Podium: Why the physicists clubbed a chicken

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The Independent Culture
Peter Cochrane

From a speech by the head of research at BT to the Royal Society for the Arts, Manufactures & Commerce

A FEW years ago, I had a rather haunting experience. I was in a museum and saw, in a large column of formaldehyde, a splendid human brain, complete with the eyes, the spinal cord and all the spinal feeds to the rest of the body trailing down. It suddenly occurred to me that this was the complete human being, the complete system. We can use only a small part of it. Do we really understand it? No.

My ambition as a human being is threefold. I would like to be eclectic, holistic and omnipotent. The third one is always a bit of a problem, but I would really like to understand everything. I would like to influence everything and I would like to be a positive force. It's becoming increasingly difficult, and the only way I can see of doing it is somehow to join forces with technology.

The amount of information now being created is phenomenal. It's like lying underneath a waterfall. The half-life of information in my industry is now about six months. It has become quite astonishing. If you were to read research reports on neurology alone for 24 hours a day non-stop for a year, after one year you'd be only two years out of date. This is becoming a stunning problem for the species.

I spend 15 days a year looking for something to read. For an hour every Sunday morning I go through the Sunday newspapers desperately trying to find something to read. One in four Sundays I find something. This is incredibly expensive. When I was 20 years old, 15 days a year was no big deal, but now I'm coming up to 53, 15 days a year is a big percentage of what I've got left.

I really would like to fix this problem. I would like the technology to bring the stuff to me, but I don't want technology that is cold and sterile. I want technology that is serendipity, something of the quality of someone coming into your office and saying: "Seen this?"

The library at my laboratory used to occupy a huge room full of shelves of books. It was ripped out nearly five years ago and replaced by what has turned out to be the world's second-biggest digital library, with 400 gigabytes. The biggest, at Los Alamos, has 2.1 terabytes, about five times more than ours. The digital library has transformed the way we work. It's become an essential part of our lives. What we do now, we can't do on paper. The work output has gone up about tenfold in the space of 10 years.

Some very interesting things are starting to happen in the way engineers and scientists are now trying to look at what machinery is doing, as opposed to what evolved systems are doing. By 2020, machines will be writing better software than human beings. It's starting to happen a little earlier than we thought.

My laptop has much more processing power than an ant, so why isn't it more powerful? For one thing, it suffers sensory deprivation on a scale that is hard to understand or comprehend, so no wonder it's dumb. We have a bunch of people around this planet creating little machines that have an interesting mix of brainpower and sensory capability.

One of the most remarkable I have seen is a tiny, six-legged robot with only three transistors - like three crude neurones - that can walk. As an engineer, I couldn't conceive of how you get something with just three transistors to walk. The clever thing is that it's got a lot of sensors, and it's the sensory feedback that creates the intelligence.

A virtual shark has been created that can swim inside a computer. No one programmed it to swim; it evolved the ability to move in its viscous world and, remarkably, it does so in a way that mirrors the carbon life form that it is emulating. We now have to think in terms of electronic agents swimming through a network of fibres, able to search and find and bring information to you.

Mathematics is no more than a visualisation tool. It takes you about 20 years to get good at it, so that when somebody throws a formula at you, you can visualise what is happening. For thousands of years philosophers sat round a table with a chicken in the middle of it trying to figure out how a chicken worked. They didn't make a lot of progress. The guys who did the smart thing were the physicists. They clubbed the chicken to death and took it to pieces. That way you get a first inkling of how it works. The guys that really worry me are the software engineers; they just want to specify a chicken.

We may not be able to create a butterfly yet. We may never be able to do everything that Mother Nature can, but there are things that we can do. Complementary technologies help us to win in a sea of activity that is becoming very difficult, very fast and very complex.