Universe works like a cosmological neural network, argues new paper

Controversial physics theory says reality around us behaves like a computer neural network.

Universe works like a cosmological neural network, argues new paper

Synapses in space.

Credit: sakkmesterke
  • Physicist proposes that the universe behaves like an artificial neural network.
  • The scientist's new paper seeks to reconcile classical physics and quantum mechanics.
  • The theory claims that natural selection produces both atoms and "observers".

Does the reality around us work like a neural network, a Matrix-like computer system that operates similar to a human brain? A new physics paper argues that looking at the universe that way can provide the elusive "theory of everything".

This controversial proposal is the brainchild of the University of Minnesota Duluth physics professor Vitaly Vanchurin. In an interview with Futurism, Vanchurin conceded that "the idea is definitely crazy, but if it is crazy enough to be true?"

The scientist developed the theory while exploring the workings of machine learning using statistical mechanics. He found that mechanisms involved in the computer learning were similar in some instances to the dynamics of quantum mechanics.

A computer neural network works via nodes, which mimic biological neurons, processing and passing on signals. As the network learns new information, it changes, giving certain nodes more priority, allowing it to connect bits of information in such a way that next time in will know, for example, what are they key traits of a "zebra".

"We are not just saying that the artificial neural networks can be useful for analyzing physical systems or for discovering physical laws, we are saying that this is how the world around us actually works," writes Vanchurin in the paper. "With this respect it could be considered as a proposal for the theory of everything, and as such it should be easy to prove it wrong."

How do you prove his theory wrong? Vanchurin proposes a way. All you have to do is "find a phenomenon which cannot be modeled with a neural network." That, of course, isn't actually so easy to pull off, as Vanchurin himself points out. We don't fully understand how neural network and machine learning work and need to grasp those processes first.

Vanchurin interview:

Vanchurin thinks his idea can accomplish another purpose that has been the goal of modern physics – to reconcile classical physics, which describes how the universe works on a large scale, and quantum mechanics, the study of the atomic and subatomic level of existence. The physicist thinks that if you view the universe as working essentially as a neural network, its behavior under certain conditions can be explained by both the quirky equations of quantum mechanics and the laws of classical physics like the theory of general relativity devised by Albert Einstein.

"The learning dynamics of a neural network can indeed exhibit approximate behaviors described by both quantum mechanics and general relativity," writes Vanchurin in his study.

Diving deeper into his theory, Vanchurin thinks it supports such apparent mechanisms of our world as natural selection. He suggests that in a neural network, particles and atoms, but even us, the "observers" would emerge from a natural-selection-like process. On the microscopic level of the network, some structures would become more stable while some would be less so. The stable ones would survive the evolutionary process, while the less stable ones would not.

'On the smallest scales I expect that the natural selection should produce some very low complexity structures such as chains of neurons, but on larger scales the structures would be more complicated," he shared with Futurism.

He sees little reason why this kind of process would only work on just the small scale, writing in the paper:

"If correct, then what we now call atoms and particles might actually be the outcomes of a long evolution starting from some very low complexity structures and what we now call macroscopic observers and biological cells might be the outcome of an even longer evolution."

While he posits the neural network explanation, Vanchurin doesn't necessarily mean we all live in a computer simulation, like proposed by philosopher Nick Bostrom, adding the caveat that even if we did, "we might never know the difference."

Vanchurin's idea has so far been received with skepticism by other physicists but he is undeterred. You can check out his paper for yourself on ArXiv.

Vanchurin on “Hidden Phenomena”:

Vitaly Vanchurin speaking at the 6th International FQXi Conference, "Mind Matters: Intelligence and Agency in the Physical World." The Foundational Questions...

U.S. Navy controls inventions that claim to change "fabric of reality"

Inventions with revolutionary potential made by a mysterious aerospace engineer for the U.S. Navy come to light.

U.S. Navy ships

Credit: Getty Images
Surprising Science
  • U.S. Navy holds patents for enigmatic inventions by aerospace engineer Dr. Salvatore Pais.
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Hack your brain for better problem solving

Tips from neuroscience and psychology can make you an expert thinker.

Credit: Olav Ahrens Røtne via Unsplash
Mind & Brain

This article was originally published on Big Think Edge.

Problem-solving skills are in demand. Every job posting lists them under must-have qualifications, and every job candidate claims to possess them, par excellence. Young entrepreneurs make solutions to social and global problems the heart of their mission statements, while parents and teachers push for curricula that encourage critical-thinking methods beyond solving for x.

It's ironic then that we continue to cultivate habits that stunt our ability to solve problems. Take, for example, the modern expectation to be "always on." We push ourselves to always be working, always be producing, always be parenting, always be promoting, always be socializing, always be in the know, always be available, always be doing. It's too much, and when things are always on all the time, we deplete the mental resources we need to truly engage with challenges.

If we're serious about solving problems, at work and in our personal lives, then we need to become more adept at tuning out so we can hone in.

Solve problems with others (occasionally)

A side effect of being always on is that we are rarely alone. We're connected through the ceaseless chirps of friends texting, social media buzzing, and colleagues pinging us for advice everywhere we go. In some ways, this is a boon. Modern technologies mediate near endless opportunities for collective learning and social problem-solving. Yet, such cooperation has its limits according to a 2018 study out of Harvard Business School.

In the study, participants were divided into three group types and asked to solve traveling salesman problems. The first group type had to work on the problems individually. The second group type exchanged notes after every round of problem-solving while the third collaborated after every three rounds.

