Sunday, 21 June 2009

Alpha Omega

Stills from Alpha Omega, animation on Sinclair ZX Spectrum (2009) (1 minute, 50 seconds).



Alpha Omega began with another animation and drawing entitled 'Barmouth, Portstewart, 2002' which itself was a response to a recurring dream. I come from Ireland but live in England, and for years my home in dreams was situated somewhere between the two - on board the ferry forever and ever, stopping only in the middle of the night to pick up passengers, others adrift, in need of rescue, and no one ever disembarked.



The dream occurred so often I wanted to capture the images within it. This began an interest in pixellating  the sea and sky. In seeking how to best represent these within the confines of 256 x 192 pixels, I became interested in a plethora of mathematical concepts. My knowledge is still embarrassingly  shallow but my interest is keen and passion resolute.

These plethora of concepts fall under the heading of algorithmic information theory, a term associated with Gregory Chaitin of the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center. While still a teenager Chaitin discovered the Omega number which, in short, is the halting probability of a randomly generated computer program. His work is a continuation of Godel's and Turing's.



Algorithmic information theory sees the universe as a quantum computer processing itself as information. Temperature, for instance, is a measure of information. The number of bits needed to describe the regular structure of ice is relatively small compared with the number of bits needed to describe the chaotic movements of the molecules in steam. If the second law of thermodynamics holds true then the universe will approach a state described by  2^∞ bits.



Frank Tipler's Omega Point theory states that the universe's computation power will become infinite as it collapses into singularity. By this stage our descendants will have harnessed the quantum computer nature of the universe, and will be able to run artificial intelligence versions of everyone forever. This is where algorithmic information theory becomes quasi-religious. Tipler's Omega Point theory has its origins in the writings of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), Jesuit priest and scientist, who envisioned a future of self-conscious and reflective unity beyond animalistic being in what he called a noosphere.



I should point out that at no time have I heard or read any mention of Omega Point theory by Chaitin who describes himself primarily as a computer programmer and then as a meta-mathematician. There is, however, a connection beyond the use of the word Omega. The Omega number is theoretical, its absolute value unknown. The problem being that the closer the calculations are to its answer, the longer it takes to calculate. In fact it will take infinitely long to find its value. However, as with Turing's uncomputable real numbers, Tipler's infinitely large expansion of the universe's computing power allows these calculations to be made.



Omega Point theory is of course wildly speculative. Despite Tipler's claims of its proof in physics, it still reads like a religious prophesy of technological determinism. Surprisingly for me, I find it easier to consume Teilhard's version as something which is to be striven for and spiritually dedicated to. In this animation, Alpha Omega, it is the audacity within Tipler's theory which is being satirised. It is, admittedly, audacious to create animation on such an apparently redundant machine as the ZX Spectrum, but, to raise the spectre of my pretension, learning machine code programming over the last seven years has involved spiritual dedication.


Compression plays a central role in algorithmic information theory. To compress information is to enact an understanding of it. The compression algorithm is that understanding.

Gregory Chaitin :

I think of a scientific theory as a binary computer program for calculating the observations, which are also written in binary. And you have a law of nature if there is compression, if the experimental data is compressed into a computer program that has a smaller number of bits than are in the data that it explains. The greater the degree of compression, the better the law, the more you understand the data.

But if the experimental data cannot be compressed, if the smallest program for calculating it is just as large as it is... then the data is lawless, unstructured, patternless, not amenable to scientific study, incomprehensible. In a word, random, irreducible!


Gregory Chaitin :

Compression techniques are useless if they are applied to noise, to the mad jumble that you get if an antenna is disconnected, because there is absolutely no pattern to compress away.

Another way to put it is that the most informative picture is one in which each pixel is a complete surprise.


Above is some further evidence of the Spectrum running the animation. The BASIC program which you can see runs two files of machine code. Each one has a sequencer routine which runs smaller sequences of even smaller routines embedded with calls to other even smaller routines, and scattered amongst this hodge-podge of code are the bitmaps. Each time an animation is made new routines are designed which are then re-used in a library for the next project resulting in the bottom of the code looking relatively elegant, but then the rest becomes spaghetti of increasing complexity towards the top. If ever an animation is made of complete code elegance it would probably be the last one I would want to make. It would signify that there wasn't anything new to learn.



You can tell from the clarity of the stills that the animation isn't just being run on a Spectrum but, instead, it is an emulation. Actually very accurate to the real thing but it allows me to work on a laptop with all the benefits, i.e. fitting the work around a busy life, grabbing bits of time in a cafe before the day job and in a library at lunchtime. No nervous tension during cassette loading! Having spent the last 7 years using the old method on the real machine, an emulation has been a liberation. Besides, the idea of running one system inside another is appealing. It is very Omega Point.


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  2. Did you put code these graphics or find them online?

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