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Two Degrees of Freedom

by Daniel H. Steinberg
07/30/2004

The second morning keynote at the O'Reilly Open Source Convention in Portland, Oregon began with a clip from Star Trek: The Next Generation. George Dyson had brought the segment to introduce his father Freeman Dyson. The audience watched both the screen and the reaction of the elder Dyson to the Star Trek plot, which centered on the discovery of a Dyson Sphere, which is described in the Wikipedia as "a hypothetical structure first described in 1959 by the physicist Freeman Dyson in a short paper published in the journal Science entitled "Search for Artificial Stellar Sources of Infra-Red Radiation". It is an artificial hollow sphere of matter around a star designed to capture nearly all of the star's radiated energy for industrial use."

Freeman laughed at the clip and said "You never know what's going to catch the eye. It's a lot of nonsense, but it's good fun".

Freeman Dyson has spent the past 50 years as a physicist at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study. George Dyson describes himself as a boat designer, writer, and historian of technology. George's sister Esther Dyson was to have been a third panelist focusing on the future of emerging technologies and business models. Unfortunately, present day technologies weren't enough to get her from Dallas to Portland in time.

Biotechnology

At the moment, Freeman Dyson is mostly interested in biotechnology. He makes the analogy to computers. When computers moved into the household, they became tools for income tax, homework, and games. He said that people are more attached to their computers than to their spouses. This same domestication could happen in biotechnology.

Dyson spoke of the beauty and passion he saw at a recent flower show in Philadelphia as well as the lizards and snakes he saw at a reptile show. He thinks ahead to a time when there are home kits for growing and modifying flowers and reptiles. He muses that you can never tell how technology grows.

George added that the only things you need in order "to do genetic engineering are a computer and a credit card. You can buy DNA synthesizers." His father chimed in that "they are not for teenagers yet; they cost in the tens of thousands but they will come down in price." He guesses that we are about 40 years behind where we are in the computer world.

Tim O'Reilly turned the conversation to risk and noted that there are people who are worried about the implications of these home kits. Dyson agreed that this is for good reason. As you prepare for a time when you can buy the seeds or eggs and kid competes with friends to grow the prickliest cactus or the cutest dinosaur you need to ask:

  • Is it possible to put a stop to it,
  • is it desirable to, and
  • how do you set up the laws, the enforcement, the rules of the game.

An audience member asked how we avoid being doomed by biotechnology. Dyson answered, "by being lucky. We always live on luck. It's the nature of life and evolution. We have to make the best of things." He later added that we are "living in a society that is amazingly risk averse but at the same time does all this crazy stuff. People don't understand the nature of risk and think they can make their lives 100 percent safe." Tim quoted Marvin Minsky as saying that what we really need is a Department of Homeland Arithmetic.

Complicated Behavior

Tim asked George Dyson to talk about his dropping out of high school to go to the Pacific Northwest to build kayaks. George said that formal schools tend to make a distinction between people who do things with their hands and people who do things with their minds. Instead, Dyson believes that we must encourage both.

Tim gave examples of people returning to building things with their hands. Dyson agreed but reminded Tim of a time when the American male right of passage was to take apart a carburetor. Soon cars had fuel injection and not carburetors. There was a move to using CAD rather than working with our hands. He thinks it's a good movement when we can once again take our computers apart.

An audience member asked if, "As systems become more complicated, do they become beyond the human mind to appreciate." Freeman answered that this has always been true. "The important things in the world are problems with society that we don't understand at all. The machines will become more complicated but they won't be more complicated than the societies that run them."

Dyson answered the next question by saying that stem cell research is important. He added, "Not as important scientifically as it is politically. It should be going forward. Happy to see the Democrats are raising their voices. Whether it will cure diseases or not is unclear."

Freeman described a paper called "A New Biology for a New Century." He summarizes the paper as saying that Darwinian biology was a 3 billion year interlude. "When life began you had free software; you didn't have species, you had a community of cells sharing resources, sharing their tricks. One day some little cell found some proprietary tricks and set up its own platform and became a species. From then on it was all downhill. The Darwinian process started with this specialization."

Freeman answered a question about values and technology by saying that "For me, technology is just a tool and doesn't have religious overtones." Another questioner asked about his thoughts on the end of the universe. Dyson smiled, "Well, it's not looking good."

Daniel H. Steinberg is the editor for the new series of Mac Developer titles for the Pragmatic Programmers. He writes feature articles for Apple's ADC web site and is a regular contributor to Mac Devcenter. He has presented at Apple's Worldwide Developer Conference, MacWorld, MacHack and other Mac developer conferences.


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