Composable Engineering

Rich Digital Physics and the Evolution of Computational Worlds

Author: guiltygyoza
Published: August 9, 2023

Rich Digital Physics

Each world contains a system of fundamental laws that govern everything within it. These laws are the world's physics. Note that the term "physics" only denotes a system of fundamental laws; it does not necessarily involve any of the familiar laws of physics from our atomic reality. In our atomic reality, if two bodies exert forces on each other, these forces have the same magnitude but opposite directions. In the world of chess, the queen may move any number of vacant squares horizontally, vertically, or diagonally.

The laws are invariants. Outside of the event of a world being upgraded, invariants stay constant and immutable. The laws form the stable structure upon which more structures at higher levels can be formed. Structures bear predictable patterns. For worlds that are engaging to human participants, a certain degree of predictability is required. This is because the human mind works like a pattern-matching machine. For instance, predictable patterns in causal effects help human participants plan ahead and make deliberate decisions. Lacking sufficient structure could lead to insufficient predictability, which leads to frustration and hurts engagement. For instance, trying to play badminton in a courtyard where wind blows chaotically from different directions would be frustrating. 

We may refer to the system of fundamental laws of a computational world, or a world that is made live and interactive via computation, as its digital physics.

Taking the Pokémon video game worlds as an example, the Pokémon type system describes a subset of the digital physics of those computational worlds.

Taking the Age of Empires video game worlds as an example, the counter system describes the relative effectiveness between military unit types. The counter system constitutes a subset of the digital physics of the Age of Empires computational worlds.

The greater the number of rules structuring a world, the more interesting interactions between these rules can emerge. The more elaborate and voluminous the body of digital physics becomes, the more complex processes, artifacts, and occurrences can take shape on top of it. A richer digital physics provides an affordance for a richer computational world.

Engineering as Creating in the World

With physics comes engineering: the practice of deploying the understanding of a world's physics to manipulate objects into novel and valuable configurations. Just as any design process is constrained by certain rules which concretely structure and hence enable the design itself, an engineer is both constrained and enabled by physical laws to manipulate the substances of a world into things of value. With digital physics, what can be engineered in computational worlds? What could be?

Take the Pokémon video games as an example. Given the type system, players can engineer teams of Pokémon that are optimized to battle against particular combinations of types on an opponent's team.

Take the Age of Empires video games as an example. Given the counter system, players can engineer armies of mixed unit types that are either optimized against particular unit types on an opponent's team or optimized for complementing particular unit types from the same teams.

Players can engineer new creations in the world within the enforced boundaries of its digital physics.

However, for the two examples above, digging one level deeper would yield an insuperable wall: players cannot engineer the individual Pokémon, nor can they engineer the military unit types. There is no physics in those computational worlds that supports such engineering activities. New Pokémon and new military units are not engineered within the worlds, but introduced into the worlds across their diegetic boundaries by the corporate developers of those worlds—the gods of those worlds. This means that the superset of Pokémon is itself part of the digital physics of the Pokémon computational worlds and that the superset of military units is itself part of the digital physics of the Age of Empires computational worlds. This setup makes it difficult for these worlds to sustain their drama, because (1) the drama of a world is partly dependent on the enumeration of objects that exist in it, and (2) this setup requires the god of the world to continue injecting new objects to sustain drama.

When the enumeration of objects stays in stasis, however composable those objects might be, their combinatorics tends towards saturation. Meta—the dominant strategy to excel in the world—takes shape and becomes ossified. Resource and power distribution among human participants tends toward stasis too. All of these effects suppress drama. In our atomic reality, new things continually come into existence through natural evolution or by way of human discovery and invention, disrupting civilizations and societal norms, causing drama. An adaptive mutation in a virus causes global supply chains to collapse. The invention of the printing press gives rise to imaginary communities among strangers and thus the nation state. If what exists within a world is determined by a single corporation, the world is bottlenecked by that corporation's lifespan as well as its ability and willingness to ship—the world has reduced autonomy.

For an Autonomous World that wants sustained attention from its human participants, it needs sustained drama. For computational worlds off the blockchain, the Pokémon, military units, usable equipment, consumables, vehicles, castable spells, and everything in the tech trees and skill trees are most commonly defined solely by their singular gods. All of these elements are commonly referred to as features of a world. For Autonomous Worlds with rich digital physics, they could be known as inventions in the world—invented from within by the world's inhabitants rather than introduced from without by its gods, keeping the world autonomous. The affordances of blockchain to enable rich digital physics may not be technical but cultural and philosophical—the desire for computational worlds that sustain themselves infinitely longer than centrally driven ones, and the rare opportunity to reinvent design approaches and business models toward sustainable worlding.  

Composable Engineering

The tower of human knowledge is created by knowledge composition: the recombination of existing pieces of knowledge to unlock new epistemic and pragmatic possibilities. For example, by composing the knowledge of building a telescope and the knowledge of precise plotting through a mechanical apparatus, Galileo produced the knowledge of celestial bodies moving in ways inconsistent with what the Church asserted. This knowledge brought long-term repercussions, shaping a foundational component for nearly all physical sciences since. Human progress slows down when knowledge composition is hindered.

Composable engineering is hereby defined as the affordance of a world to allow for recursive composition of engineered artifacts with no limit on recursion depth. To give an example, the engineering of a Pokémon team produces an object with a recursion depth of zero—teams are not composable. A team is assembled to participate in battles with other individual teams; no superstructure can be built on top of a team within the confines of the Pokémon computational world. Making the system recursively composable could mean that multiple teams can be composed into a pool along with a team selection strategy, which takes an opponent team as input and returns a team from the pool that is optimally effective against the opponent team. We may call this composition of teams and selection strategy a battle group.

To recurse one more level, imagine multiple players, each controlling one battle group, to form a regiment that battles against another regiment. In a regiment-level battle, each battle group is like a chess piece that moves as an atomic unit on a map. Special rules might govern how regiment-level resources are shared among the battle groups across the map in response to variables like morale or supply. Notice that as we recurse, game mechanics could change; game mechanics across different recursion depths could also be interdependent.

Composable engineered artifacts in Autonomous Worlds would allow for invention compounding, enabling the same process of knowledge composition that drives human history within our atomic reality to drive the evolution of our computational worlds. Composable engineering would also allow for knowledge encapsulation, which means, "I don't need to understand every detail of your invention to involve it in my inventing process." Knowledge encapsulation is in some ways equivalent to the principle of separation of concerns in software development. By enabling the separation of concerns, big engineering tasks can be imagined and accomplished via chaining together small engineering tasks. Having different tasks requiring different skill sets and types of resources naturally encourages labor specialization. With labor specialization, worlds become much more inclusive than they otherwise might be—inhabitants of different backgrounds, skill sets, and interests can all find their places in a world as creators and contributors.

This allows for diverse entries into the world, meaning more drama, more life, in the world.

As a parting thought, by involving certain cryptographic primitives in the tech stack underlying our Autonomous Worlds, information asymmetry could be introduced across the boundary of composition: "Not only do I not need to understand every detail of your invention, I cannot possibly peak into your invention. Yet by certain quantitative measurements that are publicly available, I have confidence in the utility of your invention, hence I would trade with you to involve your invention in my inventing process." This asymmetry protects intellectual property rights by giving inventors an option to conceal the details of their invention and prevent free-riding forks without rendering their invention unusable.


Credits to interlocutors who contributed to my thoughts: 0x113d, t11s, ludens, Peteris Erins, and Alan Luo.

This text was originally published in Autonomous Worlds N1, 2023.

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