Information Is Cheap, Meaning Is Expensive

George Dyson grew up around the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, built kayaks in Canada and began to think about the internet before personal computers were a household staple. He talked with Martin Eiermann about the definition of life, human progress and the importance of cognitive autarchy.

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.

The European: Computer code still strikes me as something where essence really precedes existence. The things a computer can do are largely constrained by the original assumptions that were built into the code. Nature is much more adaptable: If carbon-based life cannot survive, maybe something based on sulfuric acids can. Chemical and biological processes lead from completely inanimate objects to RNA, and then DNA. The plan itself is changing.
Dyson: I think the differences are much smaller than that. In biology, we got stuck with a particular coding system that precluded anything else from moving in. It’s the same in the world of code: It is constrained by the original protocols but beyond that it is very open. And the evolution of computer code is now moving much faster than the evolution of biological code.

The European: Which brings us to the question of what it means to be alive. Biology, philosophy or religion might answer that question in very different ways.
Dyson: That is a huge and unanswered question that we are unlikely to agree on. Life is whatever you define it to be. There are some clear examples of intelligent life: A kitten is clearly alive, and a human being is clearly an intelligent living being. But very quickly you get into murky areas where the answers are much less clear.

The European: Do we have to embrace the uncertainty?
Dyson: It becomes a question of judgment. Barricelli pushed for a very broad definition of life. In the 1950s, we were just beginning to travel out into space and perhaps discover an answer to whether there might be life and intelligence outside of our planet. Barricelli was concerned that we might not recognize life or intelligence when we saw it, because our definitions of what it takes to be alive or intelligent were so narrow.

The European: The answer to that question has very direct consequences for our assessment of pressing ethical questions: About PGD, about abortion, about genetic enhancements. So despite the difficulty of defining “life”, it seems to me that we at least have to try to come to an agreement about the ethical standards that govern our politics and our science.
Dyson: Today’s ethical standards apply to human life and increasingly to animal life as well. They don’t exist for other forms of life. We don’t know how we would deal with extraterrestrial forms of life if we encountered them. Like the law, ethics has to be developed one case at a time. You cannot just make a grand law that covers everything, just like you cannot make a grand ethical statement that would remain true across space and time.

The European: Is technological innovation changing the ethical landscape?
Dyson: We are pushing the boundaries of ethics, not just through computing but also through technological innovations in biology. Does your genetic code really belong to you? What happens if someone de-codes it? Can they use and sell that information? Those are very deep ethical questions. We are all part of the living universe. So if we come across other forms of life, do we have a sense of kinship with that as well? We have seen where the lack of empathy with other living things can lead, and I hope that we will not repeat the mistakes of the past.

The European: What answers can science provide to these very ontological questions?
Dyson: I am the child of a physicist, so you cannot trust me with this answer. I grew up with the idea that physicists were ahead of the philosophers. The people I was around at the Institute for Advanced Study were thinking far ahead of their time in a very intelligent way. They saw what was going to happen before it actually did. They thought about modern computing in the 1950s, they imagined a lot of the technological progress that we would see only decades later in the real world. They were asking very theoretical questions because these ideas were still so far removed from practice. And they asked very moral questions as well, because the things they conceptualized could be used for great good or for great evil. It could go either way, so moral judgments had to be made.

The European: Nuclear fission would be the most prominent example of that dilemma.
Dyson: Yes, the development of nuclear weapons—especially thermonuclear weapons—was more than a question of physics. It could destroy all life on earth. Do we want that power? And what do we do with it once we have it? Debates about synthetic biology are less well known, but they were similarly important. As soon as it became clear that we could read and write genetic code, there were congressional hearings in the US to discuss how to use and control that power.

The European: You argue that Google is fundamentally changing our idea of computation: Away from the arithmetic model that requires all parts to be in the right place at the right time, and towards a probabilistic model that analyses patterns and networks of information.
Dyson: There are many different ways of computing. Pure deterministic finite-state digital computing is one form, but there are other forms as well. Statistical computing is much more robust, because you don’t need all parts in exactly the right place at exactly the right time. It. But computing is changing much faster than our ability to think about it. We are still stuck in a 1950s model of computation. Then, when you go out into the world with an open mind, you see that things have really evolved. There are so many new things that the existing models are really starting to be very inadequate.

