• Correlations without correlata

    by  • June 15, 2011 • News • 1 Comment

    I recently came across an interesting paper on quantum information theory outlining exactly why superluminal communications via quantum entanglement – so-called “spooky action-at-a-distance” – is impossible. If you’ve got some time and an interest in popular science I highly recommend it.

    In the paper, the author makes reference to the idea that physical reality is merely illusion and that the only truly “real” thing about our existence is the communication and transfer of information between entities. The idea that we’re merely informational constructs in a higher-level simulation of sorts begs the question: who exactly is running the simulation? And for what purpose?

    If you’re like me and don’t work with quantum information theory on a daily basis, this may come across as incredibly unintuitive and rather baseless; it sounds like something that you’d hear from an adolescent’s aimless musings, not from some of the most prominent physicists of our time. It may surprise you that this view of reality is the dominant one accepted by most theoretical physicists. This paper in particular has been passed around for some time already; the reaction from physicists tends to be surprise that anyone finds the ideas contained within the paper a surprise. Within the QIT community, these ideas are already considered obvious. All of this came as a pretty huge surprise to me.

    Aside from being blown away by the explanation of some of the quantum-mechanical phenomena that I’ve been hearing about for so long (with significant amounts of misinformation, it seems), the paper really got me thinking about the idea of correlations without correlata in modern society. I recently finished a re-watch of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, which talked in depth about this very concept. In GitS, the idea is addressed from a sociological standpoint; the series asks the question “how can societies and law enforcement in particular adapt to a futuristic society where the sheer complexity and volume of digital networks makes it impossible to seek out a social phenomenon’s source?” Interestingly enough, GitS doesn’t provide a definitive answer; you see Section 9, the law enforcement agency that the protagonists belong to, struggle to deal with a series of hysteria-provoked crimes where they’re not even sure that the originating incident had a physical perpetrator (hence the subtitle Stand Alone Complex). In the end, they have to rely on mistakes consciously committed by the originator in the physical world to track him down, and even then they barely manage to pull the case together.

    The reason all of this is relevant is that we’re fast approaching the time where the idea of correlations without correlata and the “Stand Alone Complex” become very real. Already huge portions of the net are simply untraceable and unmonitored; in addition, every day we’re losing huge portions of our digital and cultural history to negligence. Just look at the efforts made by Google to save the early history of newsgroups; if one person had not made that seemingly-irrational decision to archive everything he could, we would have lost immense portions of the history of some of the first complex networks to exist on the net.

    Some people out there might wonder why this is such a big deal, and why preserving as much as we can of our history is so necessary. The reason should be obvious – the very basis of our knowledge today rests on our ability to learn from mistakes we made in the past. That’s why we don’t use leeches in medicine anymore. That’s why we earthquake-proof homes in California and Japan (or why we know how to do this). We’re also incredibly bad judges of what will happen in the future; look at what people thought 2010 might look like in 1990, and you start to get a sense of this. Who’s to know what will be important for us to know or remember in ten years. Twenty? Our very survival as a race depends on our ability to remember what we’ve been through before, and with the advent of digital communications, we’re losing our ability to do just that.


    I'm the owner of this blog and an undergraduate mathematics student at the University of Chicago. I get really fired up about machine learning, policy, statistics, and public health.


    • Old Git Tom

      This is pretty much consistent with conclusions from the direction of info from history, politics, & philosophy. Ie., sapiens is an information-processing organism which came into distinct being with language – marked off from the signalling of animals, which is a qualtatively & quantitatively inferior transmitter of info. So it is futile to consider human beings as discrete individuals divorced from their social milieu.
      More radical & provisional: information is the fifth state of matter (not that the old concept of matter ‘matters’ much here!). Eg., DNA is primarily coded info, not chemical.
      Information is a standalone entity for certain conceptual purposes. Contingently, it is always info about ‘something’, & needs an embodiment as medium of transmission. This is the kind of paradox we commonly meet with in conjugate variables. Eg., we readily accept the notion of a geometric point as a location w/out area, even if that entails a contradiction. Eg2., this explains why pure logic (as in math) can lead to contradiction. W/out informatonal content/load, logic loses its necessary, anthropomorphic connexion; why there can ultimately be no ‘objective’ world/facts separate from humans.
      Extending this line of thought is interesting, for some, tho there are penalties for the academic iconoclast that the wanderer may become, if s/he follows it.