The researchers found that lone problem-solvers invented a diverse range of potential solutions. However, their solutions varied wildly in quality, with some being true light bulb moments and others burnt-out duds. Conversely, the always-on group took advantage of their collective learning to tackle more complex problems more effectively. But social influence often led these groups to prematurely converge around a single idea and abandon potentially brilliant outliers.

It was the intermittent collaborators who landed on the Goldilocks strategy. By interacting less frequently, individual group members had more time to nurture their ideas so the best could shine. But when they gathered together, the group managed to improve the overall quality of their solutions thanks to collective learning.

In presenting their work, the study's authors question the value of always-on culture—especially our submissiveness to intrusions. "As we replace those sorts of intermittent cycles with always-on technologies, we might be diminishing our capacity to solve problems well," Ethan Bernstein, an associate professor at Harvard Business School and one of the study's authors, said in a press release.

These findings suggest we should schedule time to ruminate with our inner geniuses and consult the wisdom of the crowd. Rather than dividing our day between productivity output and group problem-solving sessions, we must also create space to focus on problems in isolation. This strategy provides the best of both worlds. It allows us to formulate our ideas before social pressure can push us to abandon them. But it doesn't preclude the group knowledge required to refine those ideas.

And the more distractions you can block out or turn off, the more working memory you'll have to direct at the problem.

A problem-solving booster

The next step is to dedicate time to not dealing with problems. Counterintuitive as it may seem, setting a troublesome task aside and letting your subconscious take a crack at it improves your conscious efforts later.

How should we fill these down hours? That's up to you, but research has shown time and again that healthier habits produce hardier minds. This is especially true regarding executive functions—a catchall term that includes a person's ability to self-control, meet goals, think flexibly, and, yes, solve problems.

"Exercisers outperform couch potatoes in tests that measure long-term memory, reasoning, attention, problem-solving, even so-called fluid-intelligence tasks. These tasks test the ability to reason quickly and think abstractly, improvising off previously learned material to solve a new problem. Essentially, exercise improves a whole host of abilities prized in the classroom and at work," writes John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist at the University of Washington.

One such study, published in the Frontiers in Neuroscience, analyzed data collected from more than 4,000 British adults. After controlling for variables, it found a bidirectional relationship between exercise and higher levels of executive function over time. Another study, this one published in the Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, compared fitness data from 128 adults with brain scans taken as they were dual-tasking. Its findings showed regular exercisers sported more active executive regions.

Research also demonstrates a link between problem-solving, healthy diets, and proper sleep habits. Taken altogether, these lifestyle choices also help people manage their stress—which is known to impair problem-solving and creativity.

Of course, it can be difficult to untangle the complex relationship between cause and effect. Do people with healthy life habits naturally enjoy strong executive functions? Or do those habits bolster their mental fitness throughout their lives?

That's not an easy question to answer, but the Frontiers in Neuroscience study researchers hypothesize that it's a positive feedback loop. They posit that good sleep, nutritious food, and regular exercise fortify our executive functions. In turn, more potent executive decisions invigorate healthier life choices. And those healthy life choices—you see where this is going.

And while life choices are ultimately up to individuals, organizations have a supportive role to play. They can foster cultures that protect off-hours for relaxing, incentivize healthier habits with PTO, and prompt workers to take time for exercise beyond the usual keyboard calisthenics.

Nor would such initiatives be entirely selfless. They come with the added benefit of boosting a workforce's collective problem-solving capabilities.

Live and learn and learn some more

Another advantage of tuning out is the advantage to pursue life-long learning opportunities. People who engage in creative or problem-solving activities in their downtime—think playing music, puzzles, and even board games—show improved executive functions and mental acuity as they age. In other words, by learning to enjoy the act of problem-solving, you may enhance your ability to do so.

Similarly, lifelong learners are often interdisciplinary thinkers. By diving into various subjects, they can come to understand the nuances of different skills and bodies of knowledge to see when ideas from one field may provide a solution to a problem in another. That doesn't mean lifelong learners must become experts in every discipline. On the contrary, they are far more likely to understand where the limits of their knowledge lie. But those self-perceived horizons can also provide insight into where collaboration is necessary and when to follow someone else's lead.

In this way, lifelong learning can be key to problem-solving in both business and our personal lives. It pushes us toward self-improvement, gives us an understanding of how things work, hints at what's possible, and, above all, gives us permission to tune out and focus on what matters.

Cultivate lifelong learning at your organization with lessons 'For Business' from Big Think Edge. At Edge, more than 350 experts, academics, and entrepreneurs come together to teach essential skills in career development and lifelong learning. Heighten your problem-solving aptitude with lessons such as:

  • Make Room for Innovation: Key Characteristics of Innovative Companies, with Lisa Bodell, Founder and CEO, FutureThink, and Author, Why Simple Wins
  • Use Design Thinking: An Alternative Approach to Tackling the World's Greatest Problems, with Tim Brown, CEO and President, IDEO
  • The Power of Onlyness: Give Your People Permission to Co-Create the Future, with Nilofer Merchant, Marketing Expert and Author, The Power of Onlyness
  • How to Build a Talent-First Organization: Put People Before Numbers, with Ram Charan, Business Consultant
  • The Science of Successful Things: Case Studies in Product Hits and Flops, with Derek Thompson, Senior Editor, The Atlantic, and Author, Hit Makers

Request a demo today!

How AI learned to paint like Rembrandt

The Rijksmuseum employed an AI to repaint lost parts of Rembrandt's "The Night Watch." Here's how they did it.

Credit: Rijksmuseum
Culture & Religion
  • In 1715, Amsterdam's Town Hall sliced off all four outer edges of Rembrandt's priceless masterpiece so that it would fit on a wall.
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If something is "true," it needs to be shown to work in the real world.

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