25 Mar 2007 nconway   » (Master)

Complexity and Life

The Kolmogorov complexity of a string x is the length of the description of the minimal computer program that outputs x, relative to a given model of computation. Hence, complexity describes the amount of redundant information, or structure, in the string: as the string's complexity approaches its length, the string becomes increasingly random. (A string's complexity can be no greater than an additive constant of its length, since we can always emit the string by embedding it in a Turing machine that just prints out the string).

I'd like to write more about Kolmogorov complexity later, but for now I'll just point to an interesting application of this idea to studying biological life. Zhanna Reznikova has applied information theory to studying the communication between animals, in particular ants. This paper describes an interesting result: an experiment was setup in which a "scout" ant communicates the location of some food to another group of "forager" ants. The path from the ants to the food is a binary maze, so the path can be represented as a series of left or right turns (e.g. "RRR", "RLR", etc.). Reznikova measured the time it took for the scout to transmit the location of the food to the other ants, and then varied the path, to see how the time of transmission varied with the complexity of the route. As it turns out (p. 9, table 2), the ants were able to more efficiently communicate paths that could be encoded as strings with low complexity. For example, the path "RRRRRR" required a mean duration of 88 seconds to transmit, whereas "RLRLRL" took 135 seconds.

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