The Computer as Extended Phenotype

A session at Interaction14

Saturday 8th February, 2014

4:00pm to 4:00pm (AMT)

Evolution works in a surprisingly similar way to backtracking algorithms. A backtracking algorithm keeps a record of the path it has taken to get to its current state. That role is played by DNA in evolution, which is a memory of what has worked successfully in the past. In the early stages of evolution the only source of change was mutation which was a very hit-and-miss source of change, usually resulting in failure. However, once sex evolved there was a new very rich way of combining genes to try out new combinations in the algorithm, which speeded evolution up greatly.

Once true memory evolved, organisms no longer had to depend on hard-wired mechanisms to survive, but could base their actions on past experiences as well. Once language evolved in humans all of a sudden people didn't have to depend on their own experiences to survive, but could use other people's experiences as well.

Development of writing and printing created yet another form of memory that allowed experiences and ideas to survive after your death (just as your genes survive in your children after your death).

This led to what are now referred to as 'memes': a linguistic analogue to genes in DNA. Just like genes, memes get spread out through the population, and the more successful memes ("beans are a good source of protein") have a greater chance of survival, than unsuccessful memes ("if you are ill you should drain some of your blood off"). In fact you can regard a conference as the equivalent for memes that sex is for genes. Actually maybe it's more like an orgy. But I digress.

Memes have allowed humans to repair themselves (medicine, glasses), protect themselves (create buildings, cities), and extend their abilities (telescopes, satnav, flying like gods through the sky, albeit often in rather cramped surroundings with terrible food.) And to create computers.

From this point of view computers can be seen as a product of our genes, just as birds nests (for instance) are a product of the genes of birds.

And as if to complete the circle, researchers have recently announced the ability to store vast amounts of information using DNA: 2.2 petabytes per gram.

So since memes have become just as important as genes for survival, this means that it is just as important to have ideas as to have babies, and this may explain why we tend to revere exemplary producers of memes from previous generations (Plato, Mercator, Edison, ...)

But what happens when our computers start having better ideas than us?

About the speaker

This person is speaking at this event.
Steven Pemberton

W3C and CWI http://www.cwi.nl/~steven bio from Twitter

Next session in Gashouder

4pm The Computer as Extended Phenotype by Steven Pemberton

Sign in to add slides, notes or videos to this session

Tell your friends!


Time 4:00pm4:00pm AMT

Date Sat 8th February 2014


Gashouder, Westergasfabriek

Short URL


View the schedule


See something wrong?

Report an issue with this session