Computation in Nature

There is often a synchronicity to the process of science; great discoveries tend to bubble up in clumps rather than by themselves. Just like the physical landscape can shape and circumscribe the behavior of a human, an intellectual landscape can shape human thought. Great ideas are often discovered by several people simultaneously: calculus was invented by Newton and Leibniz independently; just like how Darwin discovered evolution around the same time as Alfred Russell Wallace. The materials for a new idea are often in place, it only remains for someone to come along and arrange them in a new order. It's no coincidence that the discovery of the structure of DNA occurred around the same time the first electronic computers were invented. Alan Turing, one of the godfathers of the modern computer, published a paper on the chemical basis of biological development. Similarly, John Von Neumann had a interest in the computational nature of organisms. These great thinkers developed the frameworks for computers at around the same time biologists and geneticists were uncovering the frameworks behind our bodies and cells. The confluence of these two areas of thought has transformed the philosophical landscape of the world. We now know that biological organisms on Earth are universally governed by DNA, a deceptively simple string of chemicals which is composed of four fundamental molecules. These molecules, in various combinations, are the basis for the complexity of life around us. Just like computer programs at their fundamental level are just 1s and 0s, biological organisms are just a complex arrangement of coded instructions.

Through the process of natural selection nature has very slowly computed the genetic organization of each organism. One only needs to go to their nearest forest or pond to witness the enormous variety of elegant solutions nature has produced to solve very complex problems. The wings on an insect allow that insect to maneuver far more gracefully than the best helicopter or drone today. Any tweak or disruption to the wing design would probably produce a useless wing. The insect wing has been finely-tuned over millions of years of natural selection to be as aerodynamic and bio-chemically efficient as possible. This type of evolutionary computation is how organisms adapt to their environment.

Nor is it by chance that human technology has long been inspired by the natural world. Try watching a pelican soar through the air and then watch a Boeing 737 performing the same action. Look at the skeg on a boat and then look at fins of a fish. Look at your eyeball and then look at the lens of a camera. Naturally-inspired technology is all around us and it's no coincidence. The natural world, in all its complexity and diversity, has produced a wealth of engineering solutions to extremely difficult problems--all without the aid of any engineers! It's often simply easier to adapt the solutions of nature--which took millions of years of slow evolutionary computation to produce--than come up with original solutions.

When humans invent a new technology, we're really doing the same type of thing plants and animals do when they evolve new traits. But instead of performing this computation through millions of years of evolution, we developed the ability to model the world and perform this computation in our heads. No other animal on Earth, so far as we know, has outperformed us in this area. A rich array of methods for exploiting this type of natural computation has led to a surge in technological innovation throughout scientific history.

For this reason I believe that discovery of new forms of life--particularly life that evolved on other planets--could provide enormous economic and scientific value to humanity. More than the sheer mystery that extraterrestrial life provides, the discovery of an entirely new history of evolutionary computation would provide humans with new ideas for further scientific innovation. Even if we don't discover "intelligent" life on other planets, the discovery of alien ecosystems would surely be a trigger for new technological innovations.

And of course, no discussion of natural computation would be complete without the mention of the most conspicuous natural computing devices yet discovered: our brains. Your brain is what allows you to read this sentence, and contemplate the nature of the world around it. It can develop models of the world and change those models over time. It can compose a symphony or discover relativity or write Hamlet. It can do all this and much more because it's a type of computation machine--not a computer, but something very similar. People speak of the creativity in nature, but what is creativity if not a computational process? Would anyone ever call a man without a brain "creative"? And what are our brains if not a type of computer. Clearly computation is all around us.

We often construct explanations of things we don't know in terms of things we do know. The universe as a giant computer simulation is a popular idea today because computers are the most intricate things humans have yet constructed. Maybe the universe isn't a computer, but I think that analogy is on the right track. Perhaps people centuries from now will view the universe as some sort of technological super-mind that stretches the imaginations of the craziest science fiction writers today. Whatever conclusions they reach about the nature of the universe, I think it's likely that the structure of mind and computation will play an important role.