Matryoshka World

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Physical Limits of Inference


I show that physical devices that perform observation, prediction, or recollection share an underlying mathematical structure. I call devices with that structure "inference devices". I present a set of existence and impossibility results concerning inference devices. These results hold independent of the precise physical laws governing our universe. In a limited sense, the impossibility results establish that Laplace was wrong to claim that even in a classical, non-chaotic universe the future can be unerringly predicted, given sufficient knowledge of the present. Alternatively, these impossibility results can be viewed as a non-quantum mechanical "uncertainty principle". Next I explore the close connections between the mathematics of inference devices and of Turing Machines. In particular, the impossibility results for inference devices are similar to the Halting theorem for TM's. Furthermore, one can define an analog of Universal TM's (UTM's) for inference devices. I call those analogs "strong inference devices". I use strong inference devices to define the "inference complexity" of an inference task, which is the analog of the Kolmogorov complexity of computing a string. However no universe can contain more than one strong inference device. So whereas the Kolmogorov complexity of a string is arbitrary up to specification of the UTM, there is no such arbitrariness in the inference complexity of an inference task. I end by discussing the philosophical implications of these results, e.g., for whether the universe "is" a computer.

This paper by David Wolpert was cited in the Scientific American article in the immediately preceding post.

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