Origin of Life is the hardest question in science. No one knows how the first cell came about. But there’s a simpler, more fundamental question: Where did the information come from? An answer will trigger a quantum leap in Artificial Intelligence. This may be as big as the transistor or the discovery of DNA itself. A new $10 million prize seeks a definitive answer.
"Evolution 2.0 is a sign of a shifting emphasis in biology from regarding
life primarily as a chemical system, to looking at the flow of information."
-Financial Times Science Editor Clive Cookson
George Church, Harvard & MIT
Denis Noble, FRS, CBE, Oxford University
Michael Ruse, Florida State University
George Church is a geneticist, molecular engineer, and chemist. He is Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School and Professor of Health Sciences and Technology at Harvard and MIT, and was a founding member of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard. Developed methods for the first genome sequence. Director, BRAIN Project & PersonalGenomes.org. He is co-author of 509 papers, 143 patent publications & the book "Regenesis". He was also one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in 2017.
We have Oxford Professor Denis Noble on board as prize judge and technical advisor. He’s one of the top 100 scientists in the UK. Denis was the first person to build a computer model of an organ. It was the heart. He did this in 1960 using punch cards. His discoveries made pacemakers possible. He is a fellow of the Royal Society. He is editor of the society's journal Interface Focus and he holds a Commander of the British Empire medal from Queen Elizabeth. He organized the Royal Society’s 2016 conference “New Trends in Biological Evolution” in conjunction with the British Academy. He is president of the International Union of Physiological Sciences. Denis is an accomplished musician and pioneer of the field of Systems Biology. He is author of The Music of Life and Dance to the Tune of Life: Biological Relativity.
Michael Ruse is a philosopher of science who specializes in the philosophy of biology. He is director of the Program in the Philosophy of the History of Science at Florida State University and author of numerous books including "Darwinism and Design", “The Cambridge History of Atheism” and “Science, Evolution and Religion”. He is well known for his work on the relationship between science and religion, the creation–evolution controversy, and the demarcation problem within science. He is a Fellow of both the Royal Society of Canada and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and holds honorary doctorates from the University of Bergen, McMaster University, the University of New Brunswick and University College London.
Is $10 Million Enough Money for a Discovery of this Magnitude?
Denis Noble, Perry Marshall and Kevin Ham at the Royal Society
Every cell reproduces itself from digital instructions, stored in DNA. DNA has the same features as modern digital devices: Layers of digital encoding, decoding and data storage; error detection, error correction and repair. Plus an ability to adapt that beggars the imagination.
How do living things repair and heal themselves, adapt to any situation you can imagine, and make choices? The genetic engineering capabilities of cells, which are discussed in the book Evolution 2.0, are not known to most people. But an answer suggests staggering implications for medicine, technology and the environment.
Cells re-engineer themselves, in real time, in hours... even minutes. The reason you have to finish your antibiotics is, germs can hyper-mutate at terrifying speed - then kill you with a vengeance.
How do cells “know” how to evolve? No human software does that. Give software millions of chances and billions of years and all it will do is crash. But life adapts relentlessly. How does it do this? What do cells know that we don’t?
And what about consciousness? In the human realm, only conscious beings create and modify code. Where does consciousness come from? Are cells self aware?
The Evolution 2.0 Prize focuses these issues down to one central question:
How do you get from chemicals to code? How do you get a code without designing one?
Perry Marshall and private equity investment group Natural Code LLC have issued a technology prize to find a person who can solve this.
What You Must Do to Win The Prize You must arrange for a digital communication system to emerge or self-evolve without "cheating." The diagram below describes the system. Without explicitly designing the system, your experiment must generate an encoder that sends digital code to a decoder. Your system needs to transmit at least five bits of information. (In other words it has to be able to represent 32 states. The genetic code supports 64.)
You have to be able to draw an encoding and decoding table and determine whether or not the data has been transmitted successfully.
So, for example, an RNA based origin of life experiment will be considered successful if it contains an encoder, message and decoder as described above. To our knowledge, this has never been done.
