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Programming the Universe

27 Sep 2008

I think this book is poorly titled. Seth Lloyd is explaining the universe in terms of information theory, which makes a lot more sense than it would seem; this is, however, only tangential to day-to-day computer science and completely irrelevant to actual programming. The title is still correct, because a lot of information theory has to do with the processing–that is to say, computing–of discrete quantities of information, so the universe can be said to be running a program. It’s fair, under this view, to consider the physical laws of the universe to be an operating system.

It’s actually a quite effective explanation of quantum mechanics, and why they have to work the way they do. Quantum mechanics makes a mockery of the predictability of older physics, but information theory remains consistent all the way down. The very end of the book describes some current, tentative attempts to create a theory of everything centered on information theory, and it might be the way to go. As far as I know, this would make information theory the ONLY thing that works all the way down, so it should provide a good starting point for an abductive discovery of a TOE that does not start with subatomic vibrations in random numbers of extra dimensions. Let’s give these folks a few years and see where they end up.

An interesting sidebar of this understanding of quantum mechanics–and a large part of the book–is that our universe must necessarily give rise to complexity, even though thermodynamics would want to destroy it at every opportunity: although monkeys with typewriters can write Shakespeare and come up randomly with the conditions for life and intelligence, the anthropomorphic principle alone (that monkeys must have, because we exist) is intellectually unsatisfying. Now consider monkeys with computers instead of typewriters, and consider quantum mechanics to be the bits on which the OS of the universe runs. Eventually, a few monkeys will write software interpreters, after which they need not type all of the digits of pi at random, but instead randomly type a short program to generate them. Computers with random input will eventually generate complex behaviors.

It’s a very cool implication, to me. Although I don’t think I’d consider the universe a computer per se, the fact that information theory remains consistent in the quantum world means that we can apply any number of computer science principles to reality itself, which is quite a cool concept. As we deduce the laws of the universe, we’re not so different from a smalltalk object trying to destroy the layers of abstraction between ourselves and the bare iron, and the LHC represents a significant rewrite of a function of a live object.

What an incredibly cool way to see reality.