George Dyson asks us this most reasonable question: if biologic life derived organically from the basic elements, then is it such a stretch to believe that biologic life will also one day derive from mechanical elements? After all, as Paul Romer asks, what is technology but the re-arrangement of that which already exists in the natural world to create something new?

Darwin Among the Machines, which takes its name from an 1863 essay by Samuel Butler, is much more than just a book about artificial intelligence. It is an intellectual history – beginning with Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and ending with an anecdote from Danny Hillis — of all the theory that, collectively, has led to the computer industry as we know it today. You can get an extremely abbreviated version of that history in Dyson’s 2003 TED presentation.

Dyson, who makes kayaks by day, is refreshingly neither utopianist nor dystopianist about artificial intelligence. “In the game of life,” he writes, “there are three players at the table: human beings, nature, and machines. I am firmly on the side of nature. But nature, I suspect, is on the side of the machines.”

In other words, the same evolutionary similar processes that gave our genetic ancestors opposable thumbs and large brains also apply to the increasing complexity of machines and computers. Inspired by Nils Aall Barricelli, an eccentric Italian mathematical biologist who dedicated nearly his entire life to proving the (erroneous) theory that species evolve by symbiosis, Dyson points out our own symbiotic relationship with machines:

Although our attention has been focused on the growth of computer networks as a medium for communication among human beings, beneath the surface lies a far more extensive growth in communication among machines. Everything that human beings are doing to make it easier to operate computer networks is at the same time, but for different reasons, making it easier for computers networks to operate human beings. Symbiosis operates by way of positive rewards. The benefits of telecommunication are so attractive that we are eager to share our world with these machines.

We find computers to be so useful, that is, that we can’t help but continue to make them more complex and elaborate.

OK, so maybe that quote makes Dyson sound like an out-there science fiction writer, but I assure you he isn’t. Above all else Dyson is a historian with a deep understanding of how some of the breakthroughs in theoretical math in the 18th and 19th centuries led to the logical foundations of computing, and to the never-ending quest to represent thought with formal logic.


“The process of technological development is like building a cathedral. Over the course of several hundred years new people come along and each lays down a block on top of the old foundations, each saying, ‘I built a cathedral.’ Next month another block is placed atop the previous one. Then comes along a historian who asks, ‘Well, who built the cathedral?’ But the reality is that each contribution has to follow onto previous work. Everything is tied to everything else.”

Paul Baran, one of the inventors of packet switching, which eventually led to TCP/IP, which eventually led to the Internet, which has led to the World Wide Web.

George Dyson is that historian who slowly takes apart the cathedral, block by block, to reveal the amazing architectural journey that led to personal computers, the Internet, and the World Wide Web. Some of those blocks are easier to understand than others. Darwin Among the Machines is a dense intellectual expedition, which takes for granted that readers understand probability, calculus, game theory, circuits, physics, and genetics. I found myself constantly putting down the book to look up some esoteric concept (Godel’s incompleteness theorems, for example). Like all good books, I finished with more questions than answers; with a much greater understanding of just how little I know when it comes to the logic that underlies even this, just typing away on my keyboard.


I started reading Darwin Among the Machines not because I was interested in the evolution of machines, but rather the evolution of intelligence, our “ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills.” In exactly two weeks from today an accomplished group of speakers will join Isaac and I here in Linz for the Ars Electronica symposium on Cloud Intelligence. Collectively we will attempt to understand how our ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills has transformed in the age of cloud computing. So, it was Dyson’s writing on intelligence, not machines, that I found most intriguing.

Intelligence, by any measure, is based on the ability to be selective – to recognize signal amidst noise, to discriminate right from wrong, to select the strategy leading to reward. The process is additive. Darwin was able to replace the supreme intelligence of an all-knowing God, who selected the whole of creation all at once, with the lesser intelligence of a universe that selected nature’s creatures step-by-step.

