01 March 1998

Pocket universes and the origins of Creation

How little do things change! Mr Babbage was always delighted by ingenious Japanese toy automata; and on Lovelace’ last visit, she found him engrossed with a Tamagotchi, evidently overcoming his earlier fear of electronic swarms. Unable to elicit conversation, Lovelace turned to the radio, where she heard that the Vatican reputedly plans to computerise "the search for God's fingerprints in the chaos of Creation".

What would count as an unequivocal find, given the tendency of our assumptions to obscure the view with our own fingerprints? Even the devoutly religious amongst Lovelace's modern-day friends express doubts at "the feasibility of quantifying God". But all are intensely interested, expecting at least collateral benefits from the exercise.

The premise for the search recalls the 18th century theologian William Paley’s ‘argument from design’: that a complex universe implies a more complex creator. Past searches have tended to fixate on the hardware of Creation, such as the wondrous engineering of the human eye. In Babbage’s time, Darwinism was the reply to Paley, and so it remains today, even extending to Professor Lee Smolin’s elegant theory (see his book The Life of the Cosmos) that the fundamental constants of the universe - seemingly tailored to our existence - may also have evolved Darwinistically.

In the software field, scientists such as Adrian Thompson, at the University of Sussex Centre for Computational Neuroscience, mimic and examine the origins and evolution of intelligence and of life itself. Tom Ray’s celebrated Tierra program, too, has shown that life-like complexity may evolve - a community of hosts, parasites and meta-parasites - in a simple world of competing programs.

Even in the mundane sphere, such ‘pocket universes’ afford their operators God-like powers. Banks and credit card companies watch for fraud by comparing our spending patterns with our model analogues inside their corporate Analytical Engines. The disease transmission vector models of the World Health Organisation and the Disease Control Center in Atlanta help prevent global pandemics, while meteorological bureaux watch for digital signatures of storms to give advance warning. Other Engines monitor virtual aircraft, ships, cars, and even Babbage’s beloved railways, helping guard against disaster.

Whilst creation itself remains beyond our compass, Lovelace feels that, with Engine-enhanced vision, we have started to take responsibility for phenomena which were formerly blamed on ‘acts of God’. Perhaps the Vatican will find not fingerprints but departing footprints.