Egos Are Bandwidth Membranes

9 min. read Submitted 10/05/2021 Last Edited 11/05/2021 #writing #philosophy

What do I mean when I say the word "ego"? Previously I've said that I mean an intelligent entity who possesses continuous agency within the world, a stateful sense of self, and preferences for the future. Human beings normatively value this form of intelligence highly, because we are egos ourselves. However, these 3 properties are only measurable through inferring internal state from external actions of the entity. They are subjective experiences of the entity which manifest externally in measurable ways, but with only this definition we lack an understanding of its material structure and physical limitations.

Can we find another, more physical lens through which to examine this sublime object? Undoubtedly. But which one is most interesting? I've been thinking about the lens of informational bandwidth. Can we perceive an ego by the relative bandwidth of information flow within a system, as a bandwidth membrane separating an area of high bandwidth from an area of lower bandwidth? What possibilities and limitations does such a lens suggest? Is your ego truly dependent on being enclosed from the outside world through these membranes?

This piece continues on from Part 1 - Egos Are Fractally Complex

What Is Information?

If we are to understand what is bandwidth and flow of information, we must first describe what we mean by this concept in the first place. We have many informal understandings of the word - information is symbols, structure, language, or any other thing which has semantics. In the purely computational sense, information refers to structured sets of binary input. And in a physical sense, it can be defined through Thermodynamic Information Theory, where we look at the structure of the universe as a collection of information. This last definition is closely linked with that of thermodynamic entropy. Like energy, information cannot be created or destroyed - only transformed. How can we discern whether a system has high entropy or low entropy? We might put on our physics hat and say it's simply the logarithm of the number of energetically accessible quantum states, and that's certainly a way to get a number out at the end. But if we want to define a "high" category and a "low" category, I think an interesting boundary arises when looking at the models we can build.

A system with very high entropy (such as a cold, evenly distributed cloud of helium) could be thought of as containing little information. It is possible to build good models of such systems that are smaller than the systems themselves, and doing so is merely a matter of computation and quality of input. For even a swirling cloud of helium, it seems unlikely we will have to look beyond approximated Navier-Stokes to accurately model its behaviour pretty well. In this way, the models we can build are abstractable - though still vulnerable to chaos.

A system with very low entropy (such as a human brain) could be thought of as containing lots and lots of information. It is likely that any model which accurately modelled such a system would be larger than the system itself in terms of information and computation. To accurately model the connectome of a human brain, you would not only need to store all the information within that system to a pretty fine level of detail, you'd also need all the necessary computation to simulate its physical state forward. In this way, the models we can build are non-abstractable.

What is a Membrane?

A membrane is a selective barrier between two areas. By selective, we mean that some things pass through this interface and some things do not. Another word for this is semi-permeable. For instance, the ocean makes a membrane with the atmosphere where the two meet, and gases like CO2 diffuse back and forth depending on acidity and temperature. Another example is the blood-brain barrier, a membrane within your body that separates your brain from the rest of your body and only allows very specific molecules through to affect your neurons.

The membrane synonymous with all life on Earth is the cell membrane. It is likely that this structure is one of the earliest evolutionary inventions of life some 3.8 billion years ago. This layer of lipids separated the first single-cell organisms from the turbulent and uncontrollable external world, and allowed a system of low entropy to arise within. As mechanisms like RNA, DNA, and proteins evolved, so too did the information bandwidth within the cell steadily increase. Cells gained the ability to cooperate and form multicellular life, necessitating the invention of methods for increasing external bandwidth in the language of the nervous system, hormones, gap or tight junctions, or desmosomes. Each of these steps was a way to both decrease entropy and embed structured information within the cell.

Eventually the nervous system evolved, and then a long time after that the animal brain came into being. These cells communicated at a previously unthinkable speed via the synapse. As animals evolved larger and larger brains, the complexity and maturity of their egos also grew. Today, the volume taken up by a human brain is the highest density of information bandwidth we're aware of in the universe. Tomorrow? Who knows. The nervous system forms a bandwidth membrane with the outside world, separating an area of high bandwidth from an area of low bandwidth, and allowing certain types of information - signals from your nervous system, hormones, oxygen, fluids, nutrients - to pass.

What is Bandwidth?

Why do I use this word "bandwidth" instead of words like "computation" or "complexity"? The reason lies in what kinds of low-entropy objects are possible. Not every low-entropy system will form an ego, but every ego will be a low-entropy system. For instance, an extremely complex maze of silicon may contain lots of entropic information, yet not perform any useful computational work. Or, a volume of space may perform a very high amount of computation, but not communicate with any external entity about that communication. Bandwidth here refers to both the movement and transmutation of information over time.

Local vs. Global Bandwidth

Intelligent objects are likely to be constructed out of a number of simpler components. Each component will contain some amount of local bandwidth. A neuron churns some mysterious potion of chemicals within, and a silicon processor whizzes electrons around mazes of semiconductors. Additionally, each component connects to the wider network with some other level of global bandwidth, which indicates their average level of bandwidth to every other component in the system. A neuron is connected via synapses to up to 10,000 of its neighbours, and a silicon processor sends signals of electrons.

If a component has far more local bandwidth than global bandwidth, the bandwidth membrane must by definition form only between that local bandwidth - the component - and the global bandwidth - the rest of the system. Therefore local bandwidth is constrained by global bandwidth if we are seeking to minimise bandwidth membranes within the internal structure of the system.

