Four years after Darwin published ‘On The Origin Of Species’, Samuel Butler was calling for a theory of evolution for machines. Most attempts at such a theory have tried to frame it in terms of the steady accumulation of changes, recognisable as Darwinian.
But natural selection has certain limitations. For one thing, a new species can only be created through incremental steps. What is more, each step must result in a viable life form. Technology need not be so constrained. So where does that leave us in the search for an evolutionary theory for machines? It certainly does not mean there is no such thing, only that Darwinian selection is not always applicable. How, then, can we explain the appearance of anything that cannot have come about through the steady accumulation of changes to existing technologies?
We have to consider technology in its entirety — not just physical inventions but all processes, devices, modules, methods and algorithms that ever existed — in order to see a kind of evolution at work.
When we do that, we discover that the history of technology is by no means one of more-or-less independent discoveries. This is because any new technology can only come about by using components and methods that already exist. The jet engine, for example, was created by combining pre-existing technologies like compressors, turbines and combustion systems| | | Next → |