Edge 104— August 5, 2002

(10,500 words)


Every year in early May, Edge quiets down. Everything is on pause as emails from this group of public communicators are few and far between. The Edge community has hit the road.

Once June rolls around, things start cooking again and we begin to hear from various thinkers on their travels and adventures. This year, we asked a number of people to send picture postcards. We're happy to share these summer postcards with Edge readers.

Summer Postcards from: Paul C. Davies, William H. Calvin, George Dyson, Clifford Pickover, Roger C. Schank, Daniel C. Dennett, Janna Levin, Nicholas Humphrey, Jaron Lanier, Judith Rich Harris, Lisa Randall, Gino Segre, Steven Pinker, Lee Smolin, Robert Sapolsky
click here to view all as a printable file
[Excerpts published simultaneously in Seed Magazine, September-October edition.]


The metaphors of information processing and computation are at the center of today's intellectual action. A new and unified language of science is beginning to emerge.
Seth Lloyd
Computational Universe
Paul Steinhardt
Cyclic Universe
Alan Guth
Inflationary Universe
Marvin Minsky
Emotion Universe
Ray Kurzweil
Intelligent Universe

On July 21, Edge held an event at Eastover Farm which included the physicists Seth Lloyd, Paul Steinhardt, and Alan Guth, computer scientist Marvin Minsky, and technologist Ray Kurzweil. This year, I noted there are a lot of "universes" floating around. Seth Lloyd: the computational universe (or, if you prefer, the it and bit-itty bitty-universe); Paul Steinhardt: the cyclic universe; Alan Guth: the inflationary universe; Marvin Minsky: the emotion universe, Ray Kurzweil: the intelligent universe. I asked each of them to speak about their "universe". All, to some degree, are concerned with information processing and computation as central metaphors.

Concepts of information and computation have infiltrated a wide range of sciences, from physics and cosmology, to cognitive psychology, to evolutionary biology, to genetic engineering. Innovations such as the binary code, the bit, and the algorithm have been applied in ways that reach far beyond the programming of computers, and are being used to understand such mysteries as the origins of the universe, the operation of the human body, and the workings of the mind.

What's happening in these new scientific endeavors is truly a work in progress. A year ago, at the first REBOOTING CIVILIZATION meeting in July, 2001, physicists Alan Guth and Brian Greene, computer scientists David Gelernter, Jaron Lanier, and Jordan Pollack, and research psychologist Marc D. Hauser could not reach a consensus about exactly what computation is, when it is useful, when it is inappropriate, and what it reveals. Reporting on the event in The New York Times ("Time of Growing Pains for Information Age", August 7, 2001), Dennis Overbye wrote:

Mr. Brockman said he had been inspired to gather the group by a conversation with Dr. Seth Lloyd, a professor of mechanical engineering and quantum computing expert at M.I.T. Mr. Brockman recently posted Dr. Lloyd's statement on his Web site, www.edge.org: "Of course, one way of thinking about all of life and civilization," Dr. Lloyd said, "is as being about how the world registers and processes information. Certainly that's what sex is about; that's what history is about.

Humans have always tended to try to envision the world and themselves in terms of the latest technology. In the 17th and 18th centuries, for example, workings of the cosmos were thought of as the workings of a clock, and the building of clockwork automata was fashionable. But not everybody in the world of computers and science agrees with Dr. Lloyd that the computation metaphor is ready for prime time.

Several of the people gathered under the maple tree had come in the hopes of debating that issue with Dr. Lloyd, but he could not attend at the last moment. Others were drawn by what Dr. Greene called "the glimmer of a unified language" in which to talk about physics, biology, neuroscience and other realms of thought. What happened instead was an illustration of how hard it is to define a revolution from the inside.

Indeed, exactly what computation and information are continue to be subjects of intense debate. But less than a year later, in the "Week In Review" section of the Sunday New York Times ("What's So New In A Newfangled Science?", June 16, 2002) George Johnson wrote about "a movement some call digital physics or digital philosophy — a worldview that has been slowly developing for 20 years."...

Just last week, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology named Seth Lloyd published a paper in Physical Review Letters estimating how many calculations the universe could have performed since the Big Bang — 10^120 operations on 10^90 bits of data, putting the mightiest supercomputer to shame. This grand computation essentially consists of subatomic particles ricocheting off one another and "calculating" where to go.

As the researcher Tommaso Toffoli mused back in 1984, "In a sense, nature has been continually computing the `next state' of the universe for billions of years; all we have to do — and, actually, all we can do — is `hitch a ride' on this huge ongoing computation."

This may seem like an odd way to think about cosmology. But some scientists find it no weirder than imagining that particles dutifully obey ethereal equations expressing the laws of physics. Last year Dr. Lloyd created a stir on Edge.org, a Web site devoted to discussions of cutting edge science, when he proposed "Lloyd's hypothesis": "Everything that's worth understanding about a complex system can be understood in terms of how it processes information."*....
Dr, Lloyd did indeed cause a stir when his ideas were presented on Edge in 2001, but George Johnson's recent New York Times piece caused an even greater stir, as Edge received over half a million unique visits the following week, a strong confirmation that something is indeed happening here. (Usual Edge readership is about 60,000 unique visitors a month). There is no longer any doubt that the metaphors of information processing and computation are at the center of today's intellectual action. A new and unified language of science is beginning to emerge.

For last year's REBOOTING CIVILIZATION meeting click here.

The text and streaming video of this year's discussion will be published on Edge at the end or August.

(Participants: left to right) Ray Kurzweil, Seth Lloyd, JB, Alan Guth, Paul Steinhardt, Marvin Minsky

Dennis Overbye (The New York Times), Jordan Mejias (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung), Steve Lohr (The New York Times), Steven Levy (Newsweek)

Max Brockman

Yossi Vardi

Dave Fokos

David Grubin

Alan Guth & Paul Steinhardt

Jimmy Lee & JB

Russell Weinberger

Taffy & Katinka Matson

John Brockman, Editor and Publisher
Russell Weinberger, Associate Publisher
contact: [email protected]
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