Some thoughts on alignment in belief space. 


A nagging question for me is why phase locking, a naturally occurring phenomenon, was selected for to produce collective intelligence instead of something else. My intuition is that building communities using rules of physical and cognitive alignment takes advantage of randomness to produce a good balance of explore/exploit behaviors in the population.

Flocking depends on the ability to align, based on a relationship with neighbors. The ease of alignment is proportional to two things (I think).

  1. A low number of dimensions. The fewer the dimensions, the easier the alignment. It is easier to get a herd of cattle to stampede in a slot canyon than an open field. This is the fundamental piece.
  2. A contributing factor to the type of collective behavior is the turning rate with respect to velocity. The easier it is to turn, the easier it is to flock. It’s no accident that starlings, a small, nimble bird, can produce murmurations. Larger birds, such as geese, have much less dynamic formations.

This applies to belief space as well. It is easier for people to agree when a concept is simplified. Similarly, the pattern of consensus will reflect the groups’ overall acceptance or resistance to change. I think this is a critical difference between a progressive and a reactionary. 

Within an established population that exhibits collective behavior, there should be two things then:

  1. A shared perception of a low-dimension physical/belief space
  2. A similar velocity and turning rate between individuals

I’m going to assume that like in most populations, these qualities have a normal distribution. There will be a majority that have very common dimension perception, velocity, and turning rates. There will also be individuals at either tail of the population. At one end, there will be those who see the world very simply. At the other, there will be those who see complexity where the majority don’t. At one end, there will be those who cannot adapt to any change. At the other, there will be those who hold no fixed opinion on anything.

Flocking depends, on alignment. But the individuals at the extremes will have difficulty staying with the relative safety of the flock. This means that there will be selection pressures. Those individuals who oversimplify and are unable to change direction should be selected against. When it’s more important to attend to your neighbors that find food, things don’t end well. What happens at the other end?

There is one tail of this population that produces nimble individuals that perceive a greater complexity in the world. They also have difficulty staying with the flock, because their patterns of behavior are influenced by things that they perceive that the rest of the flock does not. In cooperative game theory, this ‘noticing too much’ disrupts the common frames (alignment) that groups use to make implicit decisions (page 14).

I believe that these individuals become explorers. Explorers are also selected against, but not as much. The additional perception provides a better understanding of potential threats. Nimbleness helps to prevent getting caught. These explores provide an extended footprint for the population, which means greater resilience if the primary population encounters problems.

A population can rebuild from an explorer diaspora. Initially, the population will consist of too many explorers, and will have poor collective behaviors, but over time, selection pressures will push the mean so that there is sufficient alignment for flocking, but not so much that there is regular stampeding.

A final thought. There is no reason that these selection pressures exist only on populations that use genes to control their evolution. Looked at, for example, a machine learning context, the options can be restated (loosely) in statistical language:

  1. Nomadic: Overfit to the environment terms and underfit to the social term
  2. Flocking: Fit with rough equivalence to the environmental and social terms
  3. Stampede: Overfit to the social term and underfit to the environmental term

Since it is always computationally more efficient to align tightly with a population that is moving in the right direction (it’s copying your answers from your classmates), there will always be pressure to move towards stampedes. The resiliency offered by nomadic exploration is a long term investment that does not have a short term payoff. The compromise of flocking gives most of the benefits of either extreme, but it is a saddle point, always under the threat of unanticipated externalities.

When intelligent machines come, they will not be tuned by millions of years of evolution to be resilient, to have all those non-optimal behaviors that “even the odds”, should something unforeseen happen. At least initially, they will be constructed to provide the highest possible return on investment. And, like high-frequency trading systems, stampedes, in the form of bubbles and crashes will happen.

We need to understand this phenomena much more thoroughly, and begin to incorporate concepts like diversity and limited social influence horizons into our designs.


One thought on “Some thoughts on alignment in belief space. 

  1. Pingback: Phil 1.10.18 | viztales

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