Fri. Oct 18th, 2019

The ubiquitous algorithms, with us for 3,000 years | Trends

Tired of hearing that we've been talking about artificial intelligence for over 50 years? We bring you another cantinela: the algorithms we invented 3,000 years ago. This is the thesis that defend Matteo Pasquinelli, professor of Media Theory at the University of Art and Design in Karlsruhe in last number of e-flux.

Its primal algorithm occurs in the Vedas, the oldest texts in Indian literature. And, more specifically, in the instructions for a ritual that is recorded in them. "The Agnicayana ritual is described in the Śulbasūtras, composed about eight hundred years before Christ in India to record a much older tradition, "explains Pasquinelli.

In these texts, besides being the only preserved source of the ancestral Indian mathematical knowledge, they contained the guidelines to build altars with certain geometries. "For example, they suggest that those who want to extinguish existing and future enemies must build a fire altar in the shape of a diamond."

In the case of the Agnicayana, the form that must be obtained for the ritual is that of a rapacious bird, much more complex, that represents the reconstruction of the god Prayápati. "In his studies of Vedic mathematics, the Italian Paolo Zellini has discovered that the Agnicayana ritual was used to transmit techniques of geometric approximation and incremental variation … In other words, algorithmic techniques," says the professor.

Diagram of the Agnicayana altar, shaped like a bird, recorded by Professor Frits Staal, a scholar of Vedic rituals

With this altar of avian silhouette reproduces the myth of the cosmogenesis narrated by the Vedic texts. According to them, the god Prayápati It exploded into a thousand pieces after creating the universe. The task of the faithful is to recompose the dismembered god by following the elaborate geometric scheme designed for it.

Algorithms are among the oldest cultural practices

Jean-Luc Chabert

How does this work? For Pasquinelli, the key to these ancient algorithms is in the forms of abstraction. "The numbers were already components of primitive and abstract machines of social segmentation and territorialization, the first census that is conserved, for example, took place about 3,800 years before Christ," he explains. And the algorithm where is it? Well, according to the professor, in the development of the Agnicayana ritual is implicit a concept that is not so far from what we have today. That definition, common to Vedic texts and computer science, has four keys:

  1. "An algorithm is an abstract diagram that emerges from the repetition of a process, an organization of time, space, work and operations."
  2. "An algorithm is the division of this process into finite steps to develop and control it efficiently"
  3. "An algorithm is a solution to a problem."
  4. "An algorithm is an economic process, in that it must use the minimum of resources and adapt to the limits of the situation."

In this sense, in the structure with the shape of the hawk, two functions would be codified: a ritual, which goes through the reconstruction of a god. And another social, which concludes with the teaching of basic geometric skills.

The relationship established by Pasquinelli between the Agnicayana and the algorithms is not without controversy. "To many it may seem that it is an act of cultural appropriation to read ancient cultures from the paradigm of the latest technologies," he admits. However, the professor relies on the words of the French mathematician Jean-Luc Chabert, to argue his thesis: "Algorithms are just a set of step-by-step instructions that have to be carried out quite mechanically to achieve some desired result " Pasquinelli finds examples of this definition throughout history. "Algorithms are among the oldest cultural practices, feeding many human tools and all modern machines," he says.

In the decision system of the Babylonians, in the techniques used by the Latin teachers to determine the correct grammar, in the establishment of medical treatments, in the kitchen … "We talk about recipes, rules, techniques, procedures, methods. .. We use the same word applied to different situations (…) In the end, the term algorithm has ended up associated with any systematic calculation process.Today, due to the influence of computation, this idea of ​​finite magnitudes –finiteness– has entered into the meaning of algorithm as an essential element, differentiating it from more diffuse notions, such as process, method or technique, "says Chabert.

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