Wednesday, March 28, 2012

George Dyson at Edge - A Universe of Self-Replicating Code

From Edge, George Dyson, an historian among futurists, author of Darwin Among the Machines: The Evolution of Global Intelligence and Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe. talks about a universe of self-replicating code - according to Dyson, "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."

Maybe all of that singularity talk is not so far off-base after all.


George Dyson [3.26.12]

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.

In June of 1998, Edge published two pieces in an attempt to get at the big issues behind the news in the technology world: the then current Microsoft-Justice Department litigation. "Code" was a conversation between science historian and third culture thinker George Dyson and myself. Dyson argued that "turning this into a political issue-Government versus Microsoft-is diverting attention from something much more significant: the growth of multi-cellular forms of organization on the Net. ... The development of multi-cellular operating systems is a separate issue from the question of whether what Microsoft does is fair or legal in a business sense".

"The analogy with biological organisms is highly tenuous—as Edge readers will be flooding your inbox to point out. It's just the beginnings of something, in a faintly metazoan sense. The operating system used to be the system that operated a computer. Now it is becoming something else."

"Now, there are moves afoot to get the same code - Windows, or Windows CE, or Windows NT or whatever, not to mention underlying protocols-running everywhere. Running on your desktop, running on your network, running in your car, running in your toaster, running on the credit card you have in your wallet - it's all going to run this same code. And if it's not Windows it'll be something else. The thing is, it's happening. Which is very much what's gone on in the world of biology. In biology there is one operating system, and it's the one we're stuck with-the DNA/RNA operating system. All living organisms, with very rare exceptions, run that same system. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but ..."

This was followed by "Code II", a debate between complexity researcher J. Doyne Farmer of the Santa Fe Institute, and computer scientist Charles Simonyi, the chief software architect at Microsoft which addressed subjects such as monopoly as well as the effect of corporate control of society's replication machinery for ideas.

What has changed in the past fourteen years is that the analogy with biological organisms is no longer highly tenuous. In fact, this conversation is at the forefront of some of the most interesting intellectual conversations today. I am pleased to note that in this regard, Edge is leading the way. And, in this regard, nobody is thinking about these issues more deeply than George Dyson.

For a rich background on these topics, revisit the following Edge Features, Seminars, and Master Classes and browse through the videos and texts...

"Rethinking "Out of Africa": A Conversation with Christopher Stringer (2011)
"A Short Course In Synthetic Genomics", The Edge Master Class with George Church & Craig Venter (2009)
"Eat Me Before I Eat You! A New Foe For Bad Bugs": A Conversation with Kary Mullis (2010)
"Mapping The Neanderthal Genome
" A Conversation with Svante Pääbo (2009)
"Engineering Biology": A Conversation with Drew Endy (2008)
"Life: A Gene-Centric View" A Conversation in Munich with Craig Venter & Raichard Dawkins (2008)
"Ants Have Algorithms": A Talk with Ian Couzin (2008)
"Life: What A Concept", The Edge Seminar, Freeman Dyson, J. Craig Venter, George Church, Dimitar Sasselov, Seth Lloyd, Robert Shapiro (2007)
"Code II" J. Doyne Farmer v. Charles Simonyi (1998)

John Brockman


You can also read the talk at the Edge site.

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