Information Is Cheap, Meaning Is Expensive

The European:

The European: A computer “is a simple mind having a will but capable of only two ideas”, you have said.Does it make sense to think of a technical apparatus in biological terms?

Dyson: The quote comes from an illustration of a circuit diagram that Lewis Fry Richardson produced in 1930. It was a very prophetic idea, like most of the stuff that Richardson did. He had drawn this diagram of an indeterminate circuit, so it was impossible to predict which state the circuit would be in. Maybe those are the origins of mind: A simple and indeterminate circuit. The significance of Richardson’s idea was that he broke with the assumption that computation had to be deterministic, because so few others things in the universe are deterministic. Alan Turing was very explicit that computers will never be intelligent unless they are allowed to make mistakes. The human mind is not deterministic, it is not flawless. So why would we want computers to be flawless?

The European: The ultimate indeterminate process on Earth is evolution. Yet evolution doesn’t really require input and commands, it sustains and develops itself. That seems fundamentally different from the way we think about technological evolution…

Dyson: Biological evolution is a bottom-up process. There are differences between the two realms, but there are also similarities: In both biology and technology, things develop into structures of increasing complexity. That’s what Nils AallBarricelli saw right away. He tried to understand the origins of the genetic code and apply that to the development of computers. The question was whether you could run computer experiments that allowed increases in systemic complexity to happen. And very quickly that stopped being an experiment and codes began evolving in the wild—not by random mutation, but by crossing and symbiosis, exactly as Barricelli prescribed.