Today, a computer visits the Garden of Eden. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
A story was popular 20 years
ago, when computers were young. A programmer asked
his computer, "Is there a God?" The machine hummed
for an hour. Then a page of output emerged with
three words on it: "There is now," the computer
told its programmer.
Since then the public has become more familiar with
computers. We're far less inclined to assign
godlike, or even human-like, qualities to them. No
more Hal from the movie 2001.
Computers are classy tools but not machines that
threaten to replace us or take us over.
Yet while our concern has abated, a scientist at
Oxford University, Richard Dawkins, has created a
disturbing computer simulation. He peoples the
computer screen with little protozoan animals --
and with food particles. These little mathematical
pac-men scoot about, their motions dictated by
built-in probabilities. They go one way, then
switch directions. Each one has its own set of
probabilities. Every now and then one bumps into a
food particle. But if it goes too long without
food, it dies.
Dawkin's little animals can also reproduce -- but
only when they're well fed. When they do, their
offspring inherit similar, but not identical,
probabilities for their movements.
The outcome of the experiment varies with the food
supply. When food is plentiful, animals that keep
shifting direction randomly do the best. But when
food is scarce, the ones that move in long straight
lines are more likely to find it. Then the more
jittery ones bounce around in one place and starve.
We learn that natural selection breeds one kind of
computer animals when they're well-fed and quite
another when they're hungry. Once a species has
evolved, Dawkins makes a change. He creates little
patches of plenty -- he calls them Gardens of Eden.
Now the survivors evolve a different movement --
the ones that keep turning in one direction have
the best chance of finding food.
This computer is not some super-being, sprung
complete and half-human from a writer's mind. Yet
these modest little experiments somehow strike even
closer to the bone of our being. Dawkins's computer
may not be trying to take over humankind, but it is
trying to relive the first life on Earth.
Maybe when all's said and done, this computer
really is helping to control us, but not in the
sense we've been talking about. This computer is
helping us understand ourselves. And understanding
ourselves is the first step on the road to
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds