Review: Darwin Among the Machines

Several have criticized Dyson's philosophical and historical treatise "Darwin Among the Machines" for not articulating exactly how a global intelligence might emerge from today's synthetic biological and computational networks. But as Dyson says in the preface, the past is where we find answers, and the future merely a fog of questions "to which the answers are up to us." In the next 200 pages, Dyson explores the history of an idea: that man will someday create a form of artificial life, with intelligence that may match or exceed our own.

It may astound some readers to know that these ideas date much farther back than Alan Turing's "Turing Test," or Vannevar Bush's influential essay "As We May Think." Consider the following quote from Thomas Hobbes (1651): "Nature is by the Art of man, as in many other things, so in this also imitated, that it can make an Artificial Animal." Or consider this excerpt from Samuel Butler's 1859 essay, which serves as Dyson's main theoretical foundation: "As the vegetable kingdom was slowly developed from the mineral, and as in like manner the animal supervened upon the vegetable, so now in these last few ages an entirely new kindgom has sprung up ... It appears to us that we are ourselves creating our own successors."

Careful to acknowledge his predecessors, Dyson profiles the lives of some of the most prescient Enlightenment- and modern-era thinkers in captivating detail. In so doing, he traces the evolution of the "Artificial Animal" from its earliest incorporeal appearances - as merely an idea - to its current computational incarnation in neural networks. But Dyson doesn't stop there.

In fact, he goes on to argue that the global telecommunications network (primarily the internet) may provide the appropriate architecture for a kind of global, distributed intelligence to evolve. Here Dyson borrows from Leibniz, who noted that the "soul" may be "born when the machine is organized to receive it, as organ-pipes are adjusted to receive the general wind."

To further support this claim, Dyson draws parallels between the development of increasingly efficient machines and the processes of biological evolution. In fact, this is one of the most interesting parts of the book, in part because the language in which Dyson details the principles of evolution might be considered dangerous today, in the midst of the raging Intelligent Design debate. For example, Dyson suggests that evolution itself may embody a kind of intelligence, though we frequently perceive it as merely a shallow process, highly dependent on chance and randomness.

As Dyson points out, this perception gets to a fundamental semantic confusion surrounding "intelligence," a phenomenon well known to AI researchers in which problems once thought to require intelligence are then seen as trivial after an algorithm is designed to solve them. As Dyson points out, intelligence may simply be a word we use to describe behavior that corresponds to our view of how humans behave. Not believing in "'the existence of an intelligence behind the achievements in biological evolution may prove to be one of the most spectacular examples of the kind of misunderstandings which may arise before two alien forms of intelligence become aware of one another.' Likewise, to conclude from the failure of individual machines to act intelligently that machines are not intelligent may represent a spectacular misunderstanding of the nature of intelligence among machines."

Ultimately, whether you agree with Dyson's perspective is besides the point. This is not a scientific book; many of the ideas are purely philosophical, and the logic used to support Dyson's assertions frequently rests on historical anecdote and analogy. These should not be considered weaknesses, however. The real, lasting value of "Darwin Among the Machines" is Dysons's imaginative and graceful writing, his impeccable historical research, and the conceptual ease with which he integrates ideas from ballistics, biology, hydrodynamics, set theory, Cybernetics, and uncountable more esoteric subjects.

Though I won't dispute that many of these exciting ideas are far-fetched, Dyson has found powerful allies for his assertions, from Hobbes and Leibniz to Goedel and John Von Neumann. So if you find yourself believing - or simply wanting to believe - in these groundbreaking ideas, then you're in fine company.


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