Friday, November 30

I decided to nose back over into Edge.org. One of their discussions centers around the importance of software and with the dominant theme being Rebooting Civilization.

Software and computation are reinventing the civilized world —"rebooting civilization," in the words of David Gelernter. "It's a software-first world," notes Stanford AI expert Edward Feigenbaum, chief scientist of the U.S. Air Force in the mid-nineties. "It's not a mistake that the world's two richest men are pure software plays. Or that the most advanced fighter planes in the U.S. Air Force are bundles of software wrapped in aluminum shells, or that the most advanced bomber is run by computers and cannot be flown manually". Everybody in business today is in the software business. But what comes after software?

Physicist David Deutsch, a pioneer in the development of the quantum computer, points out that "the chances are that the technological implications of quantum computers, though large by some standards, are never going to be the really important thing about them. The really important thing is the philosophical implications, epistemological and metaphysical. The largest implication, from my point of view, is the one that we get right from the beginning, even before we build the first quantum computer, before we build the first cubit. The very theory of quantum computers already forces upon us a view of physical reality as a multiverse."

I don’t necessarily buy that this is true. Multi-reality might be true at the quantum level, but that doesn’t mean it has huge metaphysical implications. If it does, it might point toward multidimensionality instead, for example, the kind that's being discussed in string theory.

One aspect of our culture that is no longer open to question is that the most signigicant developments in the sciences today (i.e. the developments that affect the lives of everybody on the planet) are about, informed by, or implemented through advances in software and computation.

I don’t think that’s right. Biological comparisons are ofter more apt. We just happen to be in love with our creations. God's creation is a better model for understanding, with better depth, than what we have created.

As before, I find Jaron Lanier’s reflections on this topic to be most useful. While we have faster, bigger, cheaper computers in accordance with Moore’s Law, software has, in many ways, gotten worse, not least of all because we’re locked into bad standards – there’s strong persuasion for me to use MS Windows and Office because everyone else does and I know files will be compatible.

Jaron writes ‘One question to ask is, why does software suck so badly?’. He goes on:

To tie the circle back to the "Rebooting Civilization" question, what I'm hoping might happen is as we start to gain a better understanding of how enormously difficult, slow, expensive, tedious and rare an event it is to program a very large computer well; as soon as we have a sense and appreciation of that, I think we can overcome the sort of intoxication that overcomes us when we think about Moore's Law, and start to apply computation metaphors more soberly to both natural science and to metaphorical purposes for society and so forth. A well-appreciated computer that included the difficulty of making large software well could serve as a far more beneficial metaphor than the cartoon computer, which is based only on Moore's Law; all you have to do is make it fast and everything will suddenly work, and the computers-will-become-smarter than-us-if-you just-wait-for-20-years sort of metaphor that has been prevalent lately.

The really good computer simulations that do exist in biology and in other areas of science, and I've been part of a few that count, particularly in surgical prediction and simulation, and in certain neuroscience simulations, have been enormously expensive. It took 18 years and 5,000 patients to get the first surgical simulation to the point of testable usability. That is what software is, that's what computers are, and we should de-intoxicate ourselves from Moore's Law before continuing with the use of this metaphor.
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