In an interview with Martin Eiermann (“”I Like to Build Alien Artifacts”,” The European, July 2, 2012), Stephen Wolfram offers some interesting, maybe dubious, comments on cells and computational irreducibility:
Wolfram: A couple of points. There is a phenomenon which I call computational irreducibility. When you have a process where the behavior is quite simple – like a planet orbiting around a star – we are smart enough to use math to figure out what will happen in the future without having to wait for the planet to move around. We can compute the outcome by plugging the right numbers into a formula. But many systems are irreducible after a number of steps – you really have to simulate each step to see what will happen. We need a lot of computational effort for that. But it’s a fallacy to believe that our current technology is the only possible computational technology. The fact is, we can make computers from a lot of materials, not just transistors. The reason that’s exciting is because it opens up the possibility of making a computer out of molecules. It hasn’t been done yet, and there’s a lot of ambient technology that is required to make a molecular computer possible. But it reminds us that we must not shrink transistors – we can use much simpler components.
The European: Maybe it is helpful to talk a little bit more about what you call “computation in nature.” Our common sense tells us that there’s a big difference between animate and inanimate life, or between human technology and natural organisms.
Wolfram: Computation describes a system that starts somewhere, goes crunch-crunch-crunch, and produces a result. The question is whether all computations are like those that we program into computers with our current software engineering. The answer is no. But when you start enumerating programs at random, a lot of them look remarkably like the kinds of processes we see in nature. Today, we are using active algorithm discovery in our research, where we mine the computational universe for programs that might be useful for doing computer processing; and it’s becoming much more obvious that naturally occurring computations are not unlike the processes inside a computer: We start at one state, and end at another state.
The European:This equation of nature and technology raises a few very hard questions about the definition of life, about free will, and about intelligence. What are the mathematician’s answers to those questions? …
[interesting claims about free will follow]
Wolfram: Computational irreducibility is a key feature of life: We cannot grasp life through a formula, but must really simulate and observe it to see what happens. That’s how we as humans end up freeing ourselves from the deterministic rules. I tend to think that the concept of computational irreducibility is probably the answer to the philosophical debates of the past two thousand years about the relationship between free will and determinism. Philosophy is always at a certain distance to human behavior, so a lot of questions really get answered by science.
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