Speaking of machines and nature
20/06/2012, 17:40
Filed under: Ephemera, Thought

This is what a turing machine looks like:

Pay attention. This is important. As the video explains, “The turing machine is the father of all computers.” Nothing short of nature is shaping our world as we know it more than the modern computer. 

The Turing machine was first described by a great man named Alan Turing, who, as far as I can tell, was also a wonderful human being. This week we’re celebrating his centenary.

At its most basic, the Turing machine is made up of the smallest set of parts and operations that can be used to describe the operation of any man made computer system. That means your desktop, my laptop, our iPhones, are all reducible to series of steps that could be processed by a Turing machine.

A few years ago, I really enjoyed watching a three-part BBC series called The Cell. The documentary recounts the history of modern biology and science up the the present in a way that anyone can grasp. I remember also really enjoying how well the series dealt with the accidents and dead ends of this history, and the philosophy of science and knowledge along the way.

But it was a scene at 6:45 of the embedded video that really caught my attention. It shows an animation depicting RNA interacting with a ribosome to create proteins, one of the essential building blocks that make up life as we know it.

The scene looks about the same as the lego Turing short video above. In a way, maybe it’s obvious: the system that Turing described was so general that it might summarize any machine (how does a non Turing machine operate?).

On the other hand, applying the Turing analogy to computers is one thing, doing so to life, quite another. I’m not a biologist, so I can’t say for sure—maybe Turing machines and the mini factories that build cells are wholely unrelated. Still, as a non-expert, I finished The Cell series feeling that life acted a lot more like a machine than I’d ever taken the time to consider before. And, reflecting on how what it means to say something is “genetically modified” changes, if we understand this to mean something a lot more like switching between computer software.*

* I suppose that if the two machines are indeed analogous, then the fundamental difference between them is that if I download faulty software onto my computer, I fry my computer, not my existence.


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