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Rudy Rucker:
"Gnarly Computation"

Mitchel Resnick, MIT Media Lab

Monday, October 31, 2005; 4:00 PM EST

Bartos Theatre, MIT Media Lab (E15)

We are coming to realize that physics, biology, minds, and societies all emerge from interacting laws that can be regarded as computations. Everything is a computation, more precisely, everything is a gnarly computation.

Rucker uses "gnarly" to mean richly complex—or what Stephen Wolfram calls class-four. A tree's growth, the changes in the weather, the flow of daily news, a person's ever-changing moods—all of these are gnarly computations. Although law-like and deterministic, gnarly computations are—and this is a key point—inherently unpredictable. The world's mystery is preserved.

Rucker will explain the notion of gnarly computation with a few slides and computer demos, leading up to three principles:

  1. Computational Equivalence: most naturally occurring complex computations are universal.
  2. Computational Unpredictability: most naturally occurring complex computations are unpredictable, that is, not subject to exponential speed-up.
  3. Natural Undecidability: for most naturally occurring complex processes, and for any formal system of science, there will be sentences about the process which are undecidable by the given formal system.
Rucker will then mention some positive aspects of the universal automatist worldview, ending with, just for fun, six gnarly-computation-inspired tips for how to lead a happier life.

Rudy Rucker is a writer, mathematician, and computer scientist, in that order. Born in Kentucky in 1946, Rucker moved to Silicon Valley when he turned 40. He recently retired from his professorship in the Computer Science Department at San Jose State University. He has published twenty-six books, primarily science-fiction and popular science. He was an early cyberpunk and an editor at Mondo 2000. He often writes science fiction in a realistic style that he characterizes as transreal. His most recent books are: Frek and the Elixir (Tor Books, 2004), a far-future epic about a boy’s galactic quest to restore Earth’s ecology; and the nonfiction book The Lifebox, the Seashell, and the Soul: What Gnarly Computation Taught Me About Ultimate Reality, the Meaning of Life and How to Be Happy (Thunder's Mouth Press, Fall, 2005). Rucker just finished writing a novel called Mathematicians in Love, which gives science-fictional life to some of his ideas about computation.

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