01 September 1997

From the data of Nature to the nature of data.

Babbage was impressed, during his recent travels, by the variety of ways in which the descendants of his Difference Engine are now applied to the study of Natural Science. He was particularly intrigued by the intertwining of Computer Science, once a construct whose ideal was Mr Boole's pure symbolic logic, with the more anarchic Life Sciences.

In Proverbs 6:6, the Bible tells us to "go to the ant ... and consider her ways". In Martlesham Heath, England, telecommunications engineers have taken that advice, devising programs that direct telephone calls using ant-like behaviour to seek the best route. Independent software entities - 'agents' - move about the network leaving guiding messages for each other, just as ants leave scent trails to guide others to food.

In Stuttgart, physical chemists use automatic sampling of the statistics on a factory's processes to tune, as it were, the variables controlling the factory. They are, in fact, inducing a machine to mimic the trial-and-improvement patterns whereby an animal solves a problem.

In Paris, the seat of the perfume industry, other chemists link computers to chemical sensors which complement or augment the olfactory discrimination of the human nose. In Moscow, a computer simulation explores the possible futures of an endlessly mutated DNA chain.

The phenomenon is not merely one of learning to copy natural methods. Biologist Mr Stephen Jay Gould has memorably described the cloud of pollen from a tree as "raining floppy disks", and this view of Nature as information (utterly alien to the scientific paradigm of Babbage's day) is reshaping the endeavours of humankind to emulate those of natural creation.

Confused and dazzled by such complexities, Babbage took refuge in observation of humble lichens within an ancient oak wood in the Devon of his boyhood. When, however, one of these enigmatic plants defied recognition, he sought enlightenment in an Antwerp database. In pursuit of the Norwegian Bryoria smithii, it occurred to him that the branching hierarchy of this botanical key replicated the evolutionary and taxonomic classifications it described. And beyond, the global web (the key being but a small part) has itself developed to become like an evolving organism, driven less by its makers than by Mr Darwin's laws.

Such esoteric encapsulations of human data and universal code, Babbage decided, were the territory of Lovelace's more freewheeling intellect, and he resolved to concentrate his mind on comparatively straightforward considerations of engineering and physical reality.