Digital Reality

Neil Gershenfeld, Edge, Jul 07, 2016
Commentary by Stephen Downes

There are some really interesting and important bits in this article, mostly near the beginning (it rambles quite a bit). Let me highlight them:

- first is that with a few small pieces you can make almost anything. "There are twenty amino acids. With those twenty amino acids you make the motors in the molecular muscles in my arm, you make the light sensors in my eye, you make my neural synapses."

- second, you're not designing for the outcome. "The twenty amino acids don't encode light sensors, or motors. They’re very basic properties like hydrophobic or hydrophilic."

- third, what these small parts do is essentially to digitize reality. "Digitizing fabrication in the deep sense means that with about twenty building blocks—conducting, insulating, semiconducting, magnetic, dielectric—you can assemble them to create modern technology."

- fourth, what digitizing does is to eliminate error in replication. "The heart of it isn't ones and zeroes, it's the threshold property—the exponential scaling, the exponential reduction in error."

You see - it looks like a representational system, but we haven't created representations, we have merely substituted one physical medium for another, so it isn't the signs that are important. It's not a physical symbol system, it's just a physical system that reduces errors. "Computer science is one of the worst things to happen to computers or to science because, unlike physics, it has arbitrarily segregated the notion that computing happens in an alien world."

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