[Paleopsych] New Scientist: (Wolfram) Revealing order in the chaos

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Revealing order in the chaos

    WHEN it comes to predicting significant things, you could say that
    when we're good, we're very very good, and when we're bad, we're
    useless. We can spot weaknesses in an aircraft wing long before it
    fails, and foretell an eclipse centuries in advance. Yet we seem
    totally powerless to predict other events - annoying jam-ups in a
    manufacturing line, cascading power failures, earthquakes or financial
    crises. Why?

    For two decades, researchers have suspected that what makes such
    events so unpredictable is their inherent complexity. In the Earth's
    crust and its ecosystems, and in any economy, events depend on the
    delicate interactions of millions of parts, and seemingly
    insignificant accidents can sometimes have massive repercussions.
    Mathematicians have even declared that some complex systems are
    "computationally irreducible", meaning there is no short cut to
    knowing their future. The only way to find out what will happen is to
    actually let it happen.

    But it now seems that this conclusion may have been unduly
    pessimistic. Revisiting the mathematics behind this topic, researchers
    have discovered that if you ask the right kinds of questions, even
    computationally irreducible systems can be more predictable than
    anyone thought. So foretelling events like financial meltdowns and
    earthquakes might just be possible after all. Even better, this new
    perspective could help to answer some of the deepest questions of

    Much of this breakthrough has come from research into computer
    programs known as cellular automata. The simplest kind of cellular
    automaton is a row of cells - each of which can be, say, black or
    white - along with a set of rules that determine how each cell's
    colour will change from one row to the next (see Graphic). The
    simplest automata have "local" rules, meaning that only a cell's
    immediate neighbours influence its future state. There are 256
    distinct sets of rules for such one-dimensional automata. For example,
    the rule might be that a cell will be black in the next row if either
    of its neighbours is black now: otherwise, it will be white. Once you
    have specified the initial state of each cell in the automaton, it
    will then evolve indefinitely through a sequence of new states.

    In 1984 mathematician Stephen Wolfram published an exhaustive study of
    the 256 rules to see what he could learn from them. He found that some
    led to quite simple behaviour, with the system quickly falling into a
    static or periodically repeating pattern. Many others, however,
    generated highly complex and apparently random patterns. Wolfram's
    analysis led him to suggest that automata in this latter class were
    computationally irreducible, and subsequent work by others even proved
    this for one specific automaton - that corresponding to "rule 110".

    It was a blow to scientists trying to get a handle on complex systems.
    Far from being an obscure mathematical plaything, cellular automata
    embody the very essence of physics and engineering. In these systems,
    influences pass from one point to neighbouring points, just as in real
    physical processes. Indeed, when researchers simulate physical systems
    on computers, the equations they use are often based on cellular

    Wolfram suggested that the computational irreducibility he found in
    certain cellular automata might also be commonplace in the more
    complex systems of the real world: it might just explain why so many
    events, from earthquakes to ecological upheavals, prove hard to
    predict. Our frustration, he concluded, could be rooted in the very
    principles of mathematics.

    Fortunately, however, the story doesn't end there. Physicist Nigel
    Goldenfeld of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign thinks
    there's a way out. Goldenfeld studies pattern formation in structures
    as diverse as snowflakes and limestone deposits at geothermal hot
    springs. During two decades of research, he has reached the view that
    the best way to study patterns is through "coarse-grained" models:
    that is, models that leave out most of the details and focus only on
    the broad-brush description of the pattern-forming process. He and his
    colleagues have found that completely different situations can have
    precisely the same logic. The convection patterns produced in a pan of
    boiling water, for instance, are uncannily similar to the patterns in
    a shaken tray of sand. Goldenfeld's team has developed mathematical
    ideas to explain why this might be. "Because of this work," says
    Goldenfeld, "I became interested in what would happen if the same
    ideas were applied to cellular automata."

Deceptively simple

    So late last year, he and colleague Navot Israeli, also at Illinois,
    began exploring the possibility that some cellular automata might
    actually be simpler than they appeared - even those thought to be
    computationally irreducible. Perhaps you just had to know which
    details to ignore and then adopt the appropriate "coarse-grained"
    perspective. To find out, the pair repeated Wolfram's exhaustive study
    of the 256 automata. "We hoped to find a few cases where this would
    work," Israeli says. And they did (Physical Review Letters, vol 92, p

    In their scheme, they group the cells of the original system together
    in "supercells" comprising, say, 8 or 10 cells. Each supercell then
    corresponds to one cell of a new coarse-grained system, and its state
    is defined through some scheme; it might be black or white, for
    example, depending on whether it contains more black or white cells.

    There are, obviously, many ways to define a coarse graining - choosing
    groups of different sizes, and using different schemes for determining
    the states of the new cells. But in general, many specific patterns of
    cells - each a specific state of the original cellular automata - will
    correspond to just one state in the new. With supercells of 10 cells
    each, for example, literally thousands of distinct patterns have more
    black cells than white - all would give a single black supercell in
    the coarse-grained system. The coarse-graining also modifies the
    time-step between applications of the rule that is then applied to the
    coarse-grained system, effectively skipping through some of the

    For each of Wolfram's 256 cellular automata, Goldenfeld and Israeli
    explored the consequences of a large number of possible coarse
    grainings. They then ran their coarse-grained pattern by the original
    rule. This produced a different pattern from the original. In 240 out
    of 256 of these cases, rules that produced relatively simple and
    predictable patterns mimicked the rough behaviour of rules that
    produce complex, computationally irreducible patterns. They had found
    a way to make unpredictable outcomes at least roughly predictable.

