November 12, 2008
How do you see the future of complexity (including obstacles, dangers, promises and relations with other areas)?
It’s already underway… but in the years and decades to come we’re going to see a fundamental change in the approach to both science and technology. We’re going to see much simpler underlying systems and rules, with much more complex behavior, all over the place.
Sometimes we’re going to see “off-the-shelf” systems being used—specific systems that have already been studied in the basic science that’s been done. And often we’re going to see systems being used that were found “on demand” by doing explicit searches of the computational universe.
In science, our explorations of the computational universe have greatly expanded the range of models that are available for us to use. And we’ve realized that rich, complex behavior that we see can potentially be generated by models that are simple enough that we can realistically just explicitly search for them in the computational universe.
In technology, we’re used to the standard approach to engineering: to the idea that humans have to create systems one step at a time, in a sense always understanding each step. What we’ve now realized is that it’s possible to find great technology just by “mining” the computational universe. There are lots and lots of systems out there—often defined by very simple programs—that we can see do very rich and complex things.
In the past, we’ve been used to creating some of our technology just by picking up things in nature—say magnets or cotton or liquid crystals—then figuring out how to use them for our purposes. The same is possible on a much larger scale with the abstract systems in the computational universe. For example, in building Mathematica, we’re increasingly using algorithms that were “mined” from the computational universe, rather than being explicitly constructed step by step by a human.
I think we’re going to see a huge explosion of technology “mined” from the computational universe. It’s all going to depend on the crucial fundamental scientific fact that even very simple programs can make complexity. And the result is that in time, “complexity” will be all around us—not only in nature, but also in the technology we create.
When I started working on complexity nearly 30 years ago, the intuition was that complexity was a rare and difficult thing to get. In the future, everyone will be so exposed from an early age to technology that’s based on complexity that all those ideas that seem so hard for people to grasp now will become absolutely commonplace—and taken for granted.