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European Visions for the Knowledge Age

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European Visions for the Knowledge Age

A Quest for New Horizons in the Information Society

Paul T Kidd (Ed)
ISBN 978-1-901864-08-3 (Paperback)
Price: See buy on-line link



Chapter 17
The World as Computer
Walter Van de Velde
"Restart the world. Click here." So reads an advertisement for broadband access by a leading Italian internet access provider. This suggests nothing less than that the world is a computer. It illustrates the basic argument of this chapter: not only is the computational perspective increasingly influencing the jargon of science and technology, but also publicity aimed at the general public. In addition the status of the computational perspective is changing. Initially a research instrument (like a notebook or a calculator), it has become an epistemological tool (modelling nature as if it is computation) and is taking on ontological ambitions (implying that nature is computational). This ontological stance is a cornerstone for the convergence among the nanosciences, the biological sciences, the information sciences and the cognitive sciences, commonly referred to as NBIC. The hypothesis that binds these together is, essentially, a computational one. If the basic building blocks of world, atoms, cells, neurones, and so on, can be understood as computational elements, then they can be made interchangeable and interoperable.
This convergence is, however, only a first episode in which humankind is learning the engineering skills to turn this convergence into material practice. This focuses on the smallest things, which, though still dauntingly complex, are easier to deal with in the reductionist scientific tradition. But these techniques will eventually produce their effects at the scale of everyday life experiences. Everything becomes programmable through such things as smart materials, brain-machine coupling, community technologies and global sensor networks. In contemporary research the computational approach is preparing for the final move, namely to absorb everything: small or large, living or not, natural or artificial. It aims to become metaphysics: a theory of life, the universe, and everything else.
These developments raise many questions. One is particularly worrying: is computer science ready to assume this role that is, willingly or not, bestowed on it? The answer is a clear no, which can be interpreted both as a warning against going along without reflection, and as an opportunity for a radical and long overdue re-invention of computer science.


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