Does life harness undiscovered laws of physics? Are there unknown emergent properties in nature?
With CRISPR gene editing technology and exponentially accelerating AI, these are questions of burning importance.
If we can unearth the underlying forces that create and propel life, we stand to reap enormous benefits in Artificial Intelligence, engineering, computer science, nutrition, aging, health, cancer research, disease treatment and prevention.
Natural Code LLC is a Private Equity Investment group formed to identify a naturally occurring code. Our mission is to discover, develop and commercialize core principles of nature which give rise to information, consciousness and intelligence.
Natural Code LLC will pay the researcher $100,000 for the initial discovery of such a code. If the newly discovered process is defensibly patentable, we will secure the patent(s). Once patents are granted, we will pay the full prize amount to the discoverer in exchange for the rights. Our investment group will locate or develop commercial applications for the technology.
The discoverer will retain a percentage of ongoing ownership of the technology, sharing in future profits of the company, while benefitting from the extensive finance, marketing and technology experience of our investment group. Prize amount as of May 31, 2019 is $10 million.
Code is absolutely necessary for replication and for life. Code is needed for cells to have instructions to build themselves; code is required for reproduction. Code that has the ability to re-write itself is essential for any kind of evolution to occur.
We define code as a symbolic information passed between an encoder and a decoder (Claude Shannon 1948).
So… where did the information in DNA come from? This is one of the most important and valuable questions in the history of science. Currently, no one knows the answer.
A solution to this problem will become one of the most pivotal scientific and technical discoveries of the 21st century. The winner will receive substantial recognition.
The Challenge Breakthrough
To solve this problem is far more than an object of abstract religious or philosophical discussion. It would demonstrate a mechanism for producing novel, naturally forming information systems, thus opening new channels of scientific discovery.
Such a find would have sweeping implications for Artificial Intelligence research. This would provide a solution to the most perplexing transition currently faced by the Origin Of Life field, namely the origin of coded information.
How could the genetic code (or any coding system) come into being? This would represent a landmark discovery in the history of science and alter our fundamental understanding of the universe.
What You Can Do To Trigger A Breakthrough
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Who can participate
The Challenge is open to all individuals and organizations who are legally allowed to participate, and who comply with all the terms of the Challenge as defined in the Challenge-Specific Agreement.
Selection of Winner
Based on the winning criteria, one prize will be awarded for a total of $100,000. If the discovery is defensibly patentable, the full amount of the prize will be awarded for a total of $10 million. In case of a tie, the winner will be selected at the discretion of the Judging Panel.
Registration and Submissions
All submissions must be received online, via the Challenge website, and all uploads can be in PDF format only. Submission reporting requirements are detailed in Judging.
Challenge Guidelines are subject to change. Registered competitors will receive notification when changes are made, however, we highly encourage you to visit the Challenge Site often to review updates.
Duration of Challenge
The Evolution 2.0 Prize will be open through November 17, 2026. Natural Code LLC reserves the right to end, extend or modify the contest at that time at its sole discretion.
Further details about the prize are available at https://herox.com/evolution2.0/guidelines
**IMPORTANT NOTE** General essays presenting a ‘Theory Of Everything' and metaphysical constructions about the history of life, unfortunately, cannot be considered. Please do not submit materials of this kind. We are looking for entries that offer quantifiable technological progress.
Perry Marshall is endorsed in FORBES and INC Magazine and is one of the most expensive business consultants in the world. His Evolution 2.0 Challenge, announced at the Royal Society in London, is the world’s largest science research prize. His book Evolution 2.0 harness a communication engineer’s outsider’s perspective to reveal a century of unrecognized discoveries.
His reinvention of the Pareto Principle is published in Harvard Business Review, and NASA's Jet Propulsion Labs uses his 80/20 Curve as a productivity tool. He wrote the world’s best-selling book on digital advertising, Ultimate Guide to Google AdWords and has consulted in over 300 industries. He has a degree in Electrical Engineering and lives with his family in Chicago.
