Sunday, August 31, 1997

Darwin Among the Machines, Bebop Bytes Back

This article appears in slightly different form in the July/August 1997 issue of IEEE Micro © 1997 IEEE.

Global Intelligence

From time to time in this column I review speculations on thought and consciousness. In August 1991 I looked at The Emperor's New Mind by Roger Penrose. That book takes a modern look at the mind-body problem: do our minds arise from the physical workings of our bodies or do they have separate parallel existences? If the former, does that preclude free will? If the latter, how do they influence one another?

In April 1992, I reviewed Daniel Dennett's controversial book Consciousness Explained. Dennett defines consciousness as follows:

 Human consciousness is itself a huge complex of memes (or more  exactly, meme-effects in brains) that can best be understood as the  operation of a "von Neumannesque" virtual machine implemented in  the parallel architecture of a brain that was not designed for any  such activities. The powers of this virtual machine vastly enhance  the underlying powers of the organic hardware on which it runs.

In December 1994 I looked at Mitchel Resnick's Turtles, Termites, and Traffic Jams. Resnick maintains that what looks like group purpose in the behavior of self-organizing systems is really only the result of local application of simple algorithms. He developed a version of the Logo language to help students understand and predict the seemingly irreducible emergent behavior of such systems.

This time I review a book that touches the same themes, but with a different perspective.

Darwin Among the Machines: The Evolution of Global Intelligence by George B. Dyson (Addison-Wesley, NY, 1997, 298pp, ISBN 0-201-40649-7, $25.00

George Dyson is the son of physicist Freeman Dyson and mathematician Verena Huber-Dyson. He is the brother of industry analyst Esther Dyson. He credits their respective writings for his knowledge of foundations of biology, foundations of mathematics, and computational ecology. He brings all of this knowledge to bear on the subject matter of this book.

Dyson grew up on the grounds of the Institute for Advanced Study, then left at age 16 to live in a tree and work aboard boats. Looking down into the Pacific Northwest fog from his tree house, nearly a hundred feet above ground, he wondered whether trees think. Calmed by the womb-evoking throb of engine rooms, he wondered whether machines have souls.

Others have had such thoughts, but Dyson develops them into a serious work on the history and significance of digital computers and global telecommunications. The speed with which these technologies are merging and changing leaves us with little time to consider our personal and societal attitudes toward the new issues they raise. Dyson's book helps us see those issues in perspective.

Dyson derives his perspective from a line of philosophers and scientists, going back to the seventeenth century. As he examines their work he always has one eye on the present. He wants to know where the proliferation of digital computers and the growth of the worldwide telecommunications network that connects them is leading us:
Do we remain one species, or diverge into many?
Do we remain of many minds, or merge into one?
Dyson makes no predictions. Instead, he lets scientists and philosophers -- some dead, some not -- predict the present with their long overlooked words. He hopes that those prophetic thinkers can help us answer his questions.

Dyson starts with Hobbes, whose Leviathan is a group intelligence representing the future of human society. Hobbes believed that reasoning is computation. He believed that life arises from the physical behavior of the underlying objects. The parts of the body give rise to a person whose life and thought are of a higher order than those of its heart, nerves, or muscles. Similarly, people, their institutions, and their machines give rise to a group intelligence of even higher order.

The arguments of Hobbes and his detractors resonate loudly today in the speculations about human consciousness and artificial intelligence (AI). The only way Hobbes falls short of a coherent modern position is in the mechanism of evolution. For that part of the story Dyson turns to Samuel Butler, from whom he borrowed the title Darwin among the Machines.

Butler is interesting because he highlights the differences between Charles Darwin and his illustrious grandfather Erasmus Darwin. Erasmus originated the key ideas in Charles' theory of evolution, but he never gathered his ideas into a coherent theory. This left him open to misinterpretation and guilt by association with his follower Lamarck, who believed, mistakenly, in the inheritance of acquired characteristics.

Butler disliked the randomness of Charles Darwin's theory. Like Einstein, who nearly a century later said "I shall never believe that God plays dice with the world," Butler looked for design. He looked at species as superorganisms. He saw that ideas could develop like organisms, thus anticipating Dawkins' concept of memes. He took a germ-plasm-oriented view of life (a chicken is an egg's way of making another egg). This led him to wonder where it all began. He concluded that life must have arisen from the non-living forces and matter of the world. 

