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George Dyson: Unravelling the digital code

“We now live in a world (…) increasingly run by self-replicating strings of code. Everything we love and use today is, in a lot of ways, self-reproducing exactly as Turing, von Neumann, and Barricelli prescribed. It’s a very symbiotic relationship: 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. (…)

In 1945 we actually did create a new universe. This is a universe of numbers with a life of their own, that we only see in terms of what those numbers can do for us. (…) And that’s not just a metaphor for something else. It actually is. It’s a physical reality. (…)

But it was Turing who developed the one-dimensional model, and von Neumann who developed the two-dimensional implementation, for this increasingly three-dimensional digital universe in which everything we do is immersed. And so, the next breakthrough in understanding will also I think come from some oddball. It won’t be one of our great, known scientists. It’ll be some 22-year-old kid somewhere who makes more sense of this. (…)

We’re seeing a fraction of one percent of it, and there’s this other 99.99 percent that people just aren’t looking at. (…)

I think they [Turing & von Neumann] would be immediately fascinated by the way biological code and digital code are now intertwined. Von Neumann’s consuming passion at the end was self-reproducing automata. And Alan Turing was interested in the question of how molecules could self-organize to produce organisms. (…) They would be amazed by the direct connection between the code running on computers and the code running in biology—that all these biotech companies are directly reading and writing nucleotide sequences in and out of electronic memory, with almost no human intervention. That’s more or less completely mechanized now, so there’s direct translation, and once you translate to nucleotides, it’s a small step, a difficult step, but, an inevitable step to translate directly to proteins. And that’s Craig Venter’s world, and it’s a very, very different world when we get there.” “
George Dyson, author and historian of technology whose publications broadly cover the evolution of technology in relation to the physical environment and the direction of society, ☞ Science historian George Dyson: Unravelling the digital codeEdge, Mar 26, 2012