Bat Wings

Evolution has adapted what were the bones of the fingers of the bat’s ancestors to form the skeleton of its wing. Similarly, in technology, when one element of a system is capable of expanding to take up new functions, it can substitute for what might have been expected to be different ways to achieve the same end. The same could be said of the bat’s ears. By this process expansion and substitution, the system can gain completely new capabilities. Bats are in some sense mice who can fly and see in the dark.

Recently, The Futurist opined that computing technology was having a substantial and growing impact on technology in general, and thus on our way of life:

Among 1990s sitcoms, how many plot devices would no longer exist in the age of cellphones and Google Maps? Consider the episode of Seinfeld entirely devoted to the characters not being able to find their car, or each other, in a parking structure (1991).

He predicts a significant and growing economic impact from this effect. I thought it would be interesting take a look around the recent developments in science and technology and see just how much of the computer substitution effect is taking place.

“Improved Memory: New algorithms ­double flash ­capacity without shrinking transistor size.”

In the old science fiction stories, there were often “galactic survey” spaceships that visited new stars to see whether there were new planets. They, the SF writers, would have been astonished to learn that we can discover extrasolar planets from earth-based telescopes today. Modern astronomical telescopes use computer-controlled actuators to deform the mirror in real time to counteract the fluctuations in the view caused by atmospheric turbulence. This substitutes for putting the telescope in orbit, on the Moon, or going to the star to see for yourself.

In nanotechnology, of course, the major jump came in the 80s with the scanning tunneling microscope — impossible without a computer to control the probe and reconstruct a view from its output. New computer-driven advances to microscopy continue apace, in electron microscopes as well as scanning probes. The same thing is happening in other kinds of imaging.

A recent development uses computation to combine simulation and experimental data to produce movies of molecular mechanisms at work that would be impossible for either alone. This underscores just how much more we know about the nanoworld because of the simulations themselves, which are more or less taken for granted today.

Of course, anything in robotics is driven by the growing capability of computers to integrate sensory and motor technology. Watch the “fetching a stapler” movie from the STAIR project to see the sort of things robots are capable of these days.

The C in CAT scan of course stands for Computerized. The new understanding of the brain, as well as the body, is driven by the computer substitution effect ranging from fMRIs to neuron simulation. The item in the news that underscores this neatly is Adam Wilson posting to Twitter — “just by thinking about it.”

The really interesting question, of course, is what happens when we can take the advantages of computer technology — its digital nature, general manipulation capability, the ability to build hugely complex systems and copy them for virtually no cost — and apply them to physical technology in the form of nanotech. It is common today to think that there’s something more basic about information than the physical world, but I would claim that the perception is because we have technology that handles information in a much more facile way than we do for matter and energy. But when matter and energy catch up, the substitution effects will tend to flow back the other way. … after just 20 years of a “matter and energy Moore’s Law,” this is your family car:

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