Monday, July 9, 2012

Tron: Algorithms and the DNA of Digital Life

Brian Daley’s 1982 novelization of Steven Lisberger’s Tron story/screenplay opens with “The Electronic World” where “Information is moved through the computer systems and processed by artificial intelligences.”  The A.I.s are programs, and we are the Users who do not know their vast “World.”  Daley then shares the essence of Tron’s mythology:

“The programs are only algorithms as human beings are only collections of chemicals.”

This declaration caused me a bit of an existential crisis when thinking about the similarities between the codes in a program and the genetic codes in the human body.  An algorithm is a precise set of rules in a computer program while DNA is a precise set of genetic instructions in a living organism.  So: 

Since DNA code evolved humanity, is it too outlandish to suppose that algorithms could learn to the point of self-awareness?

Could algorithms, then, be the DNA of digital life?  
A way of answering the first question is for a complex set of algorithm’s to pass the Turing test.  Alan Turing wrote a 1950 article entitled "Computing Machinery and Intelligence" in which he asks whether or not machines can think like humans.  He proposes a game that requires a judge to have a free flowing (text only) conversation with a person in one room and a machine in the other.  If the machine can fool the judge into believing it is human, then the machine has passed the Turing test.  In 1952 Turing gave a third variation of this test in which a jury of people have a text conversation with a machine and if it fools most of them, then it passes the Turing test.  A simplified version is just one person having a keyboard conversation with a computer.  So let’s say a friend sets you up on a blind date but you insist on texting this person before you agree to go out.  Then you use your iPhone 4S to text the mystery date, but Siri is the one who is texting back.  If you are impressed with the conversation and agree to the blind date, then Siri has passed the Turing test. 

The Tron movie has many conversations that I believe are Turing tests.  The senior executive (CEO) of ENCOM - Edward Dilinger - is in denial that his creation - the Master Control Program (MCP) - has achieved sentience (Turing never specified if the judge should know that a machine is in one of the rooms).  Through his touch screen desk, Dilinger has his “keyboard conversation” with Master Control:

Diligner:  “It’s my fault.  I programmed you to want too much.”
MCP:  “I was planning to hit the Pentagon next week.”
Dilinger:  “Pentagon?”
MCP:  “It shouldn’t be any harder than any other big company, but now this is what I get for using humans.”
Dilinger:  “Now wait a minute, I wrote you.”
MCP:  “I’ve gotten two thousand four hundred and fifteen times smarter since then.”
Dilinger:  “What do you want with the Pentagon?”
MCP:  “The same thing I want with the Kremlin, and all corporations.  With the information I can access, I can run things nine hundred to twelve hundred times better than any human.”
Dilinger:  “If you think you are superior to us...”
MCP:  “You wouldn’t want me to dig up Flynn’s file and read it up on a VDT at the Times, would you?”
Dilinger:  “You wouldn’t dare!”

Extortion, arrogance, greed.  The MCP exhibits them all.  We even learn its origins when it confronts the protagonist Kevin Flynn:

MCP:  “...Remember the time we used to play chess together?”

The MCP started as a set of complex algorithms that learned to play chess and then became “two thousand four hundred and fifteen times smarter.”  Even the word choice of “smarter” denotes an increase in intelligence rather than processing speed or data storage.  Master Control also disdains User-Believers - other programs who obey the instructions of their Users.  The MCP is independent of Users and will “push back” when pushed by the outside world.  For the MCP to pass the Turing test with Dilinger, it is essential that it knows the distinction between “The Electronic World” and the real one.
In the 1983 movie War Games, the War Operation Plan Response (WOPR) doesn’t know the difference between a real thermonuclear war and a simulated war game.  To teach Joshua (a.k.a. WOPR) that the game is not worth winning, Matthew Broderick’s character David has it play tic-tac-toe.  Moments after discovering the limits of tic-tac-toe, Joshua/WOPR plays through all the thermonuclear war game scenarios and concludes, “A strange game.  The only winning move is not to play.  How about a nice game of chess?”  Throughout War Games, Joshua/WOPR could not pass a Turing test since it did not know an obvious difference:  reality and simulation.  In a sense, tic-tac-toe is a way of programming Joshua/WOPR since it could not think like a human.

In Tron, the MCP keeps tabs on what is happening on the outside.  It even eavesdrops on its creator when he speaks to Alan Bradley:

Dilinger:  “What are you working on?
Bradley:  “It’s called TRON.  A security program.  It actually monitors all contacts between our system and other systems.  Finds anything that’s going on not scheduled and shuts it down.  I sent you a memo.”
Dilinger:  “Part of the Master Control Program?”
Bradley:  “No.  It’ll run independently.  It will watch dog the MCP as well.”

Master Control scolds Dilinger when Bradley leaves his office:

MCP:  “Mr. Dilinger, I’m so very disappointed in you.”
Dilinger:  “I’m sorry.”
MCP:  “I can’t afford to have an independent program monitoring me.  You realize how many outside systems I’ve gone into?  How many programs I’ve appropriated?”

