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Megalomania, Evolution without Sex, Drugs and Boolean Functions

August 24, 2012

I love the ambitious spirit of our field. I embrace the view of Theory of Computation as a Lens on the Sciences. Avi Wigderson, a certified TOC-megalomaniac (used as a term of endearment), has been promoting this view for a while now and been making the point that fundamental notions such as Randomness, Entropy, Cryptography, Knowledge, Learning, Proofs and even Computation itself, gain dramatic new insights when efficiency and complexity come into play. I also found that the “kind of Mathematics” that TOC employs (in its models and definitions, constructions and proofs) can in itself be very relevant to other fields (separate of any “computational perspective”). So one conclusion of all of this is that we need many more TOC researchers (yes, I realize how self-serving this conclusion is, sorry!) More interestingly, it means that we are now allowed to satisfy our curiosity wherever it takes us: Physics, Biology, Economy, Sociology, Psychology, Art, and any other field we care about, without abandoning TOC.

Such an opportunity to expend my horizons occurred when Nisheeth K. Vishnoi visited us from our sister lab in India. He told us about his work on Evolution (without sex), which I falsely assumed (like many others) will be closely related to Valiant’s work on the subject. This was interesting both in terms of the context (Biology and Medicine) and in terms of the Mathematics (models, results and open problems). For example, I did not realize how dramatically important the study of evolution still is, until Nisheeth talked about the rapid evolution of viruses and its implications to the development of medicines. In his words: “we can contribute to an area of science which holds the potential to explain why we are and help us continue to be.” I asked Nisheeth to write a guest post so that more of us could be exposed to this research, and (with enough encouragement 😉 ) Nisheeth indeed did. The result is a short note that is probably easiest to read in its pdf version (rather than in the blog itself).

Let me therefore conclude with the first paragraph of Nisheeth’s note (which by the way reminded me that true understanding of Evolution negates racism rather than support it in any way):

Enough cannot be said about Evolution, a theory for which was first  formulated by Darwin and Wallace, which drives life and, perhaps, is the reason for the emergence of  the genetic information that forms its basis. At a very high level, evolution is an iterative process which takes feedback from an environment in order to refine existing information and bias it towards that which is more likely to be replicated. However, the evolutionary forces that have been active on Earth for around four billion years have learned not to put all  eggs in one basket; maintaining diversity at the expense of  purity  is important in order to make information more robust against sudden environmental changes. Thus, critical to evolution is a replication mechanism that introduces variability.     


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