The Origins and Implications of Time in Adaptive Systems

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SFI Workshop on the Origins & Implications of Time in Physical & Adaptive Systems June 18-20

The timescales of adaptive phenomena are not trivially reducible to the timescales of physics and chemistry. It is through the manipulation of mechanisms that influence the perception of space and time that levels of organization, individuality, and societies arise. In manipulating space and time–in constructing slow timescales (e.g. long-lived phenotypes, robust patterns of inheritance, institutions) coupled to stable spatial aggregations—adaptive systems reduce uncertainty locally (store information), creating (to varying degrees) ordered, predictable, environments conducive to adaptation and ultimately conducive to extracting energy to do work.

The importance of space is appreciated in the study of complex phenomena particularly in ecology and social evolution where it has been identified as a major factor supporting the evolution of cooperation (e.g. by promoting repeated interactions). Time has also been a focus of attention but in a more descriptive and disciplinary sense. It is widely recognized that in adaptive systems there are many timescales and that there are a multitude of biological clocks and rhythms structuring behavior from the molecular level on up to social and economic systems. How timescales arise and, in particular, interact, how they are controlled and exploited, and how perception and cognition influence the capacity of adaptive systems to manipulate and exploit time, are questions that are much less well understood and are the core motivation for this meeting.

We believe to make progress on these questions we must first step back and recognize that the concept of time pervades everything that we believe about the physical & biological universe. And furthermore despite this pervasiveness the concept of time is not (yet?) a unitary one. It involves a number of disparate but related aspects, from the mechanics of timekeeping to the joining of time and space in Einstein’s relativity. This workshop will focus on one crucial aspect: the arrow of time, distinguishing what we call “the past” from “the future.” We will start with a review of the latest understanding of the relationship between the arrow of time, entropy and the second law of thermodynamics. This will lay the foundations for the rest of the meeting. From fundamentals we move to move to time and information in adaptive systems. On the final meeting day, we will circle back to where we started, asking if the relationship between time and entropy in physical systems is the same as it is in adaptive systems, or if in adaptive systems, perhaps because of their unique capacity to manipulate (over evolution and within lifespans) how they perceive time, time has a different relationship to entropy.

The meeting will be organized around three themes (1) fundamentals of time in physical systems, (2) origins, construction and exploitation of timescales in adaptive systems, and (3) the relation between the arrow of time and perception. This meeting aims to be synoptic and will span a very significant range of adaptive phenomena related to time.

We’d like for this meeting to be informal and discussion heavy but it is a diverse group so we need to lay the foundations first—we are asking each speaker to provide background to critical issues with respect to time in her/his research area. The talks should not be work talks but should lay out the big questions and be provocative. At the end of each “session”, we have designated a discussion leader who should make a few provisional remarks and get the discussion going around themes common to that session and, when possible, running across sessions. Please aim for 20 minute “talks” with 10 minutes of specific discussion.