The Secret Life of Algorithms
The instructions that make life possible
Why does life exist, how does it work, and why do humans do what we do?
These questions have bedeviled scientists and philosophers for eons. But today, things are falling into place, and answers can be proposed.
In this series, I present new ideas about the basic requirements for all life on Earth and how our human evolution is driven by communication and information.
First, however, I want to ensure that we are all on the same page with some basic concepts and terminology.
What’s an algorithm?
The word algorithm is second nature to computer geeks, but many of my friends are not geeks and might appreciate a quick refresher on the concept. Also, I will often use the term algorithm in future biological and cosmic discussions, so a clear definition will be helpful.
The first article in this series, Pi at the Center of the Universe, showed that we can’t reverse engineer the complexity of our evolved world. Instead, we need to start at the headwaters, discover the “base algorithms” that created our world and the life we enjoy, and then follow those downstream to see how they combine and manifest in our current complex experience.
So let’s start with a lovely pie and talk about algorithms.
It’s amusing that the first thing you frequently hear when someone presents a delicious homemade pie is:
“Oh, please, can I have the recipe for that pie!”
It’s that simple. An algorithm is a recipe, a plan, an instruction, a strategy, or a list of steps for doing or making something specific. All computer programs are algorithms, but not all algorithms are computer programs - algorithms can exist for any process or action, including molecular and biological processes.
Computer algorithms can be thousands to millions of “lines of code.” They can include logic, branching, and even neural networks. But so can biological algorithms that run in living molecular and chemical computers. This makes it all the more intriguing to find the base algorithms of biological systems and understand how they produce the magnificent complexity that we see in life.
So what is a base algorithm?
I will frequently use the term “base algorithm,” so it needs to be clearly defined:
A base algorithm is the simplest algorithm that will accomplish a given task. If any element of it is taken away, it no longer works. For example:
A+B=C is a base algorithm for addition
A+ =C does not work
Algorithms can exist within other algorithms
Algorithms can exist within a hierarchy of other algorithms. The base algorithm for starting your car might be: “Insert the key, turn to the start position, release after starting.” That base algorithm could exist within a larger base algorithm called “Go to the store,” which is inside “Feed the family.” Each of these could contain multitudes of other inter-related base algorithms. Yes, the world is a complicated place.
Algorithms exist whether we know about them or not
Finally, algorithms do not have to be written by humans. The angle at which two atoms bounce off each other is determined by an algorithm describing the laws of nature - some of which we know about and others we don’t.
The algorithms of biology are the leading edge of our knowledge
We are just learning how our bodies are run by billions of algorithms operating on many levels. Leading-edge biologists like Michael Levin and his lab are sorting out how the algorithms of our biological computers work. For instance, our body might be reprogrammed to reverse disease and, in the future, even regenerate body parts. This is indeed very exciting work, which I will discuss at length.
Next stop - the base algorithms that make life possible
With this background, in the next article, I will propose the base algorithms that make all life possible here on Earth - and perhaps throughout the universe.
Stay tuned; there is lots more to come.
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