Science historian George Dyson: Unravelling the digital code
George Dyson (Photo: Wired)
“It was not made for those who sell oil or sardines.”
— G. W. Leibniz, ca. 1674, on his calculating machine
A universe of self-replicating code
“Digital organisms, while not necessarily any more alive than a phone book, are strings of code that replicate and evolve over time. Digital codes are strings of binary digits — bits. Google is a fantastically large number, so large it is almost beyond comprehension, distributed and replicated across all kinds of hosts. When you click on a link, you are replicating the string of code that it links to. Replication of code sequences isn’t life, any more than replication of nucleotide sequences is, but we know that it sometimes leads to life.
Q [Kevin Kelly]: Are we in that digital universe right now, as we talk on the phone?
George Dyson: Sure. You’re recording this conversation using a digital recorder — into an empty matrix of addresses on a microchip that is being filled up at 44 kilobytes per second. That address space full of numbers is the digital universe.
Q: How fast is this universe expanding?
G.D.: Like our own universe at the beginning, it’s more exploding than expanding. We’re all so immersed in it that it’s hard to perceive. Last time I checked, the digital universe was expanding at the rate of five trillion bits per second in storage and two trillion transistors per second on the processing side. (…)
Q: Where is this digital universe heading?
G.D.: This universe is open to the evolution of all kinds of things. It’s cycling faster and faster. Even with Google and YouTube and Facebook, we can’t consume it all. And we aren’t aware what this space is filling up with. From a human perspective, computers are idle 99 per cent of the time. While they’re waiting for us to come up with instructions, computation is happening without us, as computers write instructions for each other. As Turing showed, this space can’t be supervised. As the digital universe expands, so does this wild, undomesticated side.”
— George Dyson interviewed by Kevin Kelly in Science historian George Dyson: Unravelling the digital code, Wired, Mar 5, 2012.
“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.
Many of these things we read about in the front page of the newspaper every day, about what’s proper or improper, or ethical or unethical, really concern this issue of autonomous self-replicating codes. What happens if you subscribe to a service and then as part of that service, unbeknownst to you, a piece of self-replicating code inhabits your machine, and it goes out and does something else? Who is responsible for that? And we’re in an increasingly gray zone as to where that’s going. (…)
Why is Apple one of the world’s most valuable companies? It’s not only because their machines are so beautifully designed, which is great and wonderful, but because those machines represent a closed numerical system. And they’re making great strides in expanding that system. It’s no longer at all odd to have a Mac laptop. It’s almost the normal thing.
But I’d like to take this to a different level, if I can change the subject… Ten or 20 years ago I was preaching that we should look at digital code as biologists: the Darwin Among the Machines stuff. People thought that was crazy, and now it’s firmly the accepted metaphor for what’s going on. And Kevin Kelly quoted me in Wired, he asked me for my last word on what companies should do about this. And I said, “Well, they should hire more biologists.”
But 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.
We’re still here at the big bang of this thing, and we’re not studying it enough. Who’s the cosmologist really looking at this in terms of what it might become in 10,000 years? What’s it going to be in 100 years? Here we are at the very beginning and we just may simply not be asking the right questions about what’s going on. Try looking at it from the other side, not from our side as human beings. Scientists are the people who can do that kind of thing. You can look at viruses from the point of view of a virus, not from the point of view of someone getting sick.
Very few people are looking at this digital universe in an objective way. Danny Hillis is one of the few people who is. His comment, made exactly 30 years ago in 1982, was that “memory locations are just wires turned sideways in time”. That’s just so profound. That should be engraved on the wall. Because we don’t realize that there is this very different universe that does not have the same physics as our universe. It’s completely different physics. Yet, from the perspective of that universe, there is physics, and we have almost no physicists looking at it, as to what it’s like. And if we want to understand the sort of organisms that would evolve in that totally different universe, you have to understand the physics of the world in which they are in. It’s like looking for life on another planet. Danny has that perspective. Most people say just, “well, a wire is a wire. It’s not a memory location turned sideways in time.” You have to have that sort of relativistic view of things.
