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Memory Locations are Just Wires Turned Sideways in Time

Wow. I haven’t posted in quite a while. Been busy with other projects. Here’s a little item that I drafted a long while back but never posted:

Edge.org published an interview  recently with science historian George Dyson about self-replicating code. The theme is that that we tend to talk about the digital universe abstractly, metaphorically, and by discussing how it affects us. Dyson says we’re asking the wrong questions. What we need to do is study our digital universe objectively, like scientists do, because:
…the same way life found a way to use the self-replicating qualities of these polynucleotide molecules to the great benefit of life as a whole, there’s no reason life won’t use the self-replicating abilities of digital code, and that’s what’s happening.

Dyson’s discussion about what’s now driving the growth and evolution of the digital universe was, for me, unexpected. He said that the first great leap in our digital universe originated with Alan Turing (who would have been 100 this year), who is often cited as the father of computer science and artificial intelligence. The next leap came from John Von Neumann, an unbelievably prolific mathematician who fathered, among other things, game theory. He also mathematically described the structure of self-replication before the structure of DNA was even discovered. So who will take the next big leap forward? Dyson says to expect someone working in advertising. Yes, advertising.

What’s the driver today? You want one word? It’s advertising. And, you may think advertising is very trivial, and of no real importance, but I think it’s the driver. If you look at what most of these codes are doing, they’re trying to get the audience, trying to deliver the audience. The money is flowing as advertising. And it is interesting that Samuel Butler imagined all this in 1863, and then in his book Erewhon. And then 1901, before he died, he wrote a draft for “Erewhon Revisited.” In there, he called out advertising, saying that advertising would be the driving force of these machines evolving and taking over the world. Even then at the close of 19th century England, he saw advertising as the way we would grant power to the machines.
Now that’s something I did not expect. Now consider this section, which took me some time to wrap my head around: 
Very few people are looking at this digital universe in an objective way. Danny Hillis is one of the few people who is. His comment, made exactly 30 years ago in 1982, was that “memory locations are just wires turned sideways in time”. That’s just so profound. That should be engraved on the wall. Because we don’t realize that there is this very different universe that does not have the same physics as our universe. It’s completely different physics. Yet, from the perspective of that universe, there is physics, and we have almost no physicists looking at it, as to what it’s like. And if we want to understand the sort of organisms that would evolve in that totally different universe, you have to understand the physics of the world in which they are in.  It’s like looking for life on another planet. Danny has that perspective. Most people say just, “well, a wire is a wire. It’s not a memory location turned sideways in time.” You have to have that sort of relativistic view of things.

At some point while pondering this paragraph, a Proust quote popped into my head: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands but seeing with new eyes.” This comes from ‘In Search of Lost Time,’ which helped to popularize the the idea of involuntary memory, often revealed in this Proustian tome through dreams. And that made me think, as a science fiction fan, of Phillip K. Dick’s ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?,’ which somehow seemed apropros here. At any rate, here’s a link to a good companion piece to this article, a TED presentation by Kevin Slavin: ‘How algorithms shape our world.