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Saturday, August 1, 2009

What is computing?

This is the most important question of our time… yet so rarely asked. Computing technology increasingly shapes every aspect of human behavior, culture, resource use, health, commerce, and governance. A passive stance on the question that effects all other questions is increasingly dangerous to the future of all humans, of life, of evolution itself.

In the 60's we created NASA, an elaborately funded research program to uncover the knowledge and develop the technology to "go to the moon". Yet one would be hard pressed to justify the cost to society of contraptions that do nothing more than take a few people to a near-by rock… almost nothing of the NASA program can be used outside of the narrow focus of getting a few tens of miles off the surface of Earth (at tens of millions of dollars per pound).

Ironically, and inadvertently, the practical mathematics, programming, and computational techniques developed and honed by NASA in the pursuit of its expensive and arguably impractical goals may be the only pertinent contribution to show for the tens of trillions of dollars spend on this ill-concieved and irrational "research" program.

Talk about putting the cart before the horse… akin to building a global library system and book binding before developing a written language.

We are surrounded by lifeless rocks. We didn't need to send a few Air-force test pilots to the moon to figure that out. The practical scope of our chemically propelled rockets hardly avails us to the nearest little frozen or boiling neighbor planets in this corner of this one little Solar System. Ever attempt a phone conversation with 40 min. gaps between utterances?

The interesting stuff in this Universe (at least the small corner we have access to) is right here on our little Earth. It is us… and more than that, it is not so much what we have done, but what we will do and how what we will do effects what other future things will do because we set them into motion. That is our job. In a very real way, we are the first things that understand the job description despite the fact that it has always been there and has always been the same. This understanding should give us a leg up on the process. Should.

There are two kinds of knowledge: the first, historical, the second, developmental. When we go somewhere, we do nothing more than uncover that which already is. Compare this to development, where we create things that never were. In this universe, if there was a force that was prescient in creating one star or planet, that same force must have been prescient in the creation of Earth. We don't have to go to Mars to find the forces that created Earth. And we certainly don't need to send humans over there even if we do want intimate knowledge of a place like Mars.

At any rate, computing is a universal process. Computing is agnostic to domain. You can compute about particle physics and you can compute about knitting. Computing is an abstraction processing medium. Computing is what brains do. Computing is not restricted to the category that is biological minds. Learning how to compute is learning how to discover. The goal becomes the unknown… becomes un-prejudiced developmental discovery. The machinery of pattern matching… of salience… of the perception of essence across domains.

I am obsessed with this biggest "why" of computing. I don't think the computational "why" can be separated from the biggest "why" of existence in general... of evolution… of the march of complexity.

The convergence of thermodynamics (the way action effects energy dissipation) and information science (the relative probabilities of structure and the cost of access, processing and transference) guide my approach to these questions. Least energy laws dictate the evolution of all systems. Computing is evolution. Abstraction systems allow prediction. Prediction grants advantage. Advantage influences the topology of the future. The better a system gets at accurately abstracting it's environment, the more it will influence the future of abstraction systems. Computing is the mechanics of evolution... always has been. Are we designing computing to this understanding of the methodology of complexity handling?

Lets suppose we gave the scientists at NASA a choice. We ask them, "What technology represents a greater potential towards the eventual understanding and even physical exploration of the Universe, rocket engines or computers?", What would be the rational and obvious answer? If we ever hope to get any real distance in this universe it won't be by burning liquid oxygen and kerosene. Most things in this universe are millions of years away even at the speed of light. Rocket engines hardly move at all when compared with even the too-slow speed of light. Getting anywhere in this universe will demand tunneling beneath the restrictions that are space and time… no rocket engine will ever do that for us. I am not an advocate for space exploration, but if I was, I would be pushing computation over rocket propulsion.

It is time to advocate a culture wide push towards the advancement of an ever-expanding understanding of computing. To the extent we succeed, all of the future will be defined by and fueled by our discoveries. If we choose instead to spend our limited and most expensive money towards rockets we had better hope the universe can be understood through the understanding of explosions and destruction and spending long periods of time floating in space. Come on people! Think!

[ more to come… ]

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