Also available on:

Filmed on Tuesday March 19, 02013

George Dyson

No Time Is There--- The Digital Universe and Why Things Appear To Be Speeding Up

Science historian George Dyson is the author of Baidarka the Kayak, Darwin Among the Machines, Project Orion: The Atomic Spaceship and Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe.

When thinking about the future, it is easy to forget to look behind you. Enter George Dyson, “a historian among futurists”, who does deep research into the history of computing to understand the trends that will bring us into the future.

One of his persistent themes is taking the “digital universe” metaphor seriously. When we turned on the first computers, we created a computational universe, a universe that is now growing by 5 trillion bits of storage per second. This universe is not merely expanding--it is exploding, and we need to understand computer time as well as we understand human time.

The digital big bang

When the digital universe began, in 1951 in New Jersey, it was just 5 kilobytes in size. "That's just half a second of MP3 audio now," said Dyson. The place was the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton. The builder was engineer Julian Bigelow. The instigator was mathematician John von Neumann. The purpose was to design hydrogen bombs.

Bigelow had helped develop signal processing and feedback (cybernetics) with Norbert Wiener. Von Neumann was applying ideas from Alan Turing and Kurt Gödel, along with his own. They were inventing and/or gates, addresses, shift registers, rapid-access memory, stored programs, a serial architecture—all the basics of the modern computer world, all without thought of patents. While recuperating from brain surgery, Stanislaw Ulam invented the Monte Carlo method of analysis as a shortcut to understanding solitaire. Shortly Von Neumann's wife Klári was employing it to model the behavior of neutrons in a fission explosion. By 1953, Nils Barricelli was modeling life itself in the machine—virtual digital beings competed and evolved freely in their 5-kilobyte world.

"In the few years they ran that machine, from 1951 to 1957, they worked on the most difficult problems of their time, five main problems that are on very different time scales—26 orders of magnitude in time—from the lifetime of a neutron in a bomb's chain reaction measured in billionths of a second, to the behavior of shock waves on the scale of seconds, to weather prediction on a scale of days, to biological evolution on the scale of centuries, to the evolution of stars and galaxies over billions of years. And our lives, measured in days and years, is right in the middle of the scale of time. I still haven't figured that out."

Julian Bigelow was frustrated that the serial, address-constrained, clock-driven architecture of computers became standard because it is so inefficient. He thought that templates (recognition devices) would work better than addresses. The machine he had built for von Neumann ran on sequences rather than a clock. In 1999 Bigelow told George Dyson, "Sequence is different from time. No time is there." That's why the digital world keeps accelerating in relation to our analog world, which is based on time, and why from the perspective of the computational world, our world keeps slowing down.

The acceleration is reflected in the self-replication of computers, Dyson noted: "By now five or six trillion transistors per second are being added to the digital universe, and they're all connected." Dyson is a kayak builder, emulating the wood-scarce Arctic natives to work with minimum frame inside a skin craft. But in the tropics, where there is a surplus of wood, natives make dugout canoes, formed by removing wood. "We're now surrounded by so much information," Dyson concluded, "we have to become dugout canoe builders. The buzzword of last year was 'big data.' Here's my definition of the situation: Big data is what happened when the cost of storing information became less than the cost of making the decision to throw it away."

More Seminars


SALT Summaries Book

$2.99 Also available as a paperback book

Condensed ideas about long-term thinking summarized by Stewart Brand
(with Kevin Kelly, Alexander Rose and Paul Saffo) and a foreword by Brian Eno.

Seminar Sponsors

Will Hearst • David and Abby Rumsey • Kim Polese • Shel Kaphan • Garrett Gruener • Stream Guys Media Streaming • The Libra Foundation • Peter Baumann • Brian Eno • Greg Stikeleather • Richard and Angie Thieriot • Nion McEvoy • Cameo Wood • Susie Tompkins Buell Fund • Panta Rhea Foundation • Patrick Tufts • Ping Fu • Peter Schwartz • The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation • Dean Ornish • The Long Now Membership

We would also like to recognize George Cowan (01920 - 02012) for being the first to sponsor this series.