We tend to be anthropocentric about what we regard as intelligent. Shakespeare’s MacBeth and Einstein’s Theory of Relativity embody intelligence, but the length of a hummingbird’s beak is “just how it is.” All three, however, exemplify the acquisition and application of knowledge and skills. Dyson shows that life and intelligence are mutually dependent; that genetic transcription – the process of transmitting DNA via RNA – is a method of sending information like any other. What a cell does with that information, or what a human does with a text book, is what defines intelligence.

All intelligence is collective. The truth that escaped Leibniz, but captured Turing, is that this intelligence – whether that of a billion neurons, a billion microprocessors, or a billion molecules forming a single cell – arises not from the unfolding of a predetermined master plan, but by the accumulation of random bits of wisdom through the power of small mistakes.

In other words, intelligence is statistical, not formulaic. It is our ability (or the ability of any life form, organ, cell, or even atom) to make sense of the information it is presented with. And today we humans are presented with more information than any of us could possibly make sense of.

When Dyson says that “nature is on the side of the machines,” he isn’t referring to the plot of The Terminator, where a species of robots eventually takes over earth and humanity. As he sees it, the mutual dependence between humans and machines will continue to increase until the two start to slowly merge. Future historians looking back on this trend might point to blog posts like this one from Danah Boyd, or this one from Chris Messina, as early indicators that human society had reached such a level of complexity by the turn of the 21st century that humans were no longer able to make sense of it without depending on the processing power of giant server farms, connected to each of us via desktop, laptop, mobile phone, and in the future maybe even the cells in our bodies. Meanwhile, it seems likely that the next generation of computer processors won’t be powered by silicon dioxide – that quartz-like mineral covering the earth’s crust – but rather DNA. Biology and technology are now inextricably linked, and in the process humans are becoming social neurons unaware (just as the neurons in our brains our unaware of their role shaping the mind) of the larger intelligent entity that we collectively comprise.

What I find most fascinating about Dyson’s ecological point of view is that he sees intelligence as the driving force behind the evolution of both life and machines, not the other way around. That viewpoint is expressed most eloquently in a 1988 essay by Danny Hillis titled “Intelligence as an Emergent Behavior; or, the Songs of Eden,” an excerpt of which I’ve copied in full after the break.

Once upon a time, about two and a half million years ago, there lived a race of apes that walked upright. In terms of intellect and habit they were similar to modern chimpanzees. The young apes, like many young apes today, had a tendency to mimic the actions of others. In particular, they had a tendency to imitate sounds … Some sequences of sounds were more likely to be repeated than others. I will call these “songs.”

For the moment let us ignore the evolution of the apes and consider the evolution of the songs. Since the songs were replicated by the apes, and since they sometimes died away and were occasionally combined with others, we may consider them, very loosely, a form of life. They survived, bred, competed with one another, and evolved according to their own criterion of fitness. If a song contained a particularly catchy phrase that caused it to be repeated often, then that phrase was likely to be repeated and incorporated into other songs. Only songs that had a strong tendency to be repeated survived.

The survival of the song was only indirectly related to the survival of the apes. It was more directly affected by the survival of other songs. Since the apes were a limited resource, the songs had to compete with one another for a chance to be sung. One successful strategy for competition was for a song to specialize; that is, for it to find a particular niche where it would be likely to be repeated. Songs that fit particularly well with a specific mood or activity of an ape had a special survival value for this reason. (I do not know why some songs fit well with particular moods, but since it is true for me I do not find it hard to believe for my ancestors.)

Up to this point the songs were not of any particular value to the apes. In a biological sense they were parasites, taking advantage of the apes’ tendency to imitate. Once the songs began to specialize, however, it became advantageous for an ape to pay attention to the songs of others and to differentiate between them. By listening to songs, a clever ape could gain useful information. For example, an ape could infer that another ape had found food, or that it was likely to attack. Once the apes began to take advantage of the songs, a mutually beneficial symbiosis developed. Songs enhanced their survival by conveying useful information. Apes enhanced their survival by improving their capacity to remember, replicate, and understand songs. The blind forces of evolution created a partnership between the songs and the apes that thrived on the basis of mutual self-interest. Eventually this partnership evolved into one of the world’s most successful symbionts: us.