As the senior managing director of a technology firm that employs algorithms in their most complex forms, I spend a lot of time trying to explain, via nature-centric analogies, how these formulae work. The most cutting-edge algorithms are known as "genetic algorithms," because they self-adapt their "recipes" through interactions with a wider environment of stimuli, thereby approximating evolutionary responses found in nature. The hardest part about explaining that to people comes from overcoming their bias toward unnatural silicon solutions, as opposed to the carbon-based pathways of discovery and adaptation through failure that define our human existence. Oddly enough, people tend to trust computers' seeming infallibility more than nature's trial and error.
But at the same time, people fear a more highly technologized future, because they assume it will be less natural. In truth, technology, including computing, will evolve more in the direction of nature than the other way around, and will fuse with it increasingly on the latter's terms. When we watch the movie, "Avatar," we see its naturally "wired" planet of Pandora through the prism of our own nostalgia for the primitive. But as a fascinating new book on computing argues, Pandora's back-to-nature alternative to our own frighteningly technologized trajectory is not the lost past, but rather the inevitable future of the path we find ourselves on.
In "Natural Computing: DNA, Quantum Bits, and the Future of Smart Machines," Dennis Shasha and Cathy Lazere draw upon interviews with 15 leading scientists working in disparate fields to explore the outer reaches of computing. They expected to write a book about a future world dominated by thinking machines, but instead found that the common vision to have emerged across all of these fields is that "the future of computing is a synthesis with nature." The way forward is presented less as a choice and more as a necessity: In computing as in deep space, to really "go where no man has gone before," we'll need machines that can self-heal, learn and evolve -- just like humans.