Month: November 2016

Digital hive mind

durham-cloistersFor many people Durham Cathedral will be familiar as a location in the Harry Potter movies.  However, for me it triggers memories of walking around the cloisters discussing Erwin Schrodinger’s arithmetical paradox: there seems to be a great number of conscious egos creating their own worlds but only one world.  Each of us appears to construct our own domain of private consciousness and Schrodinger identifies the region where they all overlap as the ‘real world around us’.  However, he raises questions such as, is my world really the same as yours?  Schrodinger proposes two solutions to the paradox: either there are a multitude of worlds with no communication between them or a unification of minds or consciousness.

Schrodinger found ‘it utterly impossible to form an idea about’ how his ‘own conscious mind should have originated by the integration of the consciousness of the cells (or some of them)’ that formed his body.  Recently this has been addressed by Susan Greenfield, who has proposed that short-lived coalitions of millions of neurons are responsible for consciousness.  These ‘neuronal assemblies’, which last for fractions of a second, link local events in individual cells with large scale events across the brain and many of ‘these assemblies flickering on and off somehow come together to provide a collective continuous experience of consciousness’.  In other words, our consciousness arises as an emergent behaviour of the myriad of interacting networks in our brain.  It seems no less fanciful that our individual minds networked together to generate a further level of emergent behaviour equivalent to the unified mind that Schrodinger conceived though, like Schrodinger, I find it utterly impossible to form an idea about how this might happen.

Perhaps, at some level we are creating a unified mind via the digital hive mind being formed by the digital devices to which we delegate some of the more mundane aspects of modern life [see my post entitled ‘Thinking out of the skull‘ on 18th March, 2015].  However, Greenfield worries about a very sinister potential impact of our digital devices, which is associated with the stimulation they provide to millions of the younger generation.  She thinks it could lead to small-scale neuronal assemblies becoming ‘the default setting in the consciousness of the digital native, to an extent it has never been in previous generations’.  In other words we might be losing the ability to create the emergent behaviour required for consciousness and shifting it to our digital devices.

Perhaps we are closer than we think to the vision in Maria Lassnig’s painting of the lady with her half of her brain outside her skull? [see my post entitled ‘Science fiction becomes virtual reality‘ on October 6th, 2016.


Erwin Schrodinger, ‘Mind and Matter – the Tarner Lectures’ in What is Life?, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967.

Susan Greenfield, A day in the life of the brain: the neuroscience of consciousness from dawn to dusk, Allen Lane, 2016.

Clive Cookson, Know your own mind, FT Weekend, 15/16 October 2016, reviewing Greenfield’s book.

Nilanjana Roy ‘What it means to be human’ FT Weekend, 17/18 September 2016.

Can you trust your digital twin?

Author's digital twin?

Author’s digital twin?

There is about a 3% probability that you have a twin. About 32 in 1000 people are one of a pair of twins.  At the moment an even smaller number of us have a digital twin but this is the direction in which computational biomedicine is moving along with other fields.  For instance, soon all aircraft will have digital twins and most new nuclear power plants.  Digital twins are computational representations of individual members of a population, or fleet, in the case of aircraft and power plants.  For an engineering system, its computer-aided design (CAD) is the beginning of its twin, to which information is added from the quality assurance inspections before it leaves the factory and from non-destructive inspections during routine maintenance, as well as data acquired during service operations from health monitoring.  The result is an integrated model and database, which describes the condition and history of the system from conception to the present, that can be used to predict its response to anticipated changes in its environment, its remaining useful life or the impact of proposed modifications to its form and function. It is more challenging to create digital twins of ourselves because we don’t have original design drawings or direct access to the onboard health monitoring system but this is being worked on. However, digital twins are only useful if people believe in the behaviour or performance that they predict and are prepared to make decisions based on the predictions, in other words if the digital twins possess credibility.  Credibility appears to be like beauty because it is in eye of the beholder.  Most modellers believe that their models are both beautiful and credible, after all they are their ‘babies’, but unfortunately modellers are not usually the decision-makers who often have a different frame of reference and set of values.  In my group, one current line of research is to provide metrics and language that will assist in conveying confidence in the reliability of a digital twin to non-expert decision-makers and another is to create methodologies for evaluating the evidence prior to making a decision.  The approach is different depending on the extent to which the underlying models are principled, i.e. based on the laws of science, and can be tested using observations from the real world.  In practice, even with principled, testable models, a digital twin will never be an identical twin and hence there will always be some uncertainty so that decisions remain a matter of judgement based on a sound understanding of the best available evidence – so you are always likely to need advice from a friendly engineer   🙂


De Lange, C., 2014, Meet your unborn child – before it’s conceived, New Scientist, 12 April 2014, p.8.

Glaessgen, E.H., & Stargel, D.S., 2012, The digital twin paradigm for future NASA and US Air Force vehicles, Proc 53rd AIAA/ASME/ASCE/AHS/ASC Structures, Structural Dynamics and Materials Conference, AIAA paper 2012-2018, NF1676L-13293.

Patterson E.A., Feligiotti, M. & Hack, E., 2013, On the integration of validation, quality assurance and non-destructive evaluation, J. Strain Analysis, 48(1):48-59.

Patterson, E.A., Taylor, R.J. & Bankhead, M., 2016, A framework for an integrated nuclear digital environment, Progress in Nuclear Energy, 87:97-103.

Patterson EA & Whelan MP, 2016, A framework to establish credibility of computational models in biology, Progress in Biophysics & Molecular Biology, doi: 10.1016/j.pbiomolbio.2016.08.007.

