A labyrinth made of all the paths one has taken

January 21, 2013 § Leave a comment

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Dyson: If you spend time alone in the wilderness, you get very attuned to living things. I learned to spot the trails left by life. When I looked at the digital universe, I saw the tracks of organisms coming to life. I eventually came out of the Canadian rain forest to study this stuff because it was as wild as anything in the woods…

Wired: How did the MANIAC project get started?

Dyson: The von Neumann project was funded to do H-bomb calculations. It was a deal with the devil: If they designed this ultimate weapon, they could have this fantastic machine.

Wired: So the creation of digital life was rooted in death?

Dyson: In some creation myths, life arises out of the earth; in others, life falls out of the sky. The creation myth of the digital universe entails both metaphors. The hardware came out of the mud of World War II, and the code fell out of abstract mathematical concepts. Computation needs both physical stuff and a logical soul to bring it to life. These were young kids who had just come through World War II, who could repair the electronics on airplanes and get them flying the same day, and von Neumann put them together with mathematical logicians who could imagine a universe created entirely out of 0s and 1s…

Wired: Did you discover anything in your research that surprised you?

Dyson: I was surprised by the close calls between failure and success. The ENIAC was the American wartime computer project built to calculate ballistic trajectories. The two main guys who invented and built the original ENIAC, Presper Eckert and John Mauchly, formed their own company to build and sell computers. They were doing quite well and then mysteriously had their security clearance revoked, which cost them their government contracts and put them out of business—to the great benefit, eventually, of IBM. Success in technology was as unpredictable at the beginning as it is today.

Wired: Did they see computation in the quasi-biological ways you do?

Dyson: The moment von Neumann got the computing machine running, Nils Barricelli showed up, trying to evolve self-replicating, crossbreeding digital organisms. He encouraged strings of code to replicate with small variations to compete in solving a problem or a simple game. The winning code gained computing resources. Like biological life, no one designed them. Fifty years later, I went back to the basement storeroom where the project was started, which at the time was the institute’s main network server room. One of the servers was working full-time to keep out all the self-replicating computer viruses trying to get in. Barricelli’s vision had come true!  read more

PHOTOGRAPH: Melanie Bonajo

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