A December working group focuses on how the interaction of information and energy, through computing, shapes social systems. (image: H. Lyman Saÿen/Smithsonian)

The word “computation” doesn’t only apply to today’s laptops, phones, and other devices. It can describe almost any machine or system that uses energy to transmit, store, or transform information of all kinds. Living systems, from cells to organisms to ecosystems, can be seen as carrying out computation.

Researchers at SFI and beyond have long explored ways that both biological and physical systems compute at a range of magnitudes. At the smallest scales, information about survival drives the machinery of individual cells. Zooming out — in terms of size and complexity — can reveal computational processes where information shapes social animal behavior and even the dynamics of evolution.

Human societies, too, have been shaped by the exchange, flow, and transformation of information, say SFI Professor David Wolpert, a physicist, and Fractal Faculty member Kyle Harper, a historian at the University of Oklahoma. But understanding how those mechanisms work remains something of an open question.

Wolpert and Harper are organizing a working group, to be held December 11–15, 2023, that focuses on how the interaction of information and energy, through computing, shapes social systems. The meeting follows a March 2023 working group that laid the groundwork for this emerging area.

“Human societies have tended to increase in complexity over time,” says Harper. Two thousand years ago, the global population was about 300 million. Last November, it likely passed 8 billion, according to the United Nations. That growth has led to complex societies and an uptick in energy consumption, interwoven with increasing computational abilities.

The physical and biological environments that humans interact with can be modeled as computers, says Wolpert. Similarly, systems that arise from dynamic human interactions are also, in a sense, computers. “Human society uses computational processes,” says Wolpert.

During the working group, researchers will explore the idea that the storage of information in human culture, and its transformation, drive its complexity. They’ll use the tools of information theory, which was born in telecommunications in the late 1940s and has yielded deep insights in other living, computing systems.

But those tools only characterize transmission, a small part of how living systems engage with information. “If we were only engaged in transmission, we could scoop out our brains and put in fiber optics,” said Wolpert. Living systems — and human societies — also store and transform information, and that process gives rise to complexity.

Harper said this line of inquiry naturally attracts diverse researchers who may enter the conversation speaking about the same ideas but using different scientific terms. “Once we try to work in the same language,” he said, “we can see what new insights might be possible.”

Read more about the working group Energy, Information, Culture: Growth in Human History