The Unseen Computational Force Within All Things

“Even rocks compute,” a friend once remarked. I won’t comment on either of our sobriety, but at the time I just shot him a knowing look and nodded contemplatively. But what did he mean?

Maybe he meant that the reflections and refractions off rocks, or even better, crystals, perform a sort of mapping. The light waves come in from one direction, then reflect, refract, scatter, and project on to surrounding surfaces. Sometimes these light projections are beautiful, regular, even useful.

Light computation performs a non-linear optical transfer function.
Light reflections perform a computational non-linear optical transfer function.

Light, being a vibration of electromagnetic radiation in the optical part of the spectrum, has a higher frequency, than sound waves, but like light, sound is a vibrational energy that imprints change in the resonance of objects around it. Taken this way, the quandary of the tree falling in the forest resolves in the affirmative, because someone is always there to witness it, namely the tree and forest itself.

The field of archeoacoustics explores the innate acoustical properties of artifacts via audio analysis—a study of the essential vibrational qualities of artifacts and environments. In examination of a 1969 claim by Richard G. Woodbridge III, the Mythbusters report it is in fact not possible to resurrect ancient roman voices from the grooves carved by their tools as they spun around a potter’s wheel 6,500 years ago. Maybe not yet anyway.

The vibrations from our voices to our footsteps, are like tiny tremors impacting the matter around us. And whether this matter is capable of recording them may have more to do with our playback technology than the indisputable fact that what we do influences the things around us.

Can a potter’s tool inadvertently record sounds like carving grooves into a vinyl record?

As early as circa 1902, mathematician Charles Sanders Peirce wrote, “Give science only a hundred more centuries of increase in geometrical progression, and she may be expected to find that the sound waves of Aristotle’s voice have somehow recorded themselves.”

A rock, a tree, the earth—animals have used these as computational devices by echolocation long before humans evolved. Zoologists Roger Payne and Douglas Webb calculated that before ship traffic noise permeated the oceans, tones emitted by fin whales could have traveled as far as four thousand miles and still be heard against the normal background noise of the sea. Whales, bats, dolphins, and recently even some blind humans use echolocation to “see” objects by listening to reflections of sounds they themselves emit. The computation is performed by the reflecting objects, transforming the sound energy as it was emitted, by shifting frequency and waveform to imprint this energy with the characteristics of the objects that have influenced it such as distance, size, hardness, maybe even “tastiness”?

Illustration of dolphin finding food by echolocation.
Illustration of dolphin finding food by echolocation.

 

Is there an essential vibrational signature to all things that can be elucidated through computation? Yes, there is. And the next part of this series will introduce the modern machine learning techniques and sensor technologies being employed to further illuminate the useful (and perhaps mystical) properties in everything around us.

Brett Bond is President of Concrete Interactive, a software development and machine learning firm based in San Francisco and Santa Monica. When not writing software, Brett enjoys practicing yoga, preparing the nursery for his soon-to-arrive daughter, and building large-scale fire displays.