Sunday, April 08, 2012

a universe of self-replicating code

kurzweilai |What we’re missing now, on another level, is not just biology, but cosmology. People treat the digital universe as some sort of metaphor, just a cute word for all these products. The universe of Apple, the universe of Google, the universe of Facebook, that these collectively constitute the digital universe, and we can only see it in human terms and what does this do for us?

We’re missing a tremendous opportunity. We’re asleep at the switch because it’s not a metaphor. In 1945 we actually did create a new universe. This is a universe of numbers with a life of their own, that we only see in terms of what those numbers can do for us. Can they record this interview? Can they play our music? Can they order our books on Amazon? If you cross the mirror in the other direction, there really is a universe of self-reproducing digital code. When I last checked, it was growing by five trillion bits per second. And that’s not just a metaphor for something else. It actually is. It’s a physical reality.

[GEORGE DYSON:] When I started looking at the beginnings of the modern digital universe — at the origin of this two-dimensional address matrix — I became interested in the question of what had been done with it at the beginning. Of course, one of the things was the work on the hydrogen bomb.

Another thing that surprised and delighted me was to find that a Norwegian-Italian mathematical biologist and viral geneticist, Nils Aall Barricelli, had tried to come to Princeton in 1951, as soon as he heard this machine was being built. He had trouble getting a visa, so he finally shows up in early 1953 when the machine is running, and immediately begins these experiments, to see if he could inoculate this two-dimensional matrix with random strings of one-dimensional numbers that can self-replicate and cross-breed, and do all the things that we know that code does in biology, and see what happens.

And he observed. He was an observational biologist. He saw all sorts of behavior that he read all sorts of biological implications into. He was way too far ahead of the time, so no one paid attention and this was forgotten.

We now live in a world where everything he dreamed of really did happen. And, for some reason, von Neumann never publicized Barricelli’s work. I don’t know if there was a personal rivalry or what happened, but von Neumann died, and his papers on self-reproducing automata were published posthumously [edited by Arthur W. Burks] and there was no mention of Barricelli. Part of it was this fear that it really would provoke the public. They called computers “electronic brains” at that time. It was scary enough that we might be building machines that would think. But the idea of producing artificial life was even more Frankenstein-like. I think that’s one reason we never heard about that.

Just as we later worried about recombinant DNA, what if these things escaped? What would they do to the world? Could this be the end of the world as we know it if these self-replicating numerical creatures got loose?

But, we now live in a world where they did get loose — a world increasingly run by self-replicating strings of code. Everything we love and use today is, in a lot of ways, self-reproducing exactly as Turing, von Neumann, and Barricelli prescribed. It’s a very symbiotic relationship: the same way life found a way to use the self-replicating qualities of these polynucleotide molecules to the great benefit of life as a whole, there’s no reason life won’t use the self-replicating abilities of digital code, and that’s what’s happening. If you look at what people like Craig Venter and the thousand less-known companies are doing, we’re doing exactly that, from the bottom up.

What’s, in a way, missing in today’s world is more biology of the Internet. More people like Nils Barricelli to go out and look at what’s going on, not from a business or what’s legal point of view, but just to observe what’s going on.

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