In 1985, Dyson's father Freeman Dyson wrote about the origins of life. He observed that reproduction and replication need not have arisen simultaneously. The type of living cell that replicates its germ plasm while reproducing may have arisen as a symbiotic merging of organisms that reproduce with organisms that replicate. If this is true, then a Lamarckian process may have governed the evolution of the self-reproducing branch for many eons.

Dyson doesn't do much with his father's idea beyond mentioning it. He does, however, trace the theory of symbiogenesis from its Russian origins early in the twentieth century through the early computer-based simulations of Nils Barricelli to the modern work of Thomas Ray. Ray is constructing a globally networked habitat, called Tierra, for digital organisms. He intends to turn them loose there and watch them evolve.

The ideas of Hobbes and Butler lead via Godel, Turing, von Neumann, and many others to digital computation. For distributed communications, Dyson follows a path running from Robert Hooke to Paul Baran and the global packet-switched data network.

Communication at a distance has its roots in antiquity. Robert Hooke, the greatest inventor of the seventeenth century -- perhaps of all time --developed most of its modern form. His lantern array scheme used a 5-bit character encoding, control codes, and encryption. Store-and-forward schemes came later with the telegraph. Baran's packet-switching scheme for a network that can survive nuclear attack provides the distributed control and scalability to support global intelligence.

Dyson's accounts of recent history are one of the most interesting aspects of his book. Relying only on a small university library in Bellingham, Washington, Dyson has assembled many intimate pictures, based on eyewitness accounts, of the development of digital computers and global telecommunication since the 1940s.

Dyson weaves together all of this and more, skillfully but sketchily. Exclusive of the front matter, notes, and index, the book is only 228 pages. There are many parts I can't summarize without trivializing them. I don't know if the book has an identifiable thesis, but a central idea is this:
In the game of life and evolution there are three players
at the table: human beings, nature, and machines. I am
firmly on the side of nature. But nature, I suspect, is on
the side of the machines.
This is a deep book. There is not much point to reading it unless you want to think about the issues it raises. Most of us are usually too busy to do that. If you have a little free time this summer, reading and thinking about this book might be a good way to spend it.

More Bebop

In October 1995 I reviewed Clive (Max) Maxwell's quirky but delightful Bebop to the Boolean Boogie. Now Max has teamed up with Alvin Brown to produce something a little more ambitious.

Bebop Bytes Back: An Unconventional Guide to Computers by Clive Maxwell and Alvin Brown (Doone, Madison AL, 1997, 872pp plus CD, ISBN 0-9651934-0-3, 800-311-3753, $49.95)

The heart of this product is the Beboputer, a simulated 8-bit computer with switch panel, display lights, paper tape reader, 7-segment displays, a keypad, a QWERTY keyboard, and a memory-mapped display. If you never used a PDP-8 or an Altair, or if you have a nostalgic urge to do so again, this simulator captures the look and feel of those early computers pretty well, right down to the sound effects. The first thing you hear, after the click of the switch, when you turn on the Beboputer is the fan coming up to speed. The sound effects for the paper tape equipment are horrifyingly realistic.

The tome that accompanies this program provides a guided tour and reference manual for the Beboputer. Nine study units (labs) lead you through using the peripheral equipment and learning the assembly language. Each of these labs has an accompanying video clip, in which Max introduces the unit and gives a little background.

The authors couldn't resist including A Sort of History of Computers, which gives a not entirely facetious account of the path from the first calculation aids to the first personal computers. Unlike Dyson's account, this history doesn't mention Hobbes, Hooke, or Darwin. It does, however, inform us that Acanthostega, one of our terapod ancestors, had eight fingers on each hand. This leads one to speculate whether a slightly different path of evolution might have brought us to the hexadecimal number system much earlier in our history.

The biggest drawback of this product is that it is hard to use the labs without plowing through page after page of the book. If you already know as much as you want to know about early equipment and you just want to play with the simulator, you have to hunt through the book for the startup instructions.

I think this product is ideal for experienced young computer users (say about 10 to 15 years old) who want to get close to the machine in a way that modern operating systems can't allow. They might find this an enjoyable and rewarding way to spend a small part of their summer vacation.

We old-timers (you know who you are) will enjoy it for the nostalgia.