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Info, bio, nano, or thermo? Turing’s revenge

by Michael Nielsen on April 25, 2008

People sometimes claim that we’re moving from the information age into the biotech age, or the nanotech age, or the age of energy. Will we really see such a shift, or is this just hype?

My recent thinking about the idea that everything should be code convinces me that the people claiming that such shifts will occur are wrong, at least in the case of biotech and nanotech.

It’s not that biotech and nanotech won’t make enormous, world-changing strides in the near future. They will. But the effect of many of those strides will be to bring biotech and nanotech effectively into the realm of information technology. Expressing biology and nanotechnology in the language of information allows you to set loose all the powerful ideas of computation. This is too much to pass up. So what we’ll see is not a shift, but rather a gradual convergence between the info, bio and nano worlds. Which of the three will have the upper hand, commercially, seems to me to be difficult to predict.

What about energy? Here the situation is different. Like information, energy has a fundamental, irreducible quality. Because of this, I expect we’ll see a complementary relationship between information and energy technologies, but one will never subsume the other.

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3 Comments
  1. dileffante permalink

    Well, Dawkins, Venter and others have agreed that today genomics is a branch of information technology.

    As for energy, after reading Seth Lloyd I’m under the impression that it will become increasingly interwined with information technology; energy/entropy/information are different aspects of a same thing. Cf. reversible computation vs. energy comsumption, for instance. It’s a long shot, though.

  2. aram permalink

    Here’s my guess: the technologies that are considered important will be the ones that we spend lots of resources on. e.g. advances in health care mean we spend an increasing share of GDP on that, whereas advances in food mean we spend a decreasing share of our income on that (apart from recently).

    So despite the Green Revolution, the 20th century is not considered the “age of food.”
    And if information technology becomes cheap and ubiquitous, it may lose the limelight. Biotech and energy, though, are likely to account for increasing fractions of our budgets, and so also will account for increasing shares of our attention.

  3. Aram – I doubt that all aspects of IT will become cheap and ubiquitous. Organizing information is a hard and poorly understood problem, and valuable to many outside IT. Because it’s hard and poorly understood, there is likely to be considerable stratification in how well it is done. Because it’s valuable to people outside IT, those people are likely to be willing to pay a premium for access to the best.

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