Saturday, April 22, 2006

Programming the Universe by Seth Lloyd

On Wednesday, I attended Programming the Universe, a lecture by MIT Professor of Quantum-Mechanical Engineering, Seth Lloyd, to promote his new book ... wait for it ... Programming the Universe. The lecture was hosted by the Perimeter Institute for Theorectical Institute, and while most of their public lectures tend to be held in Waterloo, this was one of the few that came to Toronto. For a lecture of this caliber, it was unfortunate that the location chosen was the Bloor Collegiate Institute -- a local high school. I'm sure a lecture hall at one of the local universities was free that night. The location did nothing to help the lecture, and at worst, was a distraction.

Lloyd is a pretty good speaker. He has a sense of humour that was maybe lost on some of his audience -- but would probably get a lecture hall of his students to react. Unfortunately, he brought his classroom lecture style to an audience that was peppered by idiots. Lloyd invited questions -- asking to be interrupted if the audience didn't understand. The idiots of the audience saw this as an open invitation to interrupt with some of the most inane questions.

Seth Lloyd is at the forefront of research in quantum computing -- the branch of science that uses the quantum properties of atoms to process information. His research has led him to conclude that the universe itself is digital. At the lowest levels, particles are processing information, and as the universe ages, more information is getting produced. In effect, everything is part of the greater sum, and the greater sum is a universe that is a gigantic information processing entity. Everything is computing. The particles that make up you and I are working away processing information -- although that information may be completely meaningless. Yet this processing in his view is what is responsible for reality as we know it. Everything is connected, everything interacts, and from that processing, reality is produced. Lloyd believes that looking at the universe as an information processor at the lowest levels, is key to understanding the origins of the universe, its evolution, and where its going. Eventually, he expects that this view of the universe may help in creating and understanding a unified theory of everything.

When you think of the universe as a computer, and you understand that the information processing occurring at a fundamental, quantum level, is very, very simple, you might think, so what? What's the big deal? Isn't looking at the quantum information processing of the universe just an analogy? And you would be right to ask such a question. When you realize however, that at at a fundamental level, all complex computer programs really just build on the routines of previous, simpler programs, leading all the way back to the fundamental on/off switch, you start wonder. At least I do -- on a philosophical level. What the universe is, will be, becomes something very difficult to contemplate. I am not conceited enough to think that we are the paragon of its evolution -- but we're certainly a part of it, a small part perhaps -- and a small part that is observing the whole in wonder, and seeing ourselves in it, are left with many unanswered questions.

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