The European: Is that what you are hinting at when you say that “it is always easier to find answers than to ask the right questions”?
Dyson: Finding answers is easy. The hard part is creating the map that matches specific answers to the right question. That’s what Google did: They used the power of computing – which is cheap and really does not have any limits – to crawl the entire internet and collected and index all the answers. And then,by letting human beings spend their precious time asking the right questions, they created a map between the two. That is a clever way of approaching a problem that would otherwise be incomprehensibly difficult.

The European: The challenge is not to gather information, but to make sense of the information we have?
Dyson: Right. We now live in a world where information is potentially unlimited. Information is cheap, but meaning is expensive. Where is the meaning? Only human beings can tell you where it is. We’re extracting meaning from our minds and our own lives.

The European: That brings us back to the indeterminacy and complexity of the human mind. Can computers ever replace that?
Dyson: It could be. In, say, the 15th century, there was the archaic view that the human mind exists on one side of the spectrum and the mind of God on the other side, with nothing in between except maybe a few angels. But that is a very strange idea, since every other hierarchy in nature consists of many different layers. It think it is much more likely that there are others layers of mind, although they might not look like a desktop computer. People are already walking around—effectively participating in a vast distributed computation—doing what their iPhonestell them. And we’re generally quite happy with that domination.

The European: I am still skeptical whether a computer can be more than an extension to the human mind. It is hard to see how computers could emerge as creative and imaginative entities in the near future.
Dyson: We have to wait and see. But I am not sure whether computers are just tools. When you look at your iPhone to get directions, are you asking the phone where to go or is the phone telling you where to go? You cannot draw a strict line between active and passive information exchange. If some alien form of life came to earth, they might be convinced that there is a bodiless form of intelligence that is telling its constituent parts to turn left or right. So there is a symbiosis that works both ways.

The European: Is the internet increasing the innovative potential of mankind?
Dyson: It is very easy to be a pessimist: There is no good music anymore, no good art. But maybe we have to recognize that innovation is still happening, albeit in very different ways. We might feel that all that time people spend on Facebook is a great loss for the creativity of the human species, but maybe that is not true.

The European: I expected a somewhat different answer: We used to have only human intelligence, and now that has been supplemented by computational intelligence. So we would expect the potential for innovation to become supplemented as well.
Dyson: Yes and no. The danger is not that machines are advancing. The danger is that we are losing our intelligence if we rely on computers instead of our own minds. On a fundamental level, we have to ask ourselves: Do we need human intelligence? And what happens if we fail to exercise it?

The European: The question becomes: What progress is good progress?
Dyson: Right. How do we maintain our diversity? It would be a great shame to lose something like human intelligence that was developed at such costs over such a long period of time. I spent a lot of my life living in the wilderness and building kayaks. I believe that we need to protect our self-reliant individual intelligence—what you would need to survive in a hostile environment. Few of us are still living self-reliant lives. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but we should be cautious not to surrender into dependency on other forms of intelligence. I am a historian of science, I believe in preserving the past.

The European: Are there any predictions for the future we can make, based on these lessons from the past?
Dyson: The universe is a probability space in which possible things can happen. Over the last fifty years, we have developed a combined human-computational intelligence that is able to search that space at a tremendous rate. But we have no way to predict what might happen in the future to that space of possibilities. The whole idea of species might be called into question. Darwin called his book “On the Origin of Species”, but evolution really isn’t limited to species. The next step might be the end of distinct species and the beginning of a more symbiotic life.

The European: We are at an evolutionary watershed moment? Or do we tend to overestimate the significance of current developments, just like thinkers in the 19th century wrote about the dangers of a takeover of human industrial civilization by machines?
Dyson: The degree and the speed of change are so large that they really have the potential to usher in something that is very different from anything that had been before. That’s what Barricelli saw in 1953 with the first computers, that evolution would never be the same again. I don’t think that these earlier thinkers overestimated the significance at all. When Samuel Butler wrote his “Darwin Among the Machines” in 1863, there was one eleven-mile telegraph line. It took a century to arrive in the age of computers, but that is not very long on an evolutionary scale. The technologies that were developed thirty or forty years ago haven’t played out yet, but they are evolving incredibly quickly.

The European: And we are faced with the task of shaping that process as it unfolds?
Dyson: I think that we are generally not very good at making decisions. Mostly, things just happen. And there are some very creative human individuals who provide the sparks to drive that process. History is unpredictable, so the important thing is to stay adaptable. When you go to an unknown island, you don’t go with concrete expectations of what you might find there. Evolution and innovation work like the human immune system: There is a library of possible responses to viruses. The body doesn’t plan ahead trying to predict what the next threat is going to be, it is trying to be ready for anything.

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