Information > 140chars Quickie

Does the very word “information” imply a consciousness to be informed by it?

Simple answer is no, but that’s about defining what we mean by information – a language problem – but there are important underlying concepts worth unpicking.

Let’s separate two issues first.

Firstly, in theory – Verb-Nouns – nouns whose root is a verb, in this case a transitive verb – one thing informing another, where our first question is between simple causation and something intentional, interpretation for a purpose, and so on. (Often a good ploy with verb-nouns to take the activity / process view rather than the objectivity of the noun (even when not a transitive verb.) But, more importantly:

In the science of information theory (eg Shannon / Turing et al) we’re detached from subjective questions and the topic is disembodied / free-floating information and the processing is machine-like. That ranges from the simplest temperature change flipping a thermostatic switch, to the most generic computation of a Universal Turing Machine.

Like Shannon, here I tend to use a “significant difference” idea for an incoming “bit” of information – the news – what’s new? In any stream of “data” – anything physical – that which is different from yesterday / existing / expected / predictable / default / steady-state etc. But “significant” already shifts us to questions of meaning – significance. In the machine world it is already normal to suggest information as the input and meaning or purpose as simply the output, however non-intelligent the processing and non-intentional the causation – which is why such theory is important to our understanding, given current AI-hype.

(Note also that this significant – detectable – difference view of information at some fundamental level, is becoming important at an even more fundamental level underlying physics as well as biology – life, the universe and everything – evolution of the cosmos from the energy and particles of the big-bang to “Bach” – that recurring metaphor for the pinnacles of creativity of human consciousness. Information underlies physics AND consciousness.)

Secondly there is a more pragmatic human world of information management in practice – in organisations and systems, in systems that are embodied in technology – where there is a kind of sliding scale, however informally it is recognised:

  • Data – the raw detectable “bits” of difference – the information potential of the info-scientists.
  • Information – data presented in a form intended for human consumption and interpretation.
  • Knowledge – information that embodies some human interpretation in some encoded form.
  • Wisdom – aye, and there’s the rub, the stuff that can’t really be codified (if we’re honest).

In practice there is really no private language, so no-one’s definitions can rule the discourse.

Data & Information are probably best thought of as interchangeable unless you’re inside a well defined technical discourse and you know where you are relative to the fundamental science.

Knowledge & Wisdom – remain intuitively distinct, but in lay (and even expert) AI discourse it is all too easy to forget the non-codifiable aspects, where the extreme AI enthusiasts would try to convince us there is nothing that can’t be codified or machine-learned, and the more cautious among us would think “yeah, right”. And to be clear the difference between knowledge and wisdom is not just “context” either – much context is codified and codifiable too. If it is codified, it’s just content – more Information (Data) grist to the processing mill.

These issues are thoroughly in the spotlight right now, not just because of the overreaching claims of AI and Big-Data towards full-blown Transhumanism – beyond humans, not just prosthetically aided humans – but also because a kind of scientism is giving a really hard time to all questions of conscious will and creative intelligence in both philosophy and (say) neuroscience.

[Hat tip to Andy Martin’s piece on Transhumanism and AI in The Independent, but also for the tweeted question in the opening line that prompted this response. Witty read as usual, bringing us all back to earth with the reminder that prosthetic “technology” is as old as flint stone tools and pointed sticks.]

“I already have students in the classroom correcting me, about two seconds after I have come out with some clearly inadequate answer to a tricky question: “But my phone says…” You too can become a transhumanly annoying fact checker.”

Need to dig up that Harari Homo Deus reference.


Also published on Medium.

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