Emergence- How new features emerge through collective behavior

I think a very underrated feature of many big-picture questions we have is the feature of ’emergence’. You can picture emergence as how something may take on a whole new characteristic or form when its scale is sufficiently enlarged. The parts by themselves wouldn’t have it, the feature is only visible when taken as a whole. For example, water is wet. But is a single H2O molecule wet? How could it be- it is merely electrons and protons of two different elements existing in a weak electron bond. But you put billions of H2O molecules together in a liquid form (not solid, not gaseous)- it becomes water, and it becomes wet. 

There are universal examples to this- for example, you cannot point to a single isolated point on a leaf as making the forest look green- the greenery is just a function of millions of individual plant cells reflecting a certain spectrum of light wave and absorbing the rest through its cell membranes. Light is a feature that happens when a million photons collectively provide the feature of brightness. Features emerge with scale, in other words. There’s plenty written about emergence per se, so enough about that. 

I stumbled onto this concept by way of researching AI ethics in terms of ‘conscious AI’- the bugbear that spooks many and which many smarter people seek to dismiss as impossible and an ‘anthropomorphic’ concern- that it is silly to treat AI as human beings and assume they would also stumble into their version of consciousness. 

This made sense to me too, until Max Tegmerk’s brilliant Life 3.0 (relevant at page 364) argued that consciousness is simply subjective experience. Any non-living thing, like a self-driving car, is carrying out the inputs of its software the same way our hands shift gears as directed by inputs from our brain. Tegmerk’s argument, in short, relies on the idea that consciousness may be an ’emergent’ feature based on the vast amount of information processed and transferred throughout our nervous system. If an AI is capable of processing that much information, how can we assume that the processing of that information itself doesn’t provide a fair bit of ‘consciousness’. The link between us evolving from non-living blobs and consciousness has also been explored in some Kurzgesagt videos (here and here

Interestingly, ‘muscle memory’ is also a function of neurons firing in our brain reflexively, but cannot be said to be conscious actions- as we don’t feel ourselves subjectively experiencing doing that task, and only as having done it (past tense). Another curiosity to think about- are reflexive muscle-memory based tasks no different from a fan spinning or a word document opening, i.e., automatic actions following an established direction triggered by external stimuli? Tegmerk’s book left me questioning a lot of my assumptions on the uniqueness of humanity itself. Solid read.

Coming back to emergence itself. The feature of emergence obviously is necessary in understanding how we came to be, and what ‘conscious’ entities we may leave behind in the future. But I’d like to think of another reason to highlight its role here. The idea of emergence may singularly encapsulate words such as ‘consistency’, ‘maintenance’ in terms of fitness. One doesn’t become fit by a day’s work, but rather as a result of a system of many tiny parts working together long before the emergent feature of fitness is visible. Same goes for becoming a guitarist, learning how to cycle, dance or read words. A systemic upgrade only possible through millions of minute upgrades internally over time. It also serves as a reminder of our own power as an individual- by showing us how every individual action may seem immaterial or insignificant, but adds up through emergence. Each voice or action counts, if not by itself, but as a part seeking to find or serve a whole- the intended purpose.

These are not new concepts, of course. But I thought it was noteworthy how such a core concept could have universal application in explaining the dynamics of nature, the history of our universe, evolution, and consciousness; while also laying down a marker in terms of behavioral or societal encouragement. It also felt that being aware of this feature may help get us through those times when results aren’t immediately visible or apparent- they are, and every small part matters.  

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