So what is information anyway?

With the advent of artificial intelligence (AI) there’s a lot of talk about computers knowing things, or processing information. But how does this actually work?

I’ll be upfront here and say, “I don’t know,” at least in any detailed sense. But thinking out loud on the topic might turn up some interesting observations.

Computers have been information processing for ages (and before computers, calculators, abacuses etc. were doing it.) With AI, computers are simply processing information better, faster and “deeper” than ever before.

But what is really going on when we say a computer processes “information”? What information?

Let’s first consider the notion of a “bit.” The term comes from the relatively recent discipline of information theory and refers to the smallest unit of information possible. In essence, it’s a yes or no question. For example, let’s say I was tracking information about the couches in my couch factory. These couches come in three colors—red, green and orange. So I could track that information in three bits: a bit that gets marked “yes” if the couch is red, a bit that gets marked “yes” if the couch is green and a bit that gets marked “yes” if the couch is orange. Actually I could get away with using only two bits by saying, “if the red bit is set to no and the green bit is set to no then the couch must be orange.”

When you look out at the world, you can basically describe it using bits. Look at your best friend. Are they male, yes or no? Do they have a mustache, yes or no? Do they read this blog, yes or no? Are they gay, yes or no? And on and on…

You can see how this can be a remarkably effectively tool, and this tracking of bits is what drives computing. For example, images can be “held” in a computer if you track the red, green and blue value (represented as a number which can be captured as a series of bits*) for each pixel, plus, I think, luminescence and maybe a few other things.

* More detailed explanation here, if you care.

But it’s key at this point to take a step back and realize that just because computers hold information about couches, best friends or images, that doesn’t mean they really know anything. They know nothing, because they are basically dumb electrical signals shuffling around. A computer knows the image it contains no more than an abacus knows the number value it just helped add. Both tools require a human being to come along and observe the information being represented. Without the human, a computer’s information is a bunch of yeses or nos, devoid of context or purpose.

I’m pretty sure some information theorists would disagree with some of what I’ve said here, but this is how I see it.

So that makes us feel pretty special as humans, right? We know stuff whereas these dumb computers just sit there twiddling their switches. But do we really know anything?

Like computers, we also seem to hold information in bits of a sort. We have neurons and they fire or they don’t*. (I believe I’m correct in saying neurons can actually impart more than just yes or no values because they can fire at different strengths. To be honest, I’ve never really been clear about that but for the purposes of this post we merely need to agree that neurons hold information in some way.) So, you observe a coffee cup and various neurons that activate for round shapes start firing, as do neurons that activate for the smell of coffee, past memories of coffee, the general sense of being amped up and awake and on and on. Our brain “represents” the coffee cup using a lot of bits… I dunno how many. And we are aware of this represented information with different degrees of awareness. I might be strongly conscious of the notion: that is a coffee cup, but I’m less aware of the sense that coffee tastes bitter, or that it has caffeine.

*I’m aware that information in brains is really held in the connections between neurons (synapses), but I think this explanation works for our purposes.

My point here, and I do have one, is this: with computers, we track information about objects (or concepts or whatever) but we understand that that information is meaningless until a conscious agent, probably a human, comes along and observes it. But brains also track bits of information. So who/what is the conscious agent that is required to observe that information in our brains and “convert” it from meaningless bits to useful information? This could be another way of asking, “What is consciousness?”

While thinking about this I stumbled across this interesting quora question with fascinating answers (though no conclusive answers.) How much information does a human brain neuron store?

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