We are still so close to the beginning of this explosion that we are still immersed in the initial fireball. Yet, in that short period of time, for instance, it was not long ago that to transfer money electronically you had to fill out paper forms on both ends and then wait a day for your money to be transferred. And, in a very few years, it’s a dozen years or so, most of the money in the world is moving electronically all the time.
The best example of this is what we call the flash crash of May 6th, two years ago, when suddenly, the whole system started behaving unpredictably. Large amounts of money were lost in milliseconds, and then the money came back, and we quietly (although the SEC held an investigation) swept it under the rug and just said, “well, it recovered. Things are okay.” But nobody knows what happened, or most of us don’t know.
There was a great Dutch documentary—Money and Speed: Inside the Black Box—where they spoke to someone named Eric Scott Hunsader who actually had captured the data on a much finer time scale, and there was all sorts of very interesting stuff going on. But it’s happening so quickly that it’s below what our normal trading programs are able to observe, they just aren’t accounting for those very fast things. And this could be happening all around us—not just in the world of finance. We would not necessarily even perceive it, that there’s a whole world of communication that’s not human communication. It’s machines communicating with machines. And they may be communicating money, or information that has other meaning—but if it is money, we eventually notice it. It’s just the small warm pond sitting there waiting for the spark.
It’s an unbelievably interesting time to be a digital biologist or a digital physicist, or a digital chemist. A good metaphor is chemistry. We’re starting to address code by template, rather than by numerical location—the way biological molecules do.
We’re living in a completely different world. The flash crash was an example: you could have gone out for a cup of coffee and missed the whole thing, and come back and your company lost a billion dollars and got back 999 million, while you were taking your lunch break. It just happened so fast, and it spread so quickly.
So, yes, the fear scenario is there, that some malevolent digital virus could bring down the financial system. But on the other hand, the miracle of this flash crash was not that it happened, but that it recovered so quickly. Yet, in those milliseconds, somebody made off with a lot of money. We still don’t know who that was, and maybe we don’t want to know.
The reason we’re here today (surrounded by this expanding digital universe) is because in 1936, or 1935, this oddball 23-year-old undergraduate student, Alan Turing, developed this theoretical framework to understand a problem in mathematical logic, and the way he solved that problem turned out to establish the model for all this computation. And I believe we wold have arrived here, sooner or later, without Alan Turing or John von Neumann, but it was Turing who developed the one-dimensional model, and von Neumann who developed the two-dimensional implementation, for this increasingly three-dimensional digital universe in which everything we do is immersed. And so, the next breakthrough in understanding will also I think come from some oddball. It won’t be one of our great, known scientists. It’ll be some 22-year-old kid somewhere who makes more sense of this.
But, we’re going back to biology, and of course, it’s impossible not to talk about money, and all these other ways that this impacts our life as human beings. What I was trying to say is that this digital universe really is so different that the physics itself is different. If you want to understand what types of life-like or self-reproducing forms would develop in a universe like that, you actually want to look at the sort of physics and chemistry of how that universe is completely different from ours. An example is how not only its time scale but how time operates is completely different, so that things can be going on in that world in microseconds that suddenly have a real effect on ours.
Again, money is a very good example, because money really is a sort of a gentlemen’s agreement to agree on where the money is at a given time. Banks decide, well, this money is here today and it’s there tomorrow. And when it’s being moved around in microseconds, you can have a collapse, where suddenly you hit the bell and you don’t know where the money is. And then everybody’s saying, “Where’s the money? What happened to it?” And I think that’s what happened. And there are other recent cases where it looks like a huge amount of money just suddenly disappeared, because we lost the common agreement on where it is at an exact point in time. We can’t account for those time periods as accurately as the computers can.
One number that’s interesting, and easy to remember, was in the year 1953, there were 53 kilobytes of high-speed memory on planet earth. This is random access high-speed memory. Now you can buy those 53 kilobytes for an immeasurably small, thousandth of one cent or something. If you draw the graph, it’s a very nice, clean graph. That’s sort of Moore’s Law; that it’s doubling. It has a doubling time that’s surprisingly short, and no end in sight, no matter what the technology does. We’re doubling the number of bits in a extraordinarily short time.
