Bits of Meaning: Towards a Computational Theory of Emotion (BOM-TAC-TOE Rough Draft)

December 24, 2021 § Leave a comment

[These are my initial musings. It may take weeks or months to turn these into a coherent analysis, so I figured I should publish them as-is to get them out into the world. Merry Christmas!]

Challenge Question: What is the minimum number of bits necessary to meaningfully simulate some aspect of an emotion?

One Bit

With one bit, it seems like the only thing we can simulate is being happy or unhappy. However, by itself that feels arbitrary.

Two Bit

In order to assign meaning, we need to have the ability for the organism to react to the emotion. The simplest such system would have two bits, like a thermostat. One bit is a sensor reflecting the outside environment , While the other is a motor, affecting the environment.

In this view, the sensor bit represents content or discontent, and the motor reflects go or stay. Interestingly, this assignment is only unique for an outside observer who sees the whole system. Internally, the connection between the two bits is meaningful, but their absolute value is not. For example, we could see that an organism is hungry and discontent therefore it moves. But an equally plausible interpretation would be that the organism is sad and discontent so it rests, but when it is reenergized it reengage with the world; still, this seems to be less self-contained somehow.

Three Bits

Surprisingly, the next step in our hierarchy is to have two sensor bits and one motor bit. Psychologically, we have different signals in our brains for the presence of good and the presence of bad, not just having one be the absence of the other. A good example of this is breathing, which can be triggered either by a deficit of oxygen or an excess of carbon dioxide.

It is fascinating that the breathing system actually has a failure mode. Normally, our bodies always want more oxygen and less carbon dioxide. But sometimes we could have not enough carbon dioxide, which is why we need to breathe into a paper bag when we hyperventilate.

Question: Is this an intrinsic failure mode of 2+1 systems? Or only certain types of combinations, or features of the external environment?

Hypothesis: The system is only stable if the two sensors are congruent, when their idea of good and bad is absolute and invariant. But in that case, isn’t one of them redundant?

At a similar level of complexity is a tri-state motor, which requires a tri-state sensor (roughly, 1.5 +1.5 = 3 bits). For example, sensing Red-Black-Green results in Backward-Neutral-Forward motion, respectively. The Backward motion would be easy to call Fear. It is thus tempting to call Forward Anger, by symmetry. But if, say, Green is Food and Red is Danger, Forward is more like Joy, or perhaps simply Hunger.

A better symmetry for the tri-state system is perhaps Desire vs Fear, with the sensor appraising a continuum from Desirable to Fearful; advancing towards the one while withdrawing from the other.

Four Bits

Things get really interesting once we have four bits. The simplest option is to split both sensors and motors into Left and Right, allowing reactions in two dimensions instead of one. This creates a new behavior we can call the Pivot, where one motor is stopped while the other runs. It is tempting to call this Wonder or Curiosity, since that is what we do to focus on novel phenomena.

It also may be useful to start thinking in terms of Signals, where the null state is an absence of new information.

This allows using the second bit for preparation. For example, if the first Bit is Fearful/Desirable, the second could be Now/Later. Now leads to immediate Action, but Later to what we might call Stimulation. This leads to what we can fairly call Feelings — internal states not directly tied to behavior.

Another use of a second perception Bit is for In/Out, which starts to get to the idea of a Self. Behaviorally, sensing Desire/Fear towards something “inside” triggers Embrace/Eject instead of Approach/Withdraw. This suggests the opposite of Desire is perhaps Despise, which can be considered the active version of Disgust.

So, if something is Desirable, we Acquire if it is outside but Protect if inside. Conversely, if it is Despicable we Avoid when outside and “Void” when inside. As such, Desire and Despite can act as synonyms for (two-bit) Love and Hate!

Reflections on Love & Hate

Question: Could we meaningfully use the terms Love and Hate for any simpler system, eg hating Red and loving Green in the tri-state?

I want to say “no”, because love implies “keeping” not merely “consuming.”. Someone who merely desires chocolate would eat it on aight, but someone who loves it would ensure they have a steady supply.

  • Of course, one could equally-well define:
    1. one-bit love as immediate consumption (want/not-want)
      two-bit love as long-term association (now/later)

    Question: Is there a three-bit love where
    one nurtures another at the expense of
    one’s self? (selfish/altruistic)

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