The Computer as Extended Phenotype

Backtracking

This is very like a certain style of computer problem-solving program.

Imagine trying to find a route through a forest: at each fork in the path, you try one direction, and if that doesn't lead to where you want, you backtrack and try another.

There are several possible variants:

• Serial, Parallel
• Find one solution, find all
• Heuristic.

Backtracking

This method can solve an amazing range of problems.

```HOW TO RETURN (route, state) path.to aim:
IF state = aim:
RETURN ("success", route with state)
IF state in route OR deadend state:
RETURN ("failure", {})
PUT route with state IN new.route
FOR option IN options state:
PUT (new.route, state altered.for option) path.to aim IN result, route
IF result = "success":
RETURN ("success", route)
RETURN ("failure", {})```

In an article I wrote, I used this to solve the Farmer and the Produce problem, the Two Jugs problem, and even the Towers of Hanoi (just for two disks, it found 12 solutions!), but it will also solve the Eight Queens problem, Sudoku, and many others.

Evolution

Backtracking is comparable to how evolution works

• Heuristic
• Parallel
• Similar definition of failure
• Different definition of success

Cheese and the theory of evolution (Bas Haring)

The 3 requirements for evolution:

• Variation
• Replication with inheritance
• Competition

Variation

In early evolution, the only source of variation was mutation, and mutation is only rarely successful, more likely leading to deleterious effects. (Compare with changing one ingredient at random in a recipe.)

Once sex evolved, there was more source of variation (and they were combinations of things that were already successful).

Which explains the success of sex.

Competition

If everything survived, then there would be no selection of advantageous genes.

However, there is a guarantee of competition, because in the long run there aren't enough resources to support an ever increasing population.

Death is evolution's backtracking, that is: death without offspring.

(Later we will see how the definition of offspring has changed).

Environment

The environment changes (and therefore redefines success).

This is how species happen.

It is interesting to consider that since cats and dogs have a common ancestor, that common ancestor had two children, one of which was the first cat, and one that was the first dog.

(If you wonder what a cat-dog would look like, you might like to know that the hyena is actually a cat, not a dog)

It is also interesting to contemplate that humans may already have speciated without us knowing it (yet).

Camouflage

An obvious example of the effect of the environment is camouflage.

Which includes anti-camouflage, such as with kingfishers and wasps.

Selection

Selection of advantageous genes can have side-effects.

For instance Беля́ев (Belyaev) bred foxes, selecting only for tameness.

This had the surprising side-effect of changing how they looked as well:

Genetic Memory

You can see the accretion of successful genes as a form of learning, or a form of memory.

It is similar to the 'route' in the backtracking program earlier.

Examples of genetic learning/memory in humans

Sugar, Fat: Vitamins vs Calories.

Sex being fun.

Age differences in couples.

Memory

After Sex, true memory was a major development, and allowed learning behaviours: you no longer needed genetic memory to survive, you could use recent outcomes to decide how to act.

Awareness

Hypnosis experiments show that you may not always be aware of the reasons you do things. You may rationalise them differently to the 'true' reason.

Example from Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! "All the time you're saying to yourself, "I could do that, but I won't" – which is just another way of saying that you can't."

Some think that there may not even be conscious free will at all, but that we always rationalise after the action.

What people like and don't like

We are in a profession that is predicated on observing people.

It is fun to watch out for things that people apparently love (because they cluster round it, for instance) and try to postulate the evolutionary advantage that it represents.

Fire

• Most animals flee from fire
• Flashing red light story

What else do people stare at for hours, apart from a campfire?

Consequences for e-ink?

Long hair

Shaved armpits

Phenotype

The visable manifestations of genes (as affected by environment):

• Hair colour
• Strength
• Aggression
• Bird nests, beaver dams, spider webs
• ...

Language

A major development was the development of language.

It allows evolution with planning, memories that last longer than a lifetime.

It creates the concept of Memes, in analogy to genes, carriers of information that may (or may not) help survival.

Houses, umbrellas, washing your hands, ...

An example of a bad meme that has died: blood letting as a cure.

Ideas

Having ideas is now just as important as having babies

Engelbart: Augmenting the Collective IQ

McLuhan (The Medium is the Massage):

"The wheel is an extension of the foot, the book is an extension of the eye; clothing, an extension of the skin, electric circuitry, an extension of the central nervous system"

What is the role of a conference?

The Extended Human Phenotype

Using memes, not genes, to extend our abilities.

Protection: Helmets, clothes, raincoats, houses.

Memory: writing, photography, video.

Repair: Glasses, medicine, hospitals, deafness.

Abilities: Cars, planes, boats.

Sensing: Telescopes, weather radar, satnav - we were the last generation of people who could get lost.

The Computer as Extended Phenotype

The computer is being used in so many ways to extend our abilities, I can see no other possibility than to regard it as part of our extended phenotype.

Moore's Law

Often people don't understand its true effects.

Take a piece of paper, divide it in two, and write this year's date in one half:

Paper

2014

Now divide the other half in two vertically, and write the date 18 months ago in one half:

Paper

2014
2013

Now divide the remaining space in half, and write the date 18 months earlier (or in other words 3 years ago) in one half:

Paper

2014
2013
2011

Repeat until your pen is thicker than the space you have to divide in two:

Paper

2014
2013
2011
2010
2008
2007
2005
2004
02
01
00
97
96
..

This demonstrates that your current computer is more powerful than all other computers you have had put together.

(You can use this diagram to demonstrate other things too).

Paper

2014
2013
2011
2010
2008
2007
2005
2004
02
01
00
97
96
..

And since current computers last 4-5 years, that means the world is currently using more than 90% of the computing power that has ever existed...

Closing the loop

DNA is a sort of memory → E volution of true memory → Language, passes memories → Writing records memories that outlive you.

Now researchers have found a way to use DNA as a (very slow) storage medium.

DNA storage breakthrough: 700TB of data in one gram (That would require 140,000 DVDs, or 150kg of hard disks).

Conclusion

The reason that humans have succeeded so well in comparison with many other life forms is the development of language, and therefore of memes that make us much more flexible in our ability to survive.

Particularly successful memes have caused paradigm shifts in human society, fueling the next generation of memes. Evidence shows that the rate of change of change has been increasing exponentially over hundreds of thousands of years.

Possibly within our lifetimes, we will be confronted with a very interesting time, when we may have to contend with six new paradigms before breakfast every day.

(This talk will appear as part of a book later this year.)

(The slides are online)