    Most surprisingly, this was even possible for automata that are known
    to be computationally irreducible, such as the infamous rule 110. In
    every case where the coarse-graining worked, it produced a simpler
    system that reproduced the large-scale dynamics of the original.

    "This is a crowning achievement," says physicist Didier Sornette of
    the University of California, Los Angeles. And it suggests that the
    situation with complex systems may not be so bleak after all:
    prediction may simply depend on descriptions at the right level of

    But of course, that's half the problem: while coarse-graining's
    success in basic models like this can give researchers hope, it
    doesn't tell them how to simplify messy real-world systems. However,
    Sornette and other researchers are making progress in this area,
    almost by trial and error, and they have had striking success even in
    some of the most difficult circumstances.

Roughing it

    Two years ago, physicist Neil Johnson of the University of Oxford and
    his colleagues pioneered a coarse-grained model of real financial
    markets (New Scientist, 10 April 2004, p 34). They found it was
    remarkably successful at forecasting the foreign exchange market,
    predicting the market's daily ups and downs with an accuracy of more
    than 54 per cent. Getting it right that often can outweigh the
    transaction costs of trading and turn a profit.

    Now Sornette and Jørgen Andersen of the University of Paris X have
    managed to pin down why Johnson's coarse-graining model is so
    effective, and in the process they have discovered a surprisingly
    simple way to show that markets should be especially easy to predict
    at certain times (see "Prediction days").

    Perhaps most boldly, physicist Jim Crutchfield of the Santa Fe
    Institute in New Mexico has devised a scheme that he believes could
    predict links between the past and future for virtually any system.
    Any physical process is a sequence of events - whether it is water
    flowing down a stream or a colony of bacteria infecting a wound - and
    prediction means mapping past histories of events onto possible future
    outcomes. In the late 1980s, Crutchfield began arguing that you could
    sort the various histories of a system into classes, so that all the
    histories in each class give the same outcome. Then, as with
    Goldenfeld and Israeli's coarse-grainings, many details of the
    underlying system might be irrelevant, making it possible to simplify
    the description and maybe finding a route to prediction.

    For 15 years, Crutchfield and colleagues have been seeking
    mathematical procedures for doing this automatically, a process they
    call "computational mechanics". They have successfully applied the
    approach to a number of practical applications, helping to clarify the
    chaotic dynamics of dripping taps and identify hidden patterns in the
    molecular disorder of many real materials (New Scientist, 29 August
    1998, p 36). "We've shown that there is a kind of order in the chaos,"
    says Crutchfield.

    The coarse-graining approach might even settle some long-standing
    scientific puzzles, Crutchfield suggests. After all, when it comes to
    knowledge, less is sometimes more. "This is what scientists do in
    their work - they try to strip irrelevant details away and gather
    histories into equivalent groups, thereby making theories as simple as
    possible," he says. Goldenfeld agrees: "In physics we only ever ask
    for approximate answers. I'm pretty sure that this is why physics
    works at all, and isn't hampered by computational irreducibility."

    Only by ignoring vast amounts of molecular detail did researchers ever
    develop the laws of thermodynamics, fluid dynamics and chemistry. But
    it could go even deeper, Goldenfeld suggests. He thinks that
    coarse-graining could even have something to do with the laws of
    physics themselves. "The dream," Goldenfeld says, "is that as long as
    you look at long enough scales of space and time, you will inevitably
    observe processes that fit in with relativity, quantum mechanics and
    so on."

    There is a new optimism among those in the business of prediction. The
    prospects for forecasting major events in ecology and economics - and
    maybe even earthquakes and cancers - suddenly look less bleak. Where
    we once felt powerless in the face of overwhelming complexity, there
    is now hope of seizing control. Coarse-graining might never give us a
    crystal-clear window on the future, but it might just make it clear

Prediction days

    In financial markets there are only two kinds of strategies: those
    that depend on the immediate past and those that do not. Though this
    might seem a banal insight, it has enabled Jørgen Andersen of the
    University of Paris X and Didier Sornette of the University of
    California, Los Angeles, to begin predicting these markets. It
    suggests that real markets might sometimes lock themselves into
    certain futures. For example, if more than half the population came to
    be using strategies that disregard the immediate past, then the future
    would be certain as soon as the ideas behind these strategies became

    Such events would be extremely unlikely if players chose their
    strategies at random, but real people don't. Instead, they tend to use
    ideas that have done well recently, and end up acting alike. In a
    computer simulation of a simplified market, Sornette and Anderson
    found that this phenomenon turned 17 per cent of the days into
    "prediction days", when the markets were at their most readable.

    Moving to real markets, the pair used data for the NASDAQ over 60 days
    to train a computer model to recognise upcoming prediction days. They
    then used the model's output to make predictions of the NASDAQ ahead
    of time. Although the prediction days come with varying levels of
    statistical certainty, meaning some give more reliable predictions
    than others, over the next 10 weeks the researchers identified 10
    prediction days with a relatively high certainty, and their
    predictions on these days turned out to be 70 per cent accurate. And
    three prediction days had very high certainty - all predictions on
    these proved correct.

    The growing success of the coarse-graining approach suggests it could
    eventually tame a vast range of unpredictable systems, from consumer
    markets to the complex biological processes that underlie human
    diseases. A number of physicians believe these ideas might be
    applicable to diseases such as cancer, which ultimately come down to
    the "cheating" behaviour of rogue cells. By understanding how the
    diverse strategies of different cells can have collective
    consequences, it might be possible to design low-impact treatments
    that target just a few crucial cells to steer the system away from

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