Karl Friston & the concept of free energy

The following sections are from an article on Karl Friston. Be sure to read the full article, which is here: The Genius Neuroscientist Who Might Hold the Key to True AI.

The quotes below provide a loose overview of the article.

,,,Friston’s free energy principle says that all life, at every scale of organization—from single cells to the human brain, with its billions of neurons—is driven by the same universal imperative, which can be reduced to a mathematical function. To be alive, he says, is to act in ways that reduce the gulf between your expectations and your sensory inputs. Or, in Fristonian terms, it is to minimize free energy.

That’s the most basic idea. It comes from and further explains that:

…Over time, Hinton convinced Friston that the best way to think of the brain was as a Bayesian probability machine. The idea, which goes back to the 19th century and the work of Hermann von Helmholtz, is that brains compute and perceive in a probabilistic manner, constantly making predictions and adjusting beliefs based on what the senses contribute. According to the most popular modern Bayesian account, the brain is an “inference engine” that seeks to minimize “prediction error.”

A “Markov blanket” is that which keeps life forms separate from each other. This allows them to act on individual variables different from those contained within the Markov blankets of other life forms.

…Markov is the eponym of a concept called a Markov blanket, which in machine learning is essentially a shield that separates one set of variables from others in a layered, hierarchical system. The psychologist Christopher Frith—who has an h-index on par with Friston’s—once described a Markov blanket as “a cognitive version of a cell membrane, shielding states inside the blanket from states outside.”

In Friston’s mind, the universe is made up of Markov blankets inside of Markov blankets. Each of us has a Markov blanket that keeps us apart from what is not us. And within us are blankets separating organs, which contain blankets separating cells, which contain blankets separating their organelles. The blankets define how biological things exist over time and behave distinctly from one another. Without them, we’re just hot gas dissipating into the ether.

Living organisms seek to minimize the difference between their predictions and what actually happens.

…Free energy is the difference between the states you expect to be in and the states your sensors tell you that you are in. Or, to put it another way, when you are minimizing free energy, you are minimizing surprise.

According to Friston, any biological system that resists a tendency to disorder and dissolution will adhere to the free energy principle—whether it’s a protozoan or a pro basketball team.

And this is how they do it.

…When the brain makes a prediction that isn’t immediately borne out by what the senses relay back, Friston believes, it can minimize free energy in one of two ways: It can revise its prediction—absorb the surprise, concede the error, update its model of the world—or it can act to make the prediction true.

Human interpersonal optimization parallels or aligns with psychological optimization. Both minimize “free energy” as defined above, thus allowing us to use our brains and energies more efficiently.

For readers with suitable partners and inclinations, FIML practice is designed to optimize human psychology, brain function, and energy use.

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