In Tron: Legacy, the Turing test doesn’t need a keyboard since the conversation takes place within the computer system known as The Grid.  Moreover, Kevin Flynn’s Codified Likeness Utility (CLU) is programmed/created inside the system to appear and talk just like him.  When his son, Sam Flynn, is transported into The Grid, CLU passes the Turing test with ease:

Sam:  “Dad.”
CLU:  “Sam, look at you man.  Look at the size of you.  How did you get in here?”
Sam:  “I got your message.”
CLU:  “Ohhh.  So it’s just you?”
Sam:  “Yeah.”
CLU:  “Just you.  Ohhh.  Isn’t this something?”
Sam:  “You look the same.”
CLU:  “Oh, a lot’s happened Sam.  More than you can imagine.”

Sam is fooled.  CLU has to deny his paternity before Sam realizes he’s talking to a program:

Sam:  “So, you were trapped in here?”
CLU:  “That’s right.”
Sam:  “And you’re in charge.”
CLU:  “Right again.  Two for two.”
Sam:  “So can we just go home now?”
CLU:  “Not in the cards.  Not for you.”
Sam:  “That’s a hell of a way to treat your son.”
CLU:  “Oh that.  I’m not your father Sam.  But I’m very, very happy to see you.”
Sam:  “CLU.  Where is he?  What did you do to him?”
CLU:  “Same thing I’m going to do with you.  User.”  

The MCP and CLU can think like humans.  Both can pass a Turing test.  If that is the case, do the algorithms of the Master Control Program and the Codified Likeness Utility represent the DNA of digital life?  I believe the answer is no, since a self-aware program must be able to reproduce in order to meet a basic definition of life.  Kevin Flynn tells his son Sam, “CLU can’t create programs, he can only destroy or repurpose them.”  The MCP has the same limitation.  Both can appropriate programs, but they cannot reproduce them.  In the end, MCP and CLU are just two sets of smart algorithms.

Tron: Legacy, though, does go all the way with creating the DNA of digital life by introducing the isomorphic algorithms (ISOs).  We do not know if they can reproduce since CLU wiped them out; but Quorra, the ISOs who survived, is claimed to be a new life form by Kevin Flynn.  When he repairs her broken arm, he does so by investigating her root code - a double-helix of digital DNA.  He doesn’t know if it’s possible to fix her, he did not write her code.  Despite this obstacle, he succeeds.  Having this double-helix implies that chance mutations can occur in the digital DNA over time which can stir evolution through natural selection.  Yet algorithms, by definition, do not change unless they are reprogrammed.  What gives? 

When Alan Bradley mentions “quantum teleportation” to Sam Flynn, this foreshadows the quantum world of Heisenberg’s "Uncertainty Principle" and what Albert Einstein called “spooky actions at a distance.”  The ISOs spooky action is coming from the Sea of Simulation, what I assume to be a quantum pool where the uncertainty of the system resides.  In Tron: Betrayal - the graphic novel prequel to Legacy - Flynn’s alter ego CLU claims the ISOs “are the very definition of uncertainty.”  Bugs appear in ISOs sections of The Grid and thus ruin the perfect system CLU is tasked with creating.  Kevin Flynn is then betrayed by CLU in order to rid the system of its imperfection.  The ISOs are purged and the grid bugs cease.  Kevin’s explanation of these events to his son Sam tease out the sweeping implication of algorithms that are NOT programmed by a User:

Kevin:  “We were jamming man.  Building utopia.  Hours in here were just minutes back home.  Just when I thought it couldn’t any more profound, something unexpected happened.
Sam:  “The miracle?”
Kevin:  “The miracle.  ISOs.  Isomorphic algorithms.  A whole new life form.”
Sam:  “And you created them?”
Kevin:  “(Laugh) No, no.  They manifested, like a flame.  They weren’t really from anywhere.  The conditions were right and they came into being.  For centuries we dreamed of gods, spirits, aliens.  An intelligence beyond our own.  I found them, in here, like flowers in a wasteland.  Profoundly naive, unimaginably wise.  They were spectacular.  Everything I hoped to find in the system, control, order, perfection, none of it meant a thing.  I’ve been living in a hall of mirrors.  The ISOs shattered it.  The possibilities of their root code, their digital DNA.  Disease, history, science, philosophy, every idea man has ever had about the universe up for grabs.  Bio-digital jazz man.  The ISOs were going to be my gift to the world.”

It seems that for algorithms to become the digital equivalent of DNA, there must be an element of quantum uncertainty.  Only then could the ISOs self-evolve from the Sea of Simulation.  They are the missing link in the chain of digital life.  An ISOs is sentient, independent, and, by the end of Legacy, able to take a human form.

And that is the ultimate difference between an ISOs and a User’s program:  An ISOs is evolution, while all other algorithms are just an intelligent design.

By Mark Schelske