All Things Techie With Huge, Unstructured, Intuitive Leaps

Stuff to think about while squashing ants

On my daily walk on the steam train tracks, I watched a redwing blackbird sitting on the steel rail, picking off a line of ants marching along the track. The bird would wait until a long line of ants formed, and then would jump down and gobble as many as he could. The ants would disperse. The blackbird would then hop away, wait for the line to re-form and then repeat the procedure. The buffet marched up to him.

As I saw this, my mind was on the ants, and what they were thinking and how they did it. An ant is hatched from an egg. It has an Octo-Mom queen for a mother who has a gazillion offspring, and the first ant it sees upon hatching, is a worker drone shoving some food into its face and moving down the assembly line to do the same to its other 480 siblings of the hour. There is no learning curve. There is no time for it to be taught anything. Quicker than you can say "Nike Asian Child-worker Sweatshop", the ant is sent out into the world to beg for spare change and find uneaten McDonald's stuff in the trash bins of the world.

So where does an ant get its "being-consumed avoidance software" from? It's uncaring mummy doesn't teach it -- not with a constant stream of eggs oozing out of her derrière. The logical answer, is that the ant hatches complete with embedded firmware. For you non-techies, firmware is the internal software that makes a computer behave like a computer, and makes smart devices smart.

I've detailed the flow diagram of evaluating ant threats on a high level in the illustration. First of all, the ant sees a big black bulbous body of the blackbird with a pointy yellow beak. That is the first bit of input information. Then it sees its 312th brother twice removed get skewered by the birds beak, and gobbled down into the gaping maw. It's bye bye into the blackbird. The ant brain thinks that this can't be a pleasant experience, and issues the general alarm to run away.

This is innate programming. It is coded into the neural nets of the ant brain and present when the ant is hatched. So, I began to think of how the firmware was transferred to the ant. How did the brain software get transferred to the ant?

Of course, the answer is in the DNA of the ant. That factoid made me stop and think. Not only is DNA the blueprint of how to build the ant, but it is also the memory device for the firmware load. It can "bomb-the-PROMS' so to speak. (Hardware engineers will know that PROMS are Programmable Read - Only Memory arrays that hold the firmware. They have fuses in the transistor arrays that are blown out in programming process. Hence bombing the PROM.)

The polynucleotides that make up DNA are not only a construction pattern, but they are like USB memory sticks that holds data for the finished organism. The complex reasoning path outlined in the above illustration of the non-bye-bye-blackbird algorithm is embedded in the DNA.

Never mind Moores Law and the shrinking transistor, we are talking about a memory dump on the chemical molecular level. That got me to thinking. Is the data stored in bits and bytes? I don't think that the DNA molecule can handle binary data, because DNA itself is quaternary. Instead of zeros and ones like a computer, it has four states.

DNA is made up of adenine, thymine, guanine and cytosine. These four chemicals arranged in a chain of gazillions, holds the pattern and the data to make an ant, a flower or me. They would be much more efficent at coding information. Take the word "crap". Because binary is two state, the computer sees the word "crap" as "01100011011100100110000101110000". So while a nibble (four zeros) of binary holds up to 16 bits of information, a quaternary system will hold 256 bits. In English, "crap" takes up four units. In binary, it takes up 32 bits. In quaternary, it takes up just two bits.

So, with DNA being a good and efficient type of memory, would it be better if our computers were quaternary instead of binary? You bet. They would run a lot faster, and hold more data in less physical space. That's something to consider for computer design engineers addicted to the binary way of life.

So, back to the firmware embedded in the ants. It's intriguing to think that the brain of a lower life form is populated with a bunch a algorithms, but a human baby's brain is not. The most intriguing concept is that DNA can be altered to carry information as well. Imagine if a baby was born with the neural nets for speech already intact in the brain. Imagine if a baby was born with neural nets to do calculus while lying in the crib staring at the Fisher Price toys.

It would be a challenge to figure out how to transfer firmware with DNA, but I bet you that it could be done. Oh Brave New World.

No comments:

Post a Comment