We can consider an interesting thought experiment to demonstrate this. Imagine that your brain was implanted by a computer chip that was many orders of magnitude more powerful than the neurons that surrounded it, and was able to communicate with the neurons through an extremely high level of bandwidth. The large gradient in bandwidth between silicon space and organic space, and the fact that the majority of the computation available to you resides within the chip may mean that the entity which continues on as "you" considers itself to live within the chip, not the brain. If your brain is introduced very rapidly to the new computation, we may guess that a new ego will form within the new computation and subsume you into it, with your ego erased and your biological brain no longer representing you as an individual. However, if we slowly increase the bandwidth available to a brain, we can allow the existing membrane to expand and grow into the new space, and your ego to keep a sense of continuity. The subjective sense of this ego continuity can be directly tied to the strength and permeability of the bandwidth membrane.

Could all of these tradeoffs be solved if we just figured out how to merge an ego back together if a bandwidth gradient forms inside it and produces multiple egos? Definitely. However, within human ethics we do not treat these sublime objects just like any other kind of object to be chopped and changed. By definition, these objects are neither merely the sum of their parts nor a subcomponent of a wider entity. Forcing two egos to merge into something with any kind of consensus requires an irreversible and destructive breaking of the membrane, and will create something entirely new that is not entirely either.

Physical Constraints

Let us imagine we possess advanced knowledge of computer construction which allows us to build a computer many orders of magnitude more dense in informational bandwidth than a human brain. Let us also assume that we solve any engineering problems around scaling this construction to any arbitrary size - things like power, cooling, and eventually the gravitational forces of the massive structure. Would we be able to build a singular ego of arbitrary size?

Our observation of the weak coupling of local and global bandwidth implies some limits we may encounter in such an endeavour. Eventually, things like the speed of light, quantum tunneling, and other limits of the universe constrain us. If we need to maintain a smooth bandwidth gradient across the entire system and avoid any unintentional bandwidth membranes forming within, there is going to be some tradeoff between the latency of global bandwidth across large distances and the local bandwidth available to a single component. It is possible that this limit might be vast, enabling us to build single egos that span entire solar systems, something like a Matrioshka brain. Eventually, however, we may find significant issues in scaling up our system, as distant components find their local bandwidth far outstripping their global bandwidth, which has been brought down significantly by sheer distance. It seems likely then that building a single ego across multiple solar systems seems like an impossible task.

Meta-Egos, Hiveminds and Ants

An individual ant within an ant colony does not possess an ego. Their brain is made up of 250,000 neurons, only 0.0000025% compared to the 100 billion neurons of a human brain, and they operate on a fairly simple set of rules. The brains of these ants are relatively high-entropy systems, with low information bandwidth. They communicate with each other through low-bandwidth methods like pheromones and touching their antennas together. Nevertheless, ant colonies are able to display very intelligent, complex behaviour. They build successful, efficient and specialised societies that are able to survive highly adverse conditions. Each individual displays fervent loyalty to the colony, and the colony itself seems to possess some very simple version of an ego. Our previous thinking should show why such an emergent ego is obvious. Because both the quanta of computation - the ant's brains - and the ant's communications are low-bandwidth, the ego membrane forms around the entire colony. Maybe we can call this a "meta-ego", and we may recognise this construct in many different types of social cooperation.

This membrane doesn't seem to be particularly impermeable however. Supercolonies of ants can be made up of hundreds of millions of different ants and millions of distinct colonies, and yet continue to cooperate as one entity. Some colonies can remain separated for long periods and return to the wider supercolony with no issues. However, there do seem to be stronger areas of this membrane than others, and colonies often fight vast wars against other colonies over territory when no cooperative relationship exists between them.

In xenobiology, we tend to assume that any encounter with an individual of an alien species will be indicative of the total intelligence of that species. However, this may not be true for a species which is sending drone-like explorers out in a hivemind structure. The vast distances of space reduce global bandwidth, and therefore require that to maintain a single hivemind each individual must only have access to a low amount of local bandwidth. Alien species may then have good reason to send simple automotons as interstellar explorers, being able to quickly explore systems with a single, distributed mind and many millions of individuals. One indicator of a hivemind may be that the individuals of this species are housed within much more advanced technology than the intelligence of those individuals seems to suggest - for instance, complex robots with the intelligence of insects.

A hivemind civilization may manage to increase the bandwidth available to it by either evolving unintentionally or by developing some new technology. This lens implies that said civilization will face a trilemma if it wishes to maintain its single ego while exploiting this new bandwidth. Either the civilization can increase the individual complexity of its drones, it can increase the number of drones, or it can increase the volume over which the drones are distributed. It cannot maximally do all three or even two of them without risking internal fragmentation into multiple egos.

Modern Bandwidth Erodes Your Membrane

One of the most common goals of technology is to increase the bandwidth available to your brain, in both your ability to absorb information and communicate information to the external world through your ego-membrane. Language was an early technology that vastly increased the bandwidth available to us, and enabled the formation of complex meta-egos in tribes, towns, cities, countries, and a myriad of other semi-permeable membranes of information exchange. With the advent of the internet, the silicon age, and the modern era of smartphones and ubiquitous connection, we have seen an exponential growth in the bandwidth available to your ego. We should expect then, if this lens holds merit, for this increase of bandwidth to result in a decrease of the strength of your ego membrane.

A recent study at UCL found that "smartphones have become where we live", with many people expressing that when they use their smartphone they are transported away from the world around them. Is this disassociation the result of altering the bandwidth connected to your ego-membrane?

Modern gambling, games, social media and investment apps all attempt to exploit flaws in human reasoning, building Skinner boxes to hack the reward center of the brain. The goal of these systems is to shut down your mind beyond a low-bandwidth, mechanical trance state. This displays an alternative method to eroding the ego-membrane, by reducing the local bandwidth instead of increasing the global bandwidth.

Further Reading

Understanding the Thermodynamics of Biological Order, Jacob Peterson, American Biology Teacher 2012

Into the Cool: Energy Flow, Thermodynamics, and Life, Eric D. Schneider and Dorion Sagan, 2005