The Computer as Extended Phenotype
(Computers, Genes and You)

Steven Pemberton, CWI and W3C, Amsterdam

Prelude: updates to my previous talks

Despite what the announcement for this talk said, this is my fourth annual address to this fine institution.

2008: Why you should have a website

I introduced RDFa as a new technology: Now adopted by Yahoo, Google, US and UK governments, Drupal, Facebook, Newsweek, just to name a few. Bestbuy in the US reports that it improved their Google rank tremendously, gave a 30% increase in traffic, and a 15% increase in click-throughs.

2009: Never is a long time

Linux: I quoted "Linux will outship Windows on new PCs in 2009". That was before Microsoft created Windows 7 Starter, but Android is of course Linux.

USB stick prices: After the downturn, USB stick prices stopped declining. However, the decline has started again, and two weeks ago, prices dropped below €1/GB for the first time in the Netherlands (for 8GB and 16GB sticks)

2010: The Ten Euro Computer. "Google OS is coming: return of the thin client."


Lightning in slow motion

Computer game playing (and other problem solving)

There's a style of computer problem solving called backtracking.

Visual example of backtracking

There are several possible variants: Serial, Parallel, find one solution, find all, heuristic.


This method can solve an amazing range of problems.

HOW TO RETURN (route, state) aim:
   IF state = aim:
      RETURN ("success", route with state)
   IF state in route OR NOT safe state:
      RETURN failure
   PUT route with state IN new.route
   FOR option IN possible.from state:
      PUT (new.route, state altered.for option) aim IN result, route
      IF result = "success":
         RETURN ("success", route)
   RETURN ("failure", {})

In an article I wrote, I used this to solve the Farmer and the Produce problem, the Two Jugs problem, and even the Towers of Hanoi (just for two disks, it found 12 solutions!), but it will also solve the Eight Queens problem, Sudoku, and many others.


Backtracking is comparable to how evolution works

Cheese and the theory of evolution (Bas Haring)

Book cover

The 3 requirements for evolution:


In early evolution, the only source of variation was mutation, and mutation is only rarely successful, more likely leading to deleterious effects.

Once sex evolved, there was more source of variation.

Which explains the success of sex.


Death is evolution's backtracking, well - death without offspring.

(Later we will see how the definition of offspring has changed).


The environment changes (and therefore redefines success)

This is how species happen.

It is interesting to consider that since cats and dogs have a common ancestor, that common ancestor had two children, one of which was the first cat, and one that was the first dog.


An obvious example of the effect of the environment is camouflage.

But: Kingfishers, wasps



Silver foxesБеля́ев (Belyaev) bred foxes, selecting only for tameness. This had the surprising side-effect of changing how they looked as well:


Silver foxes

Genetic Memory

You can see the accretion of successful genes as a form of learning, or a form of memory (and similar to the 'route' in the backtracking program earlier).

Examples of genetic learning/memory in humans

Hayley Mills and Roy Boulting

Vitamins vs Calories

Sugar, Fat

Sex is fun

Age differences in couples.


After Sex, true memory was a major development, and allowed learning behaviours.

Sphex Wasp behaviour.


Hypnosis experiments show that you may not always be aware of the reasons you do things. You may rationalise them differently to the 'true' reason. [Example from Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! "All the time you're saying to yourself, "I could do that, but I won't"--which is just another way of saying that you can't."]

Some think that there may not even be conscious free will, but that we always rationalise after the action.

What people like and don't like



Fire: Most animals flee from fire

Flashing red light story

TV vs hearth

Screens, e-ink

Long hair

Shaved armpits


Anything affected by genes


Evolution with planning, true memories


Having ideas is now just as important as having babies


Augmenting the Collective IQ


"The wheel is an extension of the foot, the book is an extension of the eye; clothing, an extension of the skin, electric circuitry, an extension of the central nervous system"

The Extended Human Phenotype

Using memes, not genes.

Repair: Glasses, medicine, hospitals, deafness

Abilities: Houses, cars, planes, boats

Location: Satnav - we were the last generation of people who could get lost; weather radar.

The Computer as Extended Phenotype

The computer is being used in so many ways to extend our abilities, I can see no other possibility than to regard it as part of our extended phenotype.

Moore's Law

Often people don't understand its true effects.

Take a piece of paper, divide it in two, and write this year's date in one half:



Now divide the other half in two vertically, and write the date 18 months ago in one half:



Now divide the remaining space in half, and write the date 18 months earlier (or in other words 3 years ago) in one half:



Repeat until your pen is thicker than the space you have to divide in two:



This demonstrates that your current computer is more powerful than all other computers you have had put together.

(You can use this diagram to demonstrate other things too).

The Singularity

Paradigm shifts over the ages


(The slides are online)