Computers and biological systems - an abstraction

The more we understand biological systems the more we can see parallels in the way we program computers. Abstracting beyond the hardware differences, we see both computing and biological systems are mainly concerned with manipulating and processing information which is always ultimately reducible to a binary form.

Clearly, this similarity is not a chance happening. The manipulation and processing of information must have a very strong evolutionary advantage. How can this be defined?

The answer can only come from an examination of the evolutionary process itself. Evolution occurs as a result of the natural tendency for energy sources to run down and disperse. This dispersion of energy can take many forms and because the dispersion of energy by the different forms is concurrent, each of the forms of dispersion can be considered as being in competition with each other to take part in the dispersion process. The winners of this game are those forms that can disperse energy most efficiently.

It may seem strange to think of all of biology as nothing more than a complicated way for energy sources to run down, but, if you consider the chain of events which start from the effects of the sun's energy arriving at the earth's surface it begins to make sense. In this way the whole of biological evolution and diversity can be attributed to the laws of physics in the same way that the flow of rivers can be attributed to the laws of gravity.

However, this is not the place to discuss the various theories of evolution. It is suffice for us to realize that evolution is about competition. Competition is about games that involve tactics and strategies where superior tactics and strategies win out. By definition then, the forms in biological landscapes that employ the best strategy and tactics for the dispersion of energy will win the most energy to disperse. This gives rise to the paradox of evolution: increasing order and organization occur as a result of a process that is ultimately decreasing order and organization.

In the harsh environment of biological systems, the competition is so fierce that all forms of dispersion have been forced to cooperate. This cooperation is achieved by communication and feedback that allows different elements to combine and assist each other.

Classical game theory sees competitors as making decisions in conditions of competition and uncertainty. Under these conditions, strategies are not seen as algorithmic steps to reach a goal because as conditions change and competitors make unpredictable moves, no fixed set of rules can be relied upon to succeed. Instead, game theory sees strategies as consisting of sets of heuristic (rule of thumb) rules where moves are made not on the basis that a move will necessarily be the right move, but, merely the move most likely to be successful. Decision making in classic game theory is always on the basis of probabilities.

In this way winning strategies are designed by devising moves that may not always be correct but will be correct more times than any alternative moves. Winning therefore is not about picking right moves but picking moves that are liable to be wrong less times than the moves chosen by opponents.

Such game theory heuristic strategies are totally reliant upon information storage and processing. The moves have to be arrived at empirically: chosen through a process which "remembers" what happened when moves were made before. The memory system has to remember what the conditions were at the time moves were made in the past and remember the exact results of those moves. A winning strategy has to be able to break down situations into lists of variables and be able to compute new values according to lists of previous experiences. In this way an appropriate move is "chosen" from many different possibilities.

In competitive situations, with conditions uncertain and continually changeable, the advantage will go to the players who can effect some mechanism of prediction. If a player can use past and current information to extrapolate into the future to predict events with a certainty better than a random guess, that player will have an advantage over the player that has no facilities for prediction. This also requires a capability for information storage and processing.

Cooperation is an important element in strategies. The strategies which can maximize cooperation will bound to be more successful than strategies which are not very efficient at securing cooperation. Cooperation is highly dependent upon efficient techniques of communication so superior strategies are likely to have superior means of communication.

Evolution favors the most successful competitors by giving them more energy to disperse. The most successful competitors will therefore be those who channel this energy into providing mechanisms which help them to be more competitive against their competitors. This is in effect a positive feedback effect and is the driving force of evolution.

If you look at all these requirements for an optimal strategy for success in an uncertain and competitive environment, you can see how important is the need for information storage and processing. You will see the need for mechanisms that mix, match and compare information. You see the need for repeat loops, if... then... else structures boolean logic gates. Is it any wonder then that all these features have emerged in the highly competitive process of evolution.

Humans, as advanced evolutionary structures, have evolved many complex mechanisms which are superbly designed to provide all the necessities for competitions which require heuristic strategies. We have information storage and processing at many hierarchical levels. We have neural networks which allow us not only to model our environment but to model ourselves within this model of the environment.

We can manipulate our internal models to make assumptions about possible changes in the environment. This allows us to make decisions based upon extrapolations from current information. Is it any wonder then that to extend the competitiveness of ourselves that we have consciously created tools that enhance the feature that have evolved naturally. We have created computers that use the self same techniques as nature for purposes of extending our knowledge, experience, information processing and communication abilities.

The key, to exploiting the Internet and the Web is to see it in the light of a continuum of this same biological process of evolution. It is more than just a media for communicating and exchanging information. It is also capable of extending our abilities to store, process and ultimately make use of communications and information for the purposes of individual and group survival.

Just because the hardware is different it does not mean that the underlying software is anything separate or different from that already incorporated into the ongoing evolutionary biological process. As such it should be viewed as an increasingly sophisticated extension to our abilities to win rights to disperse energy.

One thought which shouldn't be far from you mind is that the Internet and the World Wide Web have more or less the same system of information storage and processing as humans. It shouldn't be any surprise then if this new phenomenon starts to take over an increasing amount of the storage and processing of information usually the sole province of humans. This will no doubt extend from logical decision making to the use of heuristic strategies for making reasoned choices on the basis of probabilities.