Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Day 8: Safe Cracking

I've been reading the latest George Dyson book, entitled "Turing's Cathedral".  George Dyson is the son of physicist and mathematician Freeman Dyson.  (Freeman Dyson is most well-known in the science fiction circles for postulating the notion of a "Dyson Sphere"; "One should expect that, within a few thousand years of its entering the stage of industrial development, any intelligent species should be found occupying an artificial biosphere which completely surrounds its parent star. [link]")

George Dyson grew up in Princeton, NJ, with connections, through his father, to the famous Institute of Advance Study (home to dozens and dozens of the world's most renowned scientists since the late 1930s; including Einstein, who held an office there until the day he died [link]).  One such scientist was John Von Neumann; progenitor of the Von Neumann computer architecture... or, to the layman, just a... computer.  (Seriously, if you have a computer, you have Von Nueman to thank).  The book is about the early decades of scientists and engineers working to build and use the first general purpose computing machines.

I've been reading the book for a few months.  Now, I AM a slow reader, but it's not that, I just don't have a lot of time to read, especially given that I don't actually have a paper copy, and any time I get the android tablet out Oliver demands Elmo, or Thomas, or both at once (a feat we have yet to attain).  Additionally, the book is extremely broad, both physically (Amazon tells me it's 432 printed pages long), and topically (you can imagine the early excitement amongst scientists in fields ranging from meteorology, to virology and beyond about a machine that can be made to automatically do complex calculations of any kind).  I'm a little over half way through the book and haven't yet gotten to the titular chapter, so this post can't rightly serve as any kind of comprehensive summary or review.

However, I was reading last night about the work done in the early 50s by a scientist/mathematician by the name of Nils Barricelli.  Barricelli was a pioneer in the field of artificial intelligence and was doing experiments with what are called "self-replicating automata" which are basically programs that exist in a virtual universe with simple rules and simple interactions.   The universe as an  abstraction in computer memory.  These automata were created to see if an artificial type of digital evolution could be used to build better solutions to problems in a more automated way.

The following passage is from that book:

"The aim, as he explained it in 1953, was "to keep one or more species alive for a large number of generations under conditions producing hereditary changes and evolution in the species.  But we must avoid producing such conditions by changing the character of the experiment after the experiment has started."... "Make life difficult but not impossible," Barricelli recommended.  "Let the difficulties be various and serious but not too serious; let the conditions be changing frequently but not too radically and not in the whole universe at the same time.""

What strikes me is that, even when you make yourself a god (so to speak), being god is a delicate business.  Like Goldilocks, you can't be too hot, or too cold (incidentally, the Goldilocks zone, is a metaphorical area of a certain distance around a star where water-based life is likely to exist; i.e. the Earth is neither too hot, or too cold). 

This reminds me of the Futurama Season 3 episode entitle Godfellas (sorry, this is the best posted version I could find, you'll need to turn up the sound):

"Bender, being God isn't easy. If you do too much, people get dependant on you.  If you do nothing, they lose hope.  You have to use a light touch, like a safe cracker, or a pick-pocket."

Of course, that's all written in jest by an avowed atheist, but I think there is a kernel of truth to this.  Being God, (or a god, for that matter) might not just be about knowing everything, it's about possessing the perfect, the divine, light touch. 

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