Digital Biology

Book Review


Digital Biology

by Peter J. Bentley


Editorial Reviews


Viruses, bugs, bots, ants: the metaphors, language, and realities of the digital world increasingly parallel those of the biological world. This vigorous book shows why those parallels are appropriate, even natural.


By studying the biological world and applying it to cyberspace and by using the natural processes responsible for life within computer systems, evolutionary biologist Peter Bentley writes, "we are overturning all preconceptions of what computers can and cannot do." They can do much, of course. Computers today can grow architectural models from digital "genes," can detect the difference between healthy and malignant cells, can even mimic certain behaviors of living beings. Tucking a handy primer in biological theory among sometimes heady discussions of the digital universe, Bentley focuses closely on the workings of computers today, projecting what might be true of those machines just a few years from now thanks to the workings of evolution--not strictly Darwinian evolution, to be sure, but evolution all the same.

Of interest to a wide range of readers, Bentley's book raises provocative questions as it prowls around inside the "benign cream-colored boxes" that surround us. --Gregory McNamee


From Publishers Weekly


Though books about technology's effect on nature abound, few titles consider the reverse impact. British research scientist Bentley perhaps recognizing the counterintuitive quality of his argument seems to redouble his efforts to make his point. Sectioned off into chapters with general titles like "Evolution," "Brains" and "Immune Systems," his book is an entertaining look at the ways in which systems of nature are influencing advances in computer research. Bentley contends that "natural and digital biology follow the same processes, just in different universes"; programmers can function as "digital biologists," he says, and make worlds with digital genes, brains, plants and insects. Bentley is at his best when he takes phenomena of the natural world like evolution and shows how they're used in computer programming. He explains, for example, how he programmed his computer to "evolve" a design for a coffee table: the computer created a digital universe in which objects could reproduce; the objects "began life as random blobs," but after hundreds of generations of "continuous evolution" they ended up looking like tables. (He had the best design made and rests his feet on it as he writes.) While the writing is intelligent, well reasoned and good-humored to a fault, once the average reader accepts Bentley's basic premise, the reiteration might deters some from reading on.


Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.


From Booklist


Neither Darwin nor Mendel ever saw a computer. But in this fascinating volume, a pioneering computer scientist reveals the unexpected ways in which cybertechnicians are taking their research cues from evolutionists and geneticists. With minimal reliance on technical vocabulary, Bentley paves the way for nonspecialists to observe the universes being created inside computers, universes in which new energy-information creatures are living, growing, evolving, and propagating. Against skeptics who protest that computers can only simulate nature, Bentley adduces strong evidence that the digital plants now sprouting in computer systems must count as part of nature, not merely as copies. As a consequence, as computers refine their own programs and reconfigure their own circuits, the scientists who watch and try to explain must deploy the same principles invoked by biologists charting the evolution of new species of ferns or fish. Surpassing any science-fiction novelist, Bentley predicts a future in which sophisticated digital organisms will feed, instruct, entertain, and study their primitive human masters. A thrilling vision of the future for some; Brave New World revisited for others. Bryce Christensen

Copyright American Library Association. All rights reserved


Book Description


Imagine a future world where computers can create universes -- digital environments made from binary ones and zeros. Imagine that within these universes there exist biological forms that reproduce, grow, and think. Imagine plantlike forms, ant colonies, immune systems, and brains, all adapting, evolving, and getting better at solving problems. Imagine if our computers became greenhouses for a new kind of nature. Just think what digital biology could do for us.


Perhaps it could evolve new designs for us, think up ways to detect fraud using digital neurons, or solve scheduling problems with ants. Perhaps it could detect hackers with immune systems or create music from the patterns of growth of digital seashells. Perhaps it would allow our computers to become creative and inventive.


Now stop imagining.


Digital biology is an intriguing glimpse into the future of technology by one of the most creative thinkers working in computer science today. As Peter J. Bentley explains, the next giant step in computing technology is already under way as computer scientists attempt to create digital universes that replicate the natural world. Within these digital universes, we will evolve solutions to problems, construct digital brains that can learn and think, and use immune systems to trap and destroy computer viruses.


The biological world is the model for the next generation of computer software. By adapting the principles of biology, computer scientists will make it possible for computers to function as the natural world does. In practical terms, this will mean that we will soon have "smart" devices, such as houses that will keep the temperature as we like it and automobiles that will start only for drivers they recognize (through voice recognition or other systems) and that will navigate highways safely and with maximum fuel efficiency. Computers will soon be powerful enough and small enough that they can become part of clothing. "Digital agents" will be able to help us find a bank or restaurant in a city that we have never visited before, even as we walk through the airport. Miniature robots may even be incorporated into our bodies to monitor our health.


Digital Biology is also an exploration of biology itself from a new perspective. We must understand how nature works in its most intimate detail before we can use these same biological processes inside our computers. Already scientists engaged in this work have gained new insights into the elegant simplicity of the natural universe.


This is a visionary book, written in accessible, nontechnical language, that explains how cutting-edge computer science will shape our world in the coming decades.