In our culture we talk about the past and future as if they were countries we could visit if we had the right ticket. Our fiction includes many examples of people and machines that travel back and forth in time. We obviously like to fantasize about the possibilities of time travel, but is it realistic? Is there really a physical place that is the past?
The Universe, as we know it, is made up entirely of the present. You could say that the present IS the current state of the Universe. The entire System, from it’s largest galaxy down to the smallest individual atom, is in constant motion. A good deal of that motion takes place at, or near, the speed of light. These flying particles swirl around each other, forming giant cosmic storms that in turn swirl around their peers and swirl and swirl some more. In every nanosecond, this universal swirling produces a unique pattern of matter and energy that has never before existed. This “present” occupies space.
The chunks of matter we see and the space between them clearly defines the concept we have of space. We could say the concept of time is also represented as a function of moving through space. Even at the speed of light it would take time to travel from one chunk of matter to another. But is time, as we perceive it, a real thing?
Where is the Past?
The present occupies space, but does the past? Where is the physical reality of the past? You have an old rock. Is it the past? No, it is surely right here with us in the present. It is not the same rock that it was in the past. Wind and rain have turned some of it to dust. Some of it’s elements have decayed and released particles into the air. And all the time it is spinning and spinning, moving through the cycles of time.
Where is the past? It exists only in memory. The past is a construct of imagination, it doesn’t really exist. It used to, but doesn’t anymore. The present continues to morph into more of the present, leaving nothing behind. Time/space only exists in the present. The past no longer takes up any time or space; the future has yet to occupy any.
Although we are aware of them, the past and future are concepts that exist only in the mind. The past and future do not exist as a physical reality. However, the concept of the passing of time is absolutely essential for a mobile species navigating a dynamic environment. Movement in time/space requires a conceptual model that includes past, present and future as separate units.
You have heard the expression, “Living in the now”. Why is that important? Because the present is the only reality there is. Everything else is pure imagination. Our imagination works so seamlessly with present reality that we sometimes forget that there is a difference.
In order for robots to do meaningful work, they must be able to find and identify objects in a dynamic environment and use that information to achieve some goal or objective. Controlling this kind of “intelligent action” is the domain of Artificial Intelligence. Intelligence, artificial or otherwise, is essential for robots to function in the real world. Current studies in artificial intelligence and robotics outline quite plainly the feedback loops necessary to achieve effective navigation.
Intelligence is applied to robotics in the design itself and in the algorithms stored in its memory. Each algorithm is a solution to a conceptual situation expected to be encountered, essentially stored intelligence. A modern robot can access a nearly unlimited number of intelligently written algorithms, but still have difficulty navigating a dynamic environment. What Artificial Intelligence is trying to find is a way to store wisdom.
We are presently spending billions of dollars employing the some of the most sophisticated technology and intelligent people on the planet in an effort to build robots that can function effectively in the real world. It isn’t easy. Getting a machine to “make sense” out of raw data is tough, but progress is being made. However, one of the most difficult robotic tasks, the ability to navigate within a dynamic environment, is a skill possessed by every mobile species on the planet. We take it for granted, but our ability to navigate requires a highly complex system of recognition, planning and application of force. Although you and i have well developed navigation skills involving excellent senses and big brains, many tiny creatures successfully navigate their equally dynamic environments with much simpler equipment.
Even the simplest robot needs to be able to process some basic information. It needs an internal clock to track time. It requires some senses to establish space. Before any navigation can take place, there must be some way to reference time and space. The same must be true of biological systems. Even the smallest single celled organism is going to need a mechanism to track time. If it can alter its course, it must also possess the ability to navigate. Just like a robot, to navigate, it must be able to reference time and space.
Seems like a job for an information processing system that can stretch the instantaneous present into a sequence of events in time/space. To monitor these events requires a memory as well. In order to navigate, a course must be plotted in time/space, progress monitored and corrections made. If not the direct action of intelligence, that is surely the result of intelligently written algorithms.
After all, the action we are referring to, the navigation of a dynamic environment, requires the referencing of time, recognition of a past and future, which we have already established as the domain of imagination and the mind. If single celled creatures don’t grasp the concept of past, present and future, the system that manages their behavior surely does.