshop for the program, and it turns out that what they’re actually talking about is a lot more like cybernetics. The “thermodynamics” they are talking about is a bit more like the entropy in information theory (Shannon, you will remember, was a student of Wiener, founder of cybernetics). The term cybernetics itself isn’t much used anymore but the reason is more historical than anything else — there was a strange soap opera that broke up the intellectual cadre of cybernetics in the 50s for personal reasons, and computers and symbolic AI stepped into the vacuum, but the core discoveries are still valid.

There’s a chapter about cybernetics in Beyond AI, including the soap opera.

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