Perhaps a visual example would be helpful.
We’re going to play hide and seek, but in an unusual way. The person who is ‘It’ will follow a route that has been defined in advance, and will reach out and tag at various points along the route that have also been defined in advance. We’ll start out by choosing the route and the tag points at random. If we track how much time ‘It’ spends in a given place, we get a map like the one below:
The brightest spot is the starting point; brightness indicates more time spent in a place. So as we get further from the starting point, the squares get dimmer – ‘It’ is spending less time there. The fading brightness is pretty much equal in all directions, exactly as you’d expect for someone meandering at random. Does this picture give you any information about where the hiders are? I don’t think it does. (It helps if you know where the hiders are; you’ll get a better picture soon.)
So far, so boring; I don’t recommend actually playing hide and seek this way. But I hope you’ll indulge me a bit further. Suppose we send out several kids to be ‘It’ with these random routes. They each come back and report how many of their tags actually made contact with hiders. For the kids who did make contact, we take their routes and make small changes to them and send everyone back out with new routes. (If no one makes contact, we make small changes to all the routes.) Lather, rinse, repeat.
After many rounds, let’s check back in on the game and make another map of where ‘It’ is spending most of their time.
This is a very different picture. Now instead of mostly spending their time around the starting point, they are spending the most time at two points closer to the left-hand corners, as well as some time at the adjacent and intervening points. There also seems to be some time spent at two spots near the right-hand corners, although not as much. Do you suppose this picture contains information about where the hiders are? I would say that while it is not 100% unambiguous, if you tried to infer where the hiders are from this picture, I’d expect you to be more accurate than if you used the first picture. And that’s what I mean when I say this picture has information about the location of the hiders, while the other does not.
Now, the process I described above is a fairly simple evolutionary algorithm. The route changes represent mutations, and the preferential choice of routes that connected with hiders for subsequent use represents a selection step. That combination of mutation and selection–which can also be thought of as exploration with feedback–is what can lead to accumulation of information.
If you’d like more details about this little experiment, you can read about it here and here. The model had its beginnings right here in the forum.