Homunculus

When I was a child I learned that in some traditional folklore, it was believed that inside of every human there is a miniature fully formed human, a homunculus, which is the true source of human intelligence. Sort of like having an operator inside a robot.

Of course this leads to a reductio ad absurdum. If you follow this concept to its logical conclusion, then it’s homunculi all the way down.

Yet we do something vaguely analogous in software. We build software that is based on other software, and below that is still other software. Eventually you get down to the actual processing hardware, but these days that is indeed many levels down.

The fascinating responses to yesterday’s post revived an old idea that I had pondered quite a few years ago. Suppose you made a simulated world, and populated it with virtual people. Then suppose each of these people was actually a colony of virtual beings, collectively charged with keeping their uber-individual functioning.

Now suppose you made this recursive. It would be fascinating to implement such a system, and try to understand its properties.

Precedents abound in literature, ranging from The Thirteenth Floor to the scene with Burt Reynolds and Tony Randall in Woody Allen’s extremely loose adaptation of Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask.

But suppose we were to try this sort of thing for real. I suspect we would quickly learn that there are non-obvious rules to working versions of such systems.

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