JB: How does it happen?
DYSON: Systems grow by symbiosis. Remember the System Development Corporation, which was started in the early 1950s as a small subdivision of RAND, to write operating systems for air defense. By the mid-1950s it had grown to twice the size of the rest of RAND. Ashby's Law of Requisite Variety says that effective control systems have to be at least as complex as the systems they control. So you have to use components--and hierarchical languages. No one could engineer something as complicated as Windows 95 from scratch; it has to be built up from other autonomous things that are known to work. The code has a life of its own-it has to go out in the world like biological code and do something, and then the response goes back to the source and if it's successful it gets reproduced-or imitated, which gives digital evolution a faintly Lamarckian quality that's absent in the natural world.
JB: Have you had this discussion with Charles Simonyi?
DYSON: Only in snippets. His project on intentional programming is way ahead of the curve. He's a mathematician, and he can think in more than two or three dimensions. There's always a higher dimension than the one in which you are writing the code. There's always another level-the language above the language-and this IP-Intentional Programming -project is a way of opening a doorway so that something successful at one level can be extended to the other levels without this incredibly laborious process. It becomes less brittle. But it's not just another language. Languages form layers, whereas IP, as I understand it, has depth.
JB: Software is the only business today.
DYSON: In the 1930s it took a visionary to see this coming. Turing (and Goedel) said that everything can be coded-people laughed and said, oh, those romantic mathematicians are imagining this unreal stuff. In the 1940s it started to happen.
JB: A notion that descended directly to the logic of By The Late John Brockman . Everything's being coded. And now, it's going to be coded through Windows.
DYSON: Exactly. That's the amazing thing-technically Windows is just a number. One very long number. You buy Windows, it's on a compact disk, it's just one long string of bits. If you tried to type it out as a book, you would be typing for a very long time. In Turing's day this all seemed ridiculously abstract-the idea that you could have some kind of universal number, and here Windows is the idea of a universal number, carried to reality and shrink-wrapped. If you took somebody 50 years ago and tried to tell them this is going to happen in 50 years they wouldn't believe it.
JB: But it's just a string of bits.
DYSON: Yes, it is. But let me remind you of something "which might interest biologists more than artificial intelligencers," as logician John Myhill put it in 1964. "The possibility of producing an infinite sequence of varieties of descendants from a single program... suggests the possibility of encoding a potentially infinite number of directions to posterity on a finitely long chromosomal tape."
JB: Who owns the tape?
DYSON: Good question.