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Whilst discussing robot evolution in Aeon magazine, Emily Monosson digresses suggestively into the history of digital unlife:

In the late 1940s …  physicists, math geniuses and pioneering computer scientists at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University were putting the finishing touches to one of the world’s first universal digital computing machines — the MANIAC (‘Mathematical Analyzer, Numerical Integrator, and Computer’). The acronym was apt: one of the computer’s first tasks in 1952 was to advance the human potential for wild destruction by helping to develop the hydrogen bomb. But within that same machine, sharing run-time with calculations for annihilation, a new sort of numeric organism was taking shape. Like flu viruses, they multiplied, mutated, competed and entered into parasitic relationships. And they evolved, in seconds.

These so-called symbioorganisms, self-reproducing entities represented in binary code, were the brainchild of the Norwegian-Italian virologist Nils Barricelli. He wanted to observe evolution in action and, in those pre-genomic days, MANIAC provided a rare opportunity to test and observe the evolutionary process. As the American historian of technology George Dyson writes in his book Turing’s Cathedral (2012), the new computer was effectively assigned two problems: ‘how to destroy life as we know it, and how to create life of unknown forms’. Barricelli ‘had to squeeze his numerical universe into existence between bomb calculations’, working in the wee hours of the night to capture the evolutionary history of his numeric organisms on stacks of punch cards.

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June 24, 2013admin 1 Comment »
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