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"The Deep Question"
A Talk With Rodney Brooks

BROOKS: The thing that puzzles me is that we've got all these biological metaphors that we're playing around with - artificial immunology systems, building robots that appear lifelike - but none of them come close to real biological systems in robustness and in performance. They look a little like it, but they're not really like biological systems. What I'm worrying about is that perhaps in looking at biological systems we're missing something that's always in there. You might be tempted to call it an essence of life, but I'm not talking about anything outside of biology or chemistry.

A good analogy is the idea of computation. Once Turing came up with a formalism for computation we were able make great progress fairly quickly. Now if you take any late 19th-century mathematicians, you could explain the fundamental ideas of computation to them in two or three days, lead them through the theorems, they could understand it and they wouldn't find it mind boggling in any way. It follows on from 19th-century mathematics. Once you have that notion of computation, you are able to do a lot with it. The question then is whether there something else, besides computation, in all life processes? We need an conceptual framework such as computation that doesn't involve any new physics or chemistry, a framework that gives us a different way of thinking about the stuff that's there. Maybe this is wishful thinking, but maybe there really is something that we're missing. We see the biological systems, we see how they operate, but we don't have the right explanatory modes to explain what's going on and therefore we can't reproduce all these sorts of biological processes. That to me right now is the deep question. The bad news is that it may not have an answer.

JB: How are you exploring it?

BROOKS: You can take a few different models. You can try to do it by analogy, you can try to see how people made leaps before and see if you can set yourself up in the right framework for that leap to happen. You can look at all the biological systems, look at different pieces that we're not able to replicate very well and look for some commonality. Or you can try to develop a mathematics of distributed systems, which all these biological systems seem to be. There are lots of little processes running with no central control, although they appear to have central control. I'm poking at all three.

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