Tuegel, E.J., 2012, The airframe digital twin: some challenges to realization, Proc 53rd AIAA/ASME/ASCE/AHS/ASC Structures, Structural Dynamics and Materials Conference.

More on white dwarfs and existentialism

Image by Sarah

Image by Sarah

When I was writing about cosmic heat death a couple of weeks ago [see ‘Will it all be over soon?’ posted on November 2nd, 2016], I implied that our sun would expire on a shorter timescale of about 4 to 5 billion years but without mentioning what we expect to happen.  The gravitational field associated with every piece of matter is proportional to the mass of the piece of matter and inversely proportional to distance from its centre.  The size of the sun implies it should collapse under its own gravitational forces, except that the fusion of hydrogen in its core causes an outwards heat transfer, which prevents this from happening. The sun remains a sphere of hot gases with diameter of about 864,000 miles by ‘burning’ hydrogen.  When the hydrogen runs out, the gravitational field will take over and the sun is expected to collapse to a 30,000 mile diameter ball of atoms and free electrons, or a white dwarf.

These are all spontaneous processes and so the total entropy must increase although there are some local reductions.  The heat dissipated following the fusion of two hydrogen nuclei generates more entropy in the surroundings than the local reduction caused by the fusion.  The collapse to white dwarf would appear to represent a substantial reduction of entropy of the sun because the atomic particles are crushed together. However, this is countered by the release of photons to the surroundings which ensures that the entropy of the surroundings increases sufficiently to satisfy the second law of thermodynamics.


Isaac Asimov, The roving mind: a panoramic view of fringe science, technology, and the society of the future, London: Oxford University Press, 1987.

An extract is available in John Carey (editor), The Faber Book of Science, London: Faber & Faber, 2005.

Happenstance, not engineering?


A few weeks ago I wrote that ‘engineering is all about ingenuity‘ [post on September 14th, 2016] and pointed out that while some engineers are involved in designing, manufacturing and maintaining engines, most of us are not.  So, besides being ingenious, what do the rest of us do?  Well, most of us contribute in some way to the conception, building and sustaining of networks.  Communication networks, food supply networks, power networks, transport networks, networks of coastal defences, networks of oil rigs, refineries and service stations, or networks of mines, smelting works and factories that make everything from bicycles to xylophones.  The list is endless in our highly networked society.  A network is a group of interconnected things or people.  And, engineers are responsible for all of the nodes in our networks of things and for just about all the connections in our networks of both things and people.

Engineers have been constructing networks by building nodes and connecting them for thousands of years, for instance the ancient Mesopotamians were building aqueducts to connect their towns with distance water supplies more than four millenia ago.

Engineered networks are so ubiquitous that no one notices them until something goes wrong, which means engineers tend to get blamed more than praised.  But apparently that is the fault of the ultimate network: the human brain.  Recent research has shown that blame and praise are assigned by different mechanisms in the brain and that blame can be assigned by every location in the brain responsible for emotion whereas praise comes only from a single location responsible for logical thought.  So, we blame more frequently than we praise and we tend to assume that bad things are deliberate while good things are happenstance.  So reliable networks are happenstance rather than good engineering in the eyes of most people!


Ngo L, Kelly M, Coutlee CG, Carter RM , Sinnott-Armstrong W & Huettel SA, Two distinct moral mechanisms for ascribing and denying intentionality, Scientific Reports, 5:17390, 2015.

Bruek H, Human brains are wired to blame rather than to praise, Fortune, December 4th 2015.


Will it all be over soon?

milkywayNASAAs you may have gathered from last week’s post [Man, the Rubbish-Maker on October 26th, 2016], I have been reading Italo Calvino’s Complete Cosmicomics.  In one story, ‘World Memory’ the director of a project to document the entire world memory in the ‘expectation of the imminent disappearance of life on Earth’ is explaining to his successor that ‘we have all been aware for some time that the Sun is halfway through its lifespan: however well things went, in four or five billion years everything would be over’.  The latter is one of the scientific conclusions around which Calvino weaves these short stories and this one put into perspective the concerns expressed by some of my students on both my undergraduate course and MOOC in thermodynamics the prospect of a cosmic heat death resulting from the inevitable consequences of the second law of thermodynamics [see my post ‘Cosmic Heat Death‘ on February 18th, 2015].  The second law requires ‘entropy of the universe to increase in all spontaneous processes’.   Entropy was defined by Rudolf Clausius about 160 years ago as the heat dissipated in a process divided by the temperature of the process.  The dissipated heat flows into random motion of molecules from which it is never recovered.  So, as William Thomson observed, this must eventually create a universe of uniform temperature – an equilibrium state corresponding to maximum entropy where nothing happens and life cannot exist.   Entropy has been increasing since the Big Bang about 13.5 billion years ago.  And as Calvino writes, the sun is about halfway through its life – it is expected to collapse into a white dwarf in 4 to 5 billion years when its supply of hydrogen runs out.  These are enormous timescales: the first human cultures appeared about 70,000 years ago [see my post ‘And then we discovered thermodynamics‘ on February 3rd, 2016]  and history would suggest that our civilization will disappear long before the sun expires or cosmic heat death occurs.  A more immediate existential threat is that our local production of entropy on Earth destroys the delicate balance of conditions that allows us to thrive on Earth.  See my post on Free Riders on April 6th, 2016 for thoughts on avoiding this threat.


Italo Calvino, The Complete Cosmicomics, London: Penguin Books, 2002.