EDGE 3rd Culture: George Dyson
The Third Culture

DARWIN AMONG THE MACHINES; OR, THE ORIGINS OF [ARTIFICIAL] LIFE
A Presentation By George Dyson [7.8.97]

Introductions by
John Brockman
and
George Dyson

I got to know George Dyson by attending several of Esther Dyson's PC Forum conferences, annual gatherings for the elite of the personal computer and software worlds. He was not a speaker, not even an industry player, just the younger brother. So why was I spending most of my free time hanging out and talking to him and not to the powers-that-be in the digital world?

An answer to this question can be gleaned by a reading of his new book about the evolution of mind and computers that derives both its title and outlook from Samuel Butler's 1863 essay "Darwin Among the Machines." Observing the beginnings of miniaturization, self-reproduction, and telecommunication among machines, Butler predicted that Nature's intelligence, only temporarily subservient to technology, would resurface to reclaim our creations as her own. Updating Butler's arguments, George has distilled the historical record to chronicle the origins of digital telecommunications and the evolution of digital computers.

George views the World Wide Web as a globally networked, electronic, sentient being. In the evolution of mind in the electronic network, on a level transcending our own, he finds that nature is on the side of the machines. As Danny Hillis noted: "history with a future."

- JB

Exactly seven years ago, I found myself weaving through midtown Manhattan traffic with John Brockman, on our way to the Metropolitan Club, where Hugh Downs was to introduce my Reality Club debut presentation, "Baidarka: The Skin Boat as a Frame of Mind." I've been weaving in and out of traffic with Brockman ever since. Today he brings me back to the Reality Club to present some excerpts from my new book.

The following selections concern the dual origins of (artificial) life. I choose this subject for three reasons (besides the origins of life being a question that so many of us have been asking ourselves):

  1. The dual-origin theory allows me to credit my father, Freeman Dyson, with a hypothesis that may or may not apply correctly to the appearance of life the first time around. Right or wrong, the hypothesis deserves a second chance;
  2. The work of Nils Barricelli at the Institute for Advanced Study in the 1950s, summarized here, has not received the attention or recognition it deserves;
  3. The speculations and misconceptions of an amateur such as myself are sure to provoke discussion among the many professionals who visit Edge.
-George Dyson

p.s. BTW, I thought the conversation with Simonyi ("Intentional Programming: A Talk with Charles Simonyi") was great, and in a way the stuff I selected is a follow-up to his ideas.

The Presentation...