Saturday, 9 November 2013

What system is the most resilient?

"What system is the most resilient": it probably sounds like a silly question, but before jumping to conclusions I invite you to consider a few facts. A human being is a "system" generally considered as the highest peak of evolution. Certainly human beings are more 'advanced' than, e.g., dogs. But how do the superior qualities of mankind translate in terms of resilience? Under stressful or turbulent conditions, often a wo/man will result "better" than a dog: superior awareness, consciousness, manual and technical dexterity, and reasoning; advanced ability to thesaurize experience, learn, develop science, and so on and so forth, they all lead to the 'obvious' conclusions that mankind has a greater ability to adapt and survive. And though, it's quite easy to find counterexamples. If a threat comes with ultrasonic noise, a dog may perceive the threat and react -- for instance by running away -- while the man may stay unaware until too late. Or consider the case of miners: inability to perceive toxic gases makes them vulnerable to, e.g. carbon monoxide and dioxide, methane, and other lethal gases. A simpler system able to perceive the threat would have more chances to survive.
From the above reasoning we can conclude a first fact: Resilience is not an absolute figure; it is the result of a match with a reference environment. Whatever its structure, organization, architecture, capabilities, and resources, a system is only resilient as long as its "provisions" match the current environmental conditions. A better way to express the resilience of a system, say s, could then be by saying that s is E-resilient, where E represents in some form the reference environment. (E could be expressed, e.g., as a vector of dynamic systems, each of which representing the evolution in time of a given context figure). I think it is important to realize that, with reference to an E-resilient system s, a key distinguishing factor is whether or not E is practically immutable and beyond any possibility of revision for s. "Practically" here means that the revisions should occur on a time scale comparable with that of the onset of change.

So surprise, surprise!, what do we end up with here? With yet another blow to our vaunted superiority and our fabled central role in the design of all things universal. Our homocentrism leads us to consider ourselves as Top of the Evolutionary Heap, but we must admit that this is yet another of man's misconceptions.

What I want to come to is that it would be more accurate to state that man is (likely to be) the most advanced natural system. The adjective is important, because all natural systems change their system-environment fit through natural evolution, which is an inefficient and very slow way to cope with change. Nature's answers to this problem include a change of scale -- moving from the individual to the species, from the species to the ecosystem, in a fractal organization of all things. Thus a role may disappear but the whole she-bang still goes on. But on an individual scale, and even at the level of species, our inability to quickly revise our system structure and organization leaves us as evolutionary sitting ducks: it takes literally ages to reshape our features, which often leads to resilience failures for the individual or the species.

Thus what system could be considered as more resilient than this? Most definitely that would be a system able to self-evolve very quickly; a system that is that may be better modeled as a E(t)-resilient system. Of course this does not immediately make a cyber-physical thing more resilient than a man; but its system structure is free of the limitations that burden natural systems. We must admit, I believe, that natural systems have reached an evolutionary dead-end. Even though not as sophisticated as a human being, a cyber-physical thing can in a matter of seconds assess large-scale situations, perform collective strategies, establish mutualistic relationships, self-organize into a swarm. Soon non-trivial forms of collective intelligence are likely to emerge. At that point, what system will be the most resilient?
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What system is the most resilient? by Vincenzo De Florio is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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