Kevin Kelly has written a rousing, entertaining survey of recent thinking in cosmology, physics, and informatics in the latest issue of Wired: God Is the Machine. In a nutshell, a lot of thinkers — including Mathematica founder Stephen Wolfram and self-educated intellectual Ed Fredkin — are starting to notice similarities between information theory and physics. At bottom, they say, the universe is built out of information — actual bits, 1s and 0s — and binary computations are the building blocks of reality, making the entire universe, in effect, a giant computer.
This is followed by a lot of hand-waving about universal computers, and the wild-ass prediction that, if Moore’s Law continues for about 600 years, we’ll see the development of a computer that is exactly as powerful as the entire universe itself.
The article is riddled with logical problems and excessive hype (this is a Kevin Kelly piece, after all) — for instance, where would you *put* a computer that could simulate the entire universe? You’d need to put it outside the universe, now, wouldn’t you — because otherwise it would just be a subset of its own simulation, and hence not complete.
Another problem: Kelly acknowledges that “in a world made up of bits, physics is exactly the same as a simulation of physics.” Doesn’t it all seem a bit fortuitous and coincidental, then, that our current models of how the universe operates synchronize so harmoniously with the leading edge of technological innovation? Scientists have always modeled their theories of how the universe works upon the most-current technologies, because such models offer mechanistic explanations that are readily understandable by their contemporaries. That’s why God was a clockmaker in previous centuries and a computer programmer now. That alone should convince anyone of the arbitrariness of these models. Everything in the universe is binary? Sure, OK. Talk to me again in twenty or thirty years when quantum computing, nanotech, and biocomputing are doing lots of non-binary computations, and we’ll see if the models of how physics work are the same as they are today.
That aside — it’s a fun article, and thought-provoking, and you’ll probably be hearing lots about it, especially in the wake of Wolfram’s recent book, A New Kind of Science, which was released earlier this year.