Darwin Among the Machines: ‘The Evolution of Global Intelligence’

GEORGE DYSON, son of the mathematical physicist Freeman Dyson, grew up in Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Studies, where it was easier to find an expert in celestial mechanics than someone to work on a car. One day, playing in a barn, he stumbled upon the remains of one of John von Neumann’s experimental computers. “Something about abandoned machines,” he explains, making sense of this early epiphany, “the suspension of life without immediate decay–evokes a mix of fear and hope. When the machine stops, we face whatever it is that separates death from life.” In Dyson’s vision, machines owe more debt to life than they do to us, who are merely their catalysts.

GEORGE DYSON, son of the mathematical physicist Freeman Dyson, grew up in Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Studies, where it was easier to find an expert in celestial mechanics than someone to work on a car. One day, playing in a barn, he stumbled upon the remains of one of John von Neumann’s experimental computers. “Something about abandoned machines,” he explains, making sense of this early epiphany, “the suspension of life without immediate decay–evokes a mix of fear and hope. When the machine stops, we face whatever it is that separates death from life.” In Dyson’s vision, machines owe more debt to life than they do to us, who are merely their catalysts.

Darwin Among the Machines is a very good book about life’s grand project after animals: machines. It counterpoints history, science and autobiography in a way reminiscent of Dyson senior’s excellent memoir Disturbing the Universe. At times ironically resigned to the notion of progress, at others enthused and engaged, it reads as though the poet Robert Frost had popped Ecstasy in the company of Alan Turing.

But George Dyson’s primary, acknowledged influence is Samuel Butler, the man who in 1872, with the publication of Erewhon, saw more clearly than most how the Industrial Revolution and Darwin’s theory of evolution would impact on each other. Butler’s major contribution to the evolutionary debate was the long-discredited notion that species possess a single, supernal or celestial intelligence. The same idea had already been applied to humans 200 years before by Thomas Hobbes and had proved equally indigestible. In Hobbes’s case, the idea of an intelligent Commonwealth–more than human but far from divine–smacked of blasphemy. For evolutionists, Butler’s “weak” Darwinism seemed equally specious, merely a back door into mysticism. But the shade of Butler’s idea survives.

Between 1953 and 1956, mathematician Nils Barricelli created a tiny (500 byte) computer “universe” and populated it with self-reproducing numerical “creatures”. He observed that sex–the crossing of characteristics–produced more rapid evolutionary progress than mere random mutation. Sex, Barricelli realised, is the way in which a species parallel-processes its gene pool for solutions to survival problems.

This is Butler’s idea recast: species are intelligent systems and sex their method of cognition.

Though the idea seems radical, it is no more difficult in its essentials than Hobbes’s idea of Commonwealth. So why do we have such difficulty with it? It is as though, by abandoning God, we are even less able than Hobbes’s contemporaries to conceive of any intelligence greater than ours. Not that it has ever been pleasant to contemplate distributed intelligence, or think oneself a part of it. That is as much as to imagine oneself an ant, toiling away in some vast human hill.

But this, uncompromisingly, is Dyson’s vision. His parallels between social economy and neural activity are detailed and imaginative. Our human and mechanical networks–our Commonwealth, if you like–perceive each economic transaction statistically, elucidating meaning from the flow of data the way the brain experiences sight by processing the flow of numbers spilling from the optic nerve.

And here, of course, lies the difficulty. We almost certainly will create–may already have created or we may even, as a species, be–a distributed consciousness, or over-mind. But “It”–this digital network, species or a mixture of the two–can no more communicate with us than we can communicate with the individual ganglia of our own nervous systems. What we perceive as having quality, to It is mere number. What It perceives as having quality is beyond our comprehension.

In addition, he has a tremendous historical imagination. The links he makes between old ideas and modern events are rarely spurious and, if some parallels seem excessive, his arguments are always conscientiously researched. It is disarming to see how much Dyson wants to be like his hero Butler. In the event, he measures up well.

Author: Simon Ings

News Service: New Scientist

URL: http://www.newscientist.com

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