Santa Fe Institute

Video: SFI's Stephanie Forrest on complexity and the biology of computation

Sept. 19, 2013 2:13 p.m.

It's hard to go anywhere today without encountering software – in our cell phones, banks, restaurants, schools, gas stations, cars, and, of course, at our desks. Our computerized world has grown so complex, dynamic, and sometimes hostile, computers now confront challenges akin to those faced by living organisms trying to survive and thrive in an ecosystem.

In a series of three lectures over three nights September 10-12, 2013 in Santa Fe, SFI’s Stephanie Forrest revealed surprising commonalities between computers and networks and organisms and ecosystems, then described new research that blurs the distinction further. 

SFI's Stanislaw Ulam Memorial Lecture Series honors the memory of theoretical mathematician Stanislaw Ulam.

Watch the lectures by selecting from the links below.

Forrest is a professor of computer science at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque; a Jefferson Science Fellow on assignment to the U.S. State Department in Washington, D.C.; and an External Professor and member of the Science Board of the Santa Fe Institute.

Watch Lecture I - Tuesday, September 10, Software Engineering: Evolving Computer Programs. Software – used today for everything from shopping and banking to streaming movies – shapes our daily experience. The software industry contributes billions of dollars annually to the U.S. economy and employs millions of Americans. Programmers like to think of their creations as the carefully crafted product of intelligent design. In reality, large software systems evolve inadvertently through the actions of many programmers, often leading to unanticipated, and costly, consequences. In the first of three lectures, Forrest reveals what software really is and describes how concepts from biology, including Darwinian evolution, can vastly improve the way we think about, make, and debug software. (77 minutes)

Watch Lecture II - Wednesday, September 11, The Complex Science of Cyberdefense: Computer Immunology. Threats are ubiquitous in complex systems: biology is rife with viruses, parasites, and bacteria; social networks abound with bullies; and international relations are stymied by rogue nations. In the second of three lectures, Forrest proposes that understanding how complex systems generally resolve threats might suggest ways to address threats in cyberspace. Observing that biological defense systems solve essentially the same problem, she explains how concepts from immunology are being adapted for the computational realm and considers how the cyber world’s interrelationships with economics, social interactions, and politics may complicate the future of cyberdefense. (83 minutes)

Watch Lecture III - Thursday, September 12, Modeling Computer Networks from Chips to the Internet. The Internet is, perhaps, the largest and most complex human artifact ever created, encompassing billions of technologies, organizations, and human users worldwide. It operates simultaneously on several interacting time scales – from slow processes, such as hardware development, to data transport occurring at the speed of light. In the third of three lectures, Forrest highlights the networks that comprise the Internet and describes modeling strategies that have, in recent years, helped us characterize the current network and predict and improve its future state. She then considers the extremes, from biological concepts that can be adapted to examine communication on a chip to simulations that can help us study how social, economic, and political forces intersect with technology to shape the Internet’s future. (72 minutes)

The 2013 SFI Community Lecture Series is made possible through the generous support of Los Alamos National Bank.

Listen to a pre-lecture interview with Forrest on the Santa Fe Radio Cafe (September 9, 2013)

Read Forrest's pre-lecture article, "Biology can help us tame the digital beast," in the Santa Fe New Mexican (September 2, 2013)

Next lecture:

Wednesday, November 6, 7:30 p.m., Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe. The two most powerful technologies of the 20th century – the nuclear bomb and the computer – were developed in New Mexico at the same time and by the same group of young people. But while the history of the Manhattan Project has been well told, the origin of the computer is relatively unknown. In his book Turing’s Cathedral, historian George Dyson (who grew up among these proto-hackers in Princeton, New Jersey) tells the story of how Alan Turing, John von Neumann, and a small band of other geniuses not only built the computer but also foresaw the world it would create. Dyson is an author and historian of technology whose publications broadly cover the evolution of technology in relation to the physical environment and the direction of society.

For a complete listing of upcoming SFI community events, visit here.

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