Friday, August 31, 2012

Deep Thought

I was listening to Radiolab this afternoon, and on it they had a segment about a software program called "Eureka," the task of which is to analyze very complex data and discover a formula (or set of formulae) that describe it. For example, the swinging of two interacting pendulums, or the patterns in a living cell.

And Eureka does a great job of extracting such formulae, but provides no meaning behind it. It has the answers, in other words, but not the questions. As soon as I heard this I immediately flashed back to The Hitchhiker's Guide To the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. Here is an excerpt from the fifth episode of the original radio series:

... [A]nd so one day a race of hyper-intelligent pan-dimensional beings built themselves a gigantic supercomputer called Deep Thought to calculate once and for all the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything. For seven and a half million years Deep Thought computed and calculated and eventually announced that the answer was in fact forty-two, and so an even bigger computer had to be built to find out what the actual question was.

I quote Douglas Adams a lot, not only because his material is mind-bogglingly funny, but because so much of it, even when not based in fact, is nevertheless true. Which is, of course, what makes it so funny.

I wonder, now that we have built a smaller (and faster, apparently) version of Deep Thought, will we ever manage to build that second supercomputer to find the questions behind the answers?

By the way, if you're not familiar with the series, the second computer had a very dull name. It was called "the Earth."