I discussed complex adaptive systems (CASs) in Part 38. John Holland, whose genetic-algorithm (GA) formalism I described in Part 75, realized that a GA by itself was not an adaptive agent. An actual adaptive agent is playing games with its environment, which amounts to prediction (or thinking ahead) and feedback (Waldrop 1992).
The ability for thinking ahead requires the emergence and constant revision of a model of the environment. Of course, this thinking ahead or prediction is not a prerogative of the brain alone. It occurs in all CASs all the time (Holland 1995, 1998): They all evolve models that enable them to anticipate the near future.
That a brain is not required for doing this is illustrated by the case of many bacteria that have special enzymes that enable them to swim along directions along which there is an increasing concentration of glucose. Effectively, these enzymes seem to model a world in which chemicals diffuse outwards from their source. There is also the implicit prediction that if you swim towards regions of higher concentration, then more of something nutritious may be obtained. This ability has evolved through processes of Darwinian natural selection. Individuals which had a slight tendency towards this behaviour had an evolutionary advantage over those which were lacking it, and over time the ability became stronger and stronger through processes of natural selection and inheritance.
How do such models arise, even when there is no 'conscious' thinking involved? Holland’s answer was: Through feedback from the environment. Holland drew inspiration from Hebb’s (1949) neural-network model I described in Part 74. The neural network learns not only through sensory inputs, but also through internal feedbacks. Such feedbacks are essential for the emergence of the resonating cell assemblies in the neural network.
A second ingredient Holland put into his simulated adaptive agent was the IF-THEN rules used so extensively in expert systems. This enhanced the computational efficiency of the artificial adaptive agent.
Holland argued that an IF-THEN rule is, in fact, equivalent to one of Hebb’s cell assemblies. And there is a large amount of overlap among different cell assemblies. Typically a cell assembly involves ~1000 to 10000 neurons, and each neuron has ~1000 to 10000 synaptic connections to other neurons. Thus, activating one cell assembly is like posting a message on something like an ‘internal bulletin board', and this message is ‘seen’ by most of the other cell assemblies overlapping with the initially activated cell assembly. Those of these latter assemblies which are properly and sufficiently overlapping with the initial assembly would take actions of their own, and post their messages on the bulletin board. And this process will occur again and again.
What is more, each of the IF-THEN rules constantly scans the bulletin board to check if any of the messages matches the IF part of the rule. If it does, then the THEN part becomes operative, and this can generate a further chain of reactions from other rules and cell assemblies, each posting a new message on the internal bulletin board.
In addition to the role of cell assemblies and IF-THEN rules, some of the messages on the bulletin board come directly from sensory input data from the environment. Similarly, some of the messages can activate actuators, or emit chemicals, making the system affect the environment. Thus Holland’s digital model of the adaptive system was able to get feedback from the environment, as well as from the agents constituting the network; it also influenced the environment by some of its outputs.
Having done all this, the third innovation introduced by Holland was to ensure that even the language used for the rules and for the messages on the metaphoric internal bulletin board was not in terms of any human concepts or terminology. For this he introduced certain rules called ‘classifiers’:
GAs offer robust procedures that can exploit massively parallel architectures and, applied to classifier systems, they provide a new route toward an understanding of intelligence and adaptation.
The rules and messages in Holland’s model for adaptation were just bit-strings, without any imposed interpretation of what a bit string may mean in human terms. For example, a message may be 1000011100, rather like a digital chromosome in his GAs. And an IF-THEN rule may be something like this: If there is a message 1##0011####10 on the board, then post the message 1000111001 on the board (here # denotes that the bit may be either 0 or 1). Thus this abstract representation of IF conditions classified different messages according to specific patterns of bits; hence the name ‘classifiers’ for the rules.
In this classifier system, the meaning of an abstract message is not something defined by the programmer. Instead, it emerges from the way the message causes one classifier rule (or a sensor input) to trigger another message on the board. Apparently, this is how concepts and mental models emerge in the brain in the form of self-supporting clusters of classifiers which self-organize into stable and self-consistent patterns.
There are thousands or tens of thousands of mutually interacting IF-THEN rules, cell assemblies, and classifiers. This may lead to conflicts or inconsistencies regarding action to be taken, or regarding the state a neuron can be in. Instead of introducing a conflict-resolution control from the outside (as in a typical top-down approach), Holland decided that even this should emerge from within. The control must be learned, emerging from the bottom upwards. After all, this is how things happen in real-life systems.
He achieved this by introducing some more innovations into his model. I shall describe these in the next post.