And we have never seen that. Or I mean, we have seen numbers like that, in epidemics or chain reactions, and there’s no question it’s a very interesting phenomenon. But still, it’s very hard not to just look at it from our point of view. What does it mean to us? What does it mean to my investments? What does it mean to my ability to have all the music I want on my iPhone? That kind of thing. But there’s something else going on. We’re seeing a fraction of one percent of it, and there’s this other 99.99 percent that people just aren’t looking at.
The beginning of this was driven by two problems. The problem of nuclear weapons design, and the problem of code breaking were the two drivers of the dawn of this computational universe. There were others, but those were the main ones.
What’s the driver today? You want one word? It’s advertising. And, you may think advertising is very trivial, and of no real importance, but I think it’s the driver. If you look at what most of these codes are doing, they’re trying to get the audience, trying to deliver the audience. The money is flowing as advertising.
And it is interesting that Samuel Butler imagined all this in 1863, and then in his book Erewhon. And then 1901, before he died, he wrote a draft for “Erewhon Revisited.” In there, he called out advertising, saying that advertising would be the driving force of these machines evolving and taking over the world. Even then at the close of 19th century England, he saw advertising as the way we would grant power to the machines.
If you had to say what’s the most powerful algorithm set loose on planet earth right now? Originally, yes, it was the Monte Carlo code for doing neutron calculations. Now it’s probably the AdWords algorithm. And the two are related: if you look at the way AdWords works, it is a Monte Carlo process. It’s a sort of statistical sampling of the entire search space, and a monetizing of it, which as we know, is a brilliant piece of work. And that’s not to diminish all the other great codes out there.
We live in a world where we measure numbers of computers in billions, and numbers of what we call servers, which are the equivalent of in the old days, of what would be called mainframes. Those are in the millions, hundreds of millions.
Two of the pioneers of this—to single out only two pioneers—were John Von Neumann and Alan Turing. If they were here today Turing would be 100. Von Neumann would be 109. I think they would understand what’s going on immediately—it would take them a few minutes, if not a day, to figure out, to understand what was going on. And, they both died working on biology, and I think they would be immediately fascinated by the way biological code and digital code are now intertwined. Von Neumann’s consuming passion at the end was self-reproducing automata. And Alan Turing was interested in the question of how molecules could self-organize to produce organisms.
They would be, on the other hand, astonished that we’re still running their machines, that we don’t have different computers. We’re still just running your straight Von Neumann/Turing machine with no real modification. So they might not find our computers all that interesting, but they would be diving into the architecture of the Internet, and looking at it.
In both cases, they would be amazed by the direct connection between the code running on computers and the code running in biology—that all these biotech companies are directly reading and writing nucleotide sequences in and out of electronic memory, with almost no human intervention. That’s more or less completely mechanized now, so there’s direct translation, and once you translate to nucleotides, it’s a small step, a difficult step, but, an inevitable step to translate directly to proteins. And that’s Craig Venter’s world, and it’s a very, very different world when we get there.
The question of how and when humans are going to expand into the universe, the space travel question, is, in my view, almost rendered obsolete by this growth of a digitally-coded biology, because those digital organisms—maybe they don’t exist now, but as long as the system keeps going, they’re inevitable—can travel at the speed of light. They can propagate. They’re going to be so immeasurably far ahead that maybe humans will be dragged along with it.
But while our digital footprint is propagating at the speed of light, we’re having very big trouble even getting to the eleven kilometers per second it takes to get into lower earth orbit. The digital world is clearly winning on that front. And that’s for the distant future. But it changes the game of launching things, if you no longer have to launch physical objects, in order to transmit life.”
— George Dyson, author and historian of technology whose publications broadly cover the evolution of technology in relation to the physical environment and the direction of society, A universe of self-replicating code, Edge, Mar 26, 2012.
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