George Dyson's "Among the Machines" in Mountain View

Science historian, author and Make columnist George Dyson will give a lecture tonight on the “Evolution of Technology: Darwin Among the Machines.” The talk will be at 7 p.m. at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Mountain View. The talk is part of a series hosted by NASA Ames centered around the concept of evolution in honor of the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of “On the Origin of Species.”

In his 1997 book, Darwin Among the Machines, Dyson wrote that in his life and work, he has attempted “to reconcile a love of nature with an affection for machines.” So the evolution of technology was a natural subject for him.

Dyson notes that a digital universe (bounded by two singularities, one at T = 0 and one at T = ∞) consists of two species of bits: differences in space and differences in time. Digital computers are devices that translate between these two forms of information — structure and sequence
— according to definite rules. The stored-program computer, as conceived by Alan Turing and delivered by John von Neumann, broke the distinction between numbers that mean things and numbers that do things. Our universe would never be the same. Turing’s question was whether machines would begin to think. Von Neumann’s question was whether machines would begin to reproduce.
In 1953, when the structure of DNA was first elucidated, there were 53 kilobytes of random-access memory on planet earth. Biology and technology were already on a collision course. Species have survived in a noisy, analog environment by passing themselves, once a generation, through a digital, error-correcting phase, the same way repeater stations are used to convey intelligible messages over submarine cables where noise is being introduced. With the transition from digital once a generation to all digital all the time, the era of strictly Darwinian evolution is drawing to a close.

Dyson’s talks are fascinatingly rich yet accessible to a broad audience. He illustrates them with primary source materials, many of which he has uncovered himself in his research. He is endlessly curious and continuously recombining the work of the past to explore new approaches to our future.

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