Organisms that evolve in the digital universe are going to be very different from us. To us, they will appear to be evolving ever faster, but to them, our evolution will appear to have begun decelerating at their moment of creation—the way our universe appears to have suddenly begun to cool after the big bang. Ulam’s speculations were correct. Our time is becoming the prototime for something else.
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The first epoch in the digital era began with the introduction of the random-access storage matrix in 1951. The second era began with the introduction of the Internet. With the introduction of template-based addressing, a third era in computation has begun. What was once a cause for failure—not specifying a precise numerical address—will become a prerequisite to real-world success.
A fine line separates approximation from simulation, and developing a model is the better part of assuming control. So as not to shoot down commercial airliners, the SAGE (Semi-Automatic Ground Environment) air defense system that developed out of MIT’s Project Whirlwind in the 1950s kept track of all passenger flights, developing a real-time model that led to the SABRE (Semi-Automatic Business-Related Environment) airline reservation system that still controls much of the passenger traffic today. Google sought to gauge what people were thinking, and became what people were thinking. Facebook sought to map the social graph, and became the social graph. Algorithms developed to model fluctuations in financial markets gained control of those markets, leaving human traders behind. “Toto,” said Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, “I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.
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The behavior of a search engine, when not actively conducting a search, resembles the activity of a dreaming brain. Associations made while “awake” are retraced and reinforced, while memories gathered while “awake” are replicated and moved around. William C. Dement, who helped make the original discovery of what became known as REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, did so while investigating newborn infants, who spend much of their time in dreaming sleep. Dement hypothesized that dreaming was an essential step in the initialization of the brain. Eventually, if all goes well, awareness of reality evolves from the internal dream—a state we periodically return to during sleep. “The prime role of ‘dreaming sleep’ in early life may be in the development of the central nervous system,” Dement announced in Science in 1966.
Since the time of Leibniz, we have been waiting for machines to begin to think. Before Turing’s Universal Machines colonized our desktops, we had a less-encumbered view of the form in which true artificial intelligence would first appear. “Is it a fact—or have I dreamed it—that, by means of electricity, the world of matter has become a great nerve, vibrating thousands of miles in a breathless point of time?” asked Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1851. “Rather, the round globe is a vast head, a brain, instinct with intelligence! Or, shall we say, it is itself a thought, nothing but thought, and no longer the substance which we deemed it?” In 1950, Turing asked us to “consider the question, ‘Can machines think?’ ” Machines will dream first.
Books are strings of code. But they have mysterious properties—like strings of DNA. Somehow the author captures a fragment of the universe, unravels it into a one-dimensional sequence, squeezes it through a keyhole, and hopes that a three-dimensional vision emerges in the reader’s mind. The translation is never exact. In their combination of mortal, physical embodiment with immortal, disembodied knowledge, books have a life of their own. Are we scanning the books and leaving behind the souls? Or are we scanning the souls and leaving behind the books?
“We are not scanning all those books to be read by people,” an engineer revealed to me after lunch. “We are scanning them to be read by an AI.”