Sunday, November 13, 2011

belated comments on the Tron Legacy iso concept

Far be it from me to pretend that the movie Tron Legacy is realistic or self-consistent. In an otherworldly setting, ridiculous details of many varieties are normal, if not expected. Why must the heroes do this or that? Why do objects have those peculiar shapes and colors? Just because1.

However, the concept of the "iso" is an exception. It's as interesting to me now, when I stream the movie from Netflix, as it was when I first saw the movie in the theater. An iso is an incredibly complex intelligence that evolved from out of the movements of the information in the Tron "digital world", a highly unusual computer system that apparently is POSIX-compatible. The isoes are "bio-digital jazz, man." Supposedly the answers to every problem are achievable by them. No human or program can entirely comprehend them. They're judged too chaotic to be part of an unchanging perfection.

In my interpretation, the isoes are programs with a mind-blowing aptitude for modeling and understanding. A model is a duplication of a thing's information. Useful models enable prediction, analysis, and manipulation. To understand is to employ a working model. Of course, models may be imprecise, nonverbal, incomplete, etc. 

We humans constantly brush up against limits in our ability to make models. It could be difficult to invent the right metaphor or to deduce the right mathematical expression. In any case, our brains, and therefore our mental resources for such tasks, are obviously finite. We can work around these hard realities in any number of ways, and we often do.

But imagine that the iso is a program whose computational equivalent is a brain as large as an average adult human body. With that magnitude of potential representations devoted to a model, it could be much more comprehensive and true-to-life. Although there would still be limiting factors (cf. combinatorial explosion), the model's simulations would more likely reflect the full subtlety2. It would catch the higher-order, peripheral, and mutually-interacting effects, which are emergent3.

Furthermore, creative modifications of the model would have more room for exploration, so it could more easily compute how to respond to the model in order to achieve a benefit. In this sense, an iso is indeed jazz-like in its methods. It imitates, then it adds or subtracts to the original by informed trial and error. It doesn't need to resort to the human simplification of forcing something into a preconceived pattern for the sake of comprehension. Instead, it "absorbs" the thing into a mirror model, and travels the depths of that model.

An iso learns to defeat you at chess by discerning the reasoning process which you use for chess. Sooner or later it uses that knowledge to figure out which moves will circumvent the effectiveness of that process. After that point there's no real competition or game remaining; you can no longer "surprise" the iso with your decisions. You're the iso's pawn. What if the iso could similarly anticipate cancer's "moves"?

I'll grant that my interpretation might not be close to what the movie meant, assuming the movie had a specific idea in mind. Once someone presumes that artificial intelligence is possible, it's no great leap to speculate that it could be made superior to human intelligence, at least in restricted domains or according to superficial measurements.

1To take just one example of the missed opportunities embedded in the movie's premises, the conversion of a human to and from digital data is essentially a teleporter. Or perhaps Wonkavision, when it happens over a wireless connection. Completing orders for merchandise "over the Internet" would be literal. Sharing a digitization of a person in Bittorrent would violate laws against human cloning, I suppose.
2Philosophically or theoretically, no one can ever say with absolute certainty that a sufficiently complicated simulation is perfectly accurate to an original. Yet most humans would opine that a simulation "works" (and is true) when it consistently matches all actual/empirical tests within a reasonable error threshold.
3I purposefully compared the iso to a brain rather than a supercomputer. It wouldn't be a massive array of motionless memory acted upon by unvarying procedures. The movie states that an iso is artificial life. The expectation is software layout that's inseparable from hardware layout, innumerable adjustable junctions between parts, and feedback loops galore.

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