BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

A different evolution ...

This is one that I've had sitting around for quite a while, probably going back to either a Newberry Library book fair, or another box sale at OpenBooks. A friend had borrowed it recently and “warned” me that it was a bit on the dense side, but, while it was a struggle when in the “reading chair” (Zzzzz!), it was just fine for on the subway, or at various coffee vendors (see pic).

Darwin Among The Machines: The Evolution Of Global Intelligence by George B. Dyson (son of Freeman “Dyson Sphere” Dyson) is an interesting look at the movement towards what has since been popularly known as “The Singularity”. It's notable that, although this book dates from 1997 (“ancient history” for most computer books), the presentation here does not feel particularly dated. This is likely due to most of the book being backwards-looking, examining predecessors of the machines that were starting to proliferate at the time.

The title of this book is from a section of a book by Samuel Butler, who was something of a philosophical sparring partner of Charles Darwin, but that piece was more about his grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, whose theories (in the 18th century) preceded and provided a basis for Charles' work. Erasmus was both more “mystical” than his grandson, and more fascinated by machines, and Charles made a very significant effort to make sure nothing of his work was credited to his predecessor.
Computers may turn out to be less important as catalysts facilitating technological evolution and more important as catalysts facilitating evolutionary processes through the incubation and propagation of self-replicating filaments of code. As Erasmus Darwin and his Lunar Circle characterized the age that brought mechanical and electromagnetic metabolism to life, so John von Neumann and his circle of engineers and programmers characterized the origins, two centuries later, of self-replicating strings of bits. In 1948, von Neumann delivered his “General and Logical Theory of Automata”, from which my father, in his Origins of Life, condensed the essential truths that “metabolism and replication, however intricately they may be linked in the biological world as it now exists, are logically separable. It is logically possible to postulate organisms that are composed of pure hardware and capable of metabolism but incapable of replication. It is also possible to postulate organisms that are composed of pure software and capable of replication but incapable of metabolism”.
Two elements of the book can be derived from this, the subtle, but noticeable, thread of the Darwin and Dyson families (and of sons/grandsons wishing to stand outside of their predecessors' extensive shadows), and of the concepts of software and hardware standing apart. Much of the book looks are the evolution of software, which has direct cognitive lineages into the past, rather than the machines of which it runs (although this evolutionary track is certainly addressed). It is probably this that makes Darwin Among the Machines less anachronistic than many books of its vintage would tend to be.

On one level, the book could be taken as a series of papers, as most of the chapters a fairly self-contained, and only link together peripherally. The first few chapters sort of form a story arc, but most of the rest address a particular concept and delve back in time as much as they need to (such as “On Distributed Communications” which starts with a signaling system used by the Greeks in the siege of Troy in 1184bce, and runs into the mid-60s with the RAND Corporation work that laid the groundwork for the Internet), covering topics and figures all across the board.

Again, much of this is more about history and philosophy … who developed what, who argued what and with whom, how wars steered developments (from Troy to the calculations of M.A.D. in the Cold War), and what influences came to bear on making the machines and the code come together. From a place where I have a computer (smart phone) on my belt which would run circles around most of the machines discussed here … it is remarkable to look into the growth of the machines, and it does become tempting to look at this as something organic, if in the spirit of the late, great, George Carlin suggesting that humans only evolved to create plastics for the Earth. Dyson, in one paragraph, links our relationship with silicon, from knocking off razor-sharp chips from a hunk of obsidian, to “increasingly complex chips of silica, given form by the force of information”, and elsewhere notes: “We shall not see biochemistry replaced by electronics; we shall see a merger that incorporates them both.” (hopefully not making these prophetic!).

I was a bit surprised to see that Darwin Among the Machines is still in print, 14 years after its publication … somewhat unusual for a “tech” book, but as noted above, this is more about the concepts of artificial intelligence, and not so much about the technologies involved at the time of writing. However, since it has been out so long, there are a lot of copies in the “used” channels, and a “good” copy of the hardcover can be had for as little as 1¢ (plus shipping, of course) out there. I was fascinated by this book (it's an area that I'm quite interested in), but it was not exactly a light, breezy read. However, if you're willing to slog through it, there's great stuff to be found here!

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Tags: book review

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