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Is The Universe A Massive Supercomputer?

By P.A. Wahid
The Hindu

The latest thinking that is doing rounds in scientific circles is whether the universe is a computer. The legendary Konrad Zuse, a German scientist who built the first programmable computer, was also the first to suggest in 1967 that the entire universe is being computed on a computer, possibly a cellular automaton.

He referred to this as Rechnender Raun (computing cosmos or computing space), which in fact started the field of "Digital Physics." The tremendous advances made in computer science and technology during the last couple of decades have also made a sea change in the quality of our thought process. What has been done manually before the advent of modern computer technology can now be done unmanned more efficiently and rapidly by the use of a computer.

Nature has always been a wonder and a source of inspiration for intellectual activity to man. Apart from the physical components of the universe, there are the natural phenomena and a whole variety of rules and mechanisms that are responsible for the entire universe to function as a single system.

The fact that phenomena like natural cycles, planetary movements and a host of others occur with clockwork precision and accuracy leads to the obvious conclusion that our universe is a programmed system.

Nothing happens in this universe in an arbitrary manner but only according to certain eternal laws and that is why we are able to formulate principles based on our observations that can reflect the natural order.

Every aspect of the universe is mathematically describable. We find sequences in every natural phenomenon, be it a chemical, physical or biological reaction or the development of a plant or an animal from the zygote, to cite but a few. All these are proofs of the demonstrations of execution of programmes existing in nature. Further, we also know that every organism has a programme stored in its cells. Brain is a computer and it has memory. A living cell can be likened to a biochip.

The first ever proposal of a computer model of the universe was made in my book The Divine Expert System published in 1998. A tremendous boost in the computer concept of the universe has occurred since then particularly following the publication of a research paper in the journal Physical Review Letters by Professor Seth Lloyd of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, USA, in 2002.

Lloyd considers every process or every change that takes place in the universe as a kind of computation. If the universe is treated as a computer, it would have the computer power to do 10,120 logical operations. Commenting on the computer concept of the universe in the June 3, 2003 issue of Nature, Philip Ball observed, "... Lloyd has a reputation as a challenging lateral thinker, especially in information theory. Two years ago, he calculated the physical limits to computation; the constraints that physical laws place on the power of, say, a laptop-sized computer. Now he's just doing the same for a universe sized computer."

Close on the heels of the publication of Lloyd's paper, Stephen Wolfram proposes in his book A New Kind of Science published in 2002 by Wolfram Media Inc., USA, that all of reality might result from a kind of algorithm, like a computer program being enacted again and again on the underlying building blocks of space and matter. He argues that the whole universe can be viewed as one huge cellular automaton. Wolfram is a distinguished computer scientist with many accomplishments under his belt including the development of the famous software Mathematica.

The basic change that the computer concept of the universe brings into our present knowledge of the universe and cosmology is that it is the patterns of information rather than matter and energy per se that represent the fundamental units of reality.

Information theory says that every physical system from a glass of water to a microchip holds 1s and 0s in the states of its component particles. Changes in those states could be treated as "computation" just as our machine computes by changing the information in its memory.

The connection between information science and physical processes appears once the events are considered on the quantum scale. According to Lloyd, the operations calculation from information theory and the bits calculation from quantum gravity yielded equivalent results suggesting that there is a connection out there between quantum gravity and computation. The universe's program could be thought of as the primordial quantum fluctuations that seed the formation of the galaxies.

Where are all these concepts leading to? Jurgen Schmidhuber of Dalle Molle Institute for Artificial Intelligence (IDSIA), Switzerland, proposes an algorithmic theory of everything. He assumes: "a long time ago, the Great Programmer wrote a program that runs all possible universes on His Big Computer... Each universe evolves on a discrete time scale... Any universe's state at a given time is describable by a finite number of bits."

We are therefore living in a giant quantum computer. If that were the case, the material science comprising the traditional physics and chemistry, as well as biology will undergo a dramatic quantum revolution. The universe as a whole will be conceived as a digital phenomenon and the science of universe will be re-written in the form of algorithm — in the language of natural computer. That would exactly be the shape of science to come!

RELATED ARTICLE: Is The Universe Dreaming Itself?

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