TED prize winner and founder of School in the Cloud, Sugata Mitra, describes his experimentation with causality, using computer simulation to explore if our imagined futures could already exist. In this article, written exclusively for Imagination Matters, he muses on how his simulation might relate to real life. Continue reading for the full article and many thanks to Sugata for this wonderful contribution.

You can imagine anything. You could imagine a fish on fire inside a fish tank. What you imagine does not actually exist, it’s just in your mind.

But what if the things you imagine do exist somewhere, in some reality? Could imagination then just be an organ, like your eyes? An organ that can see across many realities, across past, present and future?

I ran into this idea while thinking about causality. Causality moves only from past to the present; the cause is always in the past, the effect in the present. Why should the cause always come before the effect? Could a cause come after the effect?

That sounded absurd, so I tried an experiment along with a friend of mine, Sujai, many years ago.

We tried to build a time symmetric causal system. A system where things happen both because of what happened before and what will happen after.

The experiment was a pretty simple computer program. We put a dot on a screen and we made some simple rules for what will happen to the dot in the next instant. What happens to any dot on the screen depended on its neighbours on either side. For example, if a dot had one dot immediately to its left and right, it would be overcrowded and just disappear in the next instant. If a dot had no neighbours at all, it would be lonely and two dots would appear on either side of it. We made four such rules (of life and death, if you like!). So, the dots for each time step was computed using the dots of the previous time step.

Then we put just one dot at the bottom of the screen and let the program run. The screen filled with a beautiful pattern of triangles. But there was nothing in our program to make triangles!

In this system, each step was constructed from the dots of the previous step, the future was a blank that filled up as the past steps created the next steps.

 

Starting with a single dot at the lowest central point of a blank rectangular space, Serpiensky triangles are produced, bottom upwards, with a set of rules that govern what happens at each time step depending on the existence or not of each dot’s neighbours on either side. Each step depends on the previous (past) step. There is nothing in the future for any step.

But what if the future was not just blank? What if the future had things in it already?

We presented our system with a situation where the future time steps were already populated with an image. As though its future already existed. So, we put a smiley face in the future or our world of dots. We ran the program. The dots ‘met’ the future and the screen became a chaos of dots, meaningless and pulsing with no pattern. And then….

Suddenly, the chaos disappeared and staring at us from the screen were, not one, but three smiley faces! The dots had made their imaginary future, happen.

 

Starting with a single dot at the top centre of a rectangular space, where a ‘smiley face’ symbol is placed in the future, the same rules that were making the triangles earlier, produced a chaotic pattern that, as it evolved, reproduced the ‘smiley face’ in multiple copies, over and over. Their future was actualised and became their past.

Is there a ‘memory’ of the future? The smiley face image was not stored in any particular place in the matrix of dots. It was spread throughout the distribution, much as the information in a hologram is not ‘kept’ in any one place but is distributed throughout the interference pattern that created the hologram. Such non-localized storage has been reported in the synaptic connections in brains, in recent experimental work (Kushkin and Carew, 2017)

We published this work and you can read it here (PDF).

But then, all this is just a computer simulation, does it have any relationship to real life? I found that it does. Nature uses this sort of upside down causality quite often.

On a quiet surface of water, the water molecules are all connected to each other through molecular forces. You could disturb the quietness with a drop of water, dropped from a small height.

As the drop falls in, ripples form and move outward. And then, they move in. A bulge appears and the smooth surface of the water throws up a drop, exactly like the one that fell in. A ghost of a memory that is converted into an imagined future where a drop, just like the first one, falls in again.

 

A water drop falling on a sheet of water is replicated by the water body.

 

If a future ‘exists’, then it is actualised into the present and then into the past of the system.

So, are we like that? Can the connected synapses of our brains sense and actualise a future? Indeed, can the immensely connected Internet ‘see’ and reproduce a future?

If this is so, then imagination is material in a strange, upside down, kind of way. Our very existence then would depend on our ability to imagine a future.

A future that will create our present.

Posted by:Sugata Mitra

Sugata Mitra is Professor of Educational Technology at Newcastle University. His “Hole in the Wall” experiments, begun in 1999, revealed that groups of children can learn almost anything by themselves given Internet access and the ability to work collaboratively. He developed this original idea into the SOLE [the Self Organised Learning Environment] approach, reaching out to children with minimal or no educational opportunities, in remote corners of the globe. He has driven research into making this approach part of mainstream education. At TED2013, Sugata Mitra made a bold TED Prize wish: to revolutionize the future of learning. The School in the Cloud is making this possible with self-organised learning and Sugata’s methodologies at its heart. Whilst Sugata has home bases in Newcastle, UK and West Bengal, India, his ideas are having an impact world-wide.

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