Back in the 1970s, an unexpected breakthrough was made by a mathematician named John Conway, here in Cambridge. He devised something called The Game of Life.
A simple simulation that shows how a complex thing like the mind, might come about from a basic set of rules. The simulation consists of a grid, a bit like a chessboard, extending infinitely in all directions.
Each square of the grid can either be lit up, which he called “alive” or dark, which he called “dead”. Whether a given square is dead or alive depends on what is happening in the eight other squares that surround it.
For example, if a living square has no living squares nearby the rules say it’ll die of loneliness. If a living square is surrounded by more than three other living squares the square will also die of overcrowding. But if a dead square is surrounded by three living squares it becomes lit, or is born. Once you set an initial state of living squares and let the simulation run. These simple laws determine what happens in the future. The results are surprising: As the program progresses, shapes appear and disappear spontaneously. Collections of shapes move across the grid bouncing off one another. There are whole kinds of objects, species that interact some can even reproduce, just as life does in the real world.
These complex properties emerge from simple laws that contain no concepts like movement or reproduction. It’s possible to imagine that something like the Game of Life with only a few basic laws might produce highly complex features, perhaps even intelligence. It might take a grid with many billions of squares, but that’s not surprising.
We have many hundreds of billions of cells in our brains so the human mind and the meaning it creates, arise from a large complex system operating to very simple rules.