**IMPORTANT NOTE** General essays presenting a ‘Theory Of Everything' and metaphysical constructions about the history of life, unfortunately, cannot be considered. Please do not submit materials of this kind. We are looking for entries that offer quantifiable technological progress. ALSO, physical experiments that achieve the objectives of this challenge could potentially be dangerous. Our judge, George Church, has cautioned us that such experiments must be carried out under highly controlled conditions. Public safety is of paramount importance to Evolution 2.0.
Maximum length of proposal is 20 pages. (If you have much more data than that then submit a summary and we can review your full data at a later step.)
Challenge and Winning Criteria Defined
1. The Evolution 2.0 Challenge (the “Challenge”) is sponsored by Natural Code LLC, a Nevada limited liability company, also sometimes referred to in these Challenge Guidelines as “Sponsor.” Each entrant to this Challenge who submits a solution to the Challenge is referred to in these Guidelines as an “Innovator.”
2. The Evolution 2.0 Challenge is to discover a purely chemical process that will generate, transmit and receive a simple code--a process by which chemicals self-organize into a code without benefit of designer.
3. To be clear, what the Sponsor is looking for is a process where some chemicals, at some particular concentration of compounds, at the right temperature and pressure, etc. generate, transmit and receive a simple code, without any intelligent being or other life-form creating, transmitting or receiving the code.
4. A successful solution to this Challenge would mean that chemicals alone, without the benefit of minds or brains belonging to humans or the assistance of other living things, have built a simple communication system from scratch. In effect, the jar of chemicals on its own would be assigning meaning to symbols. The configuration of chemicals and not the human inventor would be making creative linguistic choices and creating a coded communication system. Basically, the Sponsor is looking for a formula or transformation process that turns matter into information—directly, with no intelligent being or other life-form making it happen.
5. The coded communication system submitted as a solution to this Challenge must be digital, not analog. So, for example, a system that merely transmits vibrations from one place to another or from one form of energy to another is not acceptable for this Challenge.
6. The system submitted as a solution to this Challenge must have the three integral components of communication, i.e., encoder, code, and decoder, functioning together.
Essential Components of a Communication System (after Claude Shannon, 1948):
All communication systems have an encoder, which produces a message, which is processed by a decoder. DNA transcription and translation matches the pattern in the above diagram. The Sponsor of this Challenge is seeking discovery and proof of a naturally occurring code, which also matches this pattern.
7. The message passed between the encoder and decoder components must be in a sequence of symbols forming characters of a finite alphabet. For this purpose, a “symbol” is a group of k bits considered as a unit. (A more complete definition of “symbol” in the context of this Challenge is set forth on page 340, numbered paragraph 8, of the book, Evolution 2.0). A “character” is a group of n symbols considered as a unit. (For a more complete definition of “character” in the context of this Challenge, see numbered paragraph 9 on page 340 of the book, Evolution 2.0). In the system, n+k must be equal to 5 or more, such that it is a 2-layer system which can represent at least 32 digital states.
8. The submitted solution must contain encoding and decoding tables filled out with their values arising from the submitted system or process.
9. It must be possible to determine objectively whether encoding and decoding have been carried out correctly. For any given system, a procedure should exist for determining whether input correctly corresponds to output. One analogy that demonstrates what the Sponsor means by this is the cause and effect relationship of a keyboard and a computer screen. Pressing an “A” on a computer keyboard should result in the letter “A” appearing on the screen; there is an observable correspondence between the two. The keyboard and screen analogy violates rule #10 below. However, a successful entry will receive a set of (32 or more as in rule #7) digital states on the input end (for example, a defined set of chemical concentrations, temperatures, pressures and light), convert them to an intermediate alphabet (or set of physical-chemical states) in its communication channel, then produce a corresponding set of states in its output. Said entry will not violate rule #10.
10. Human beings may design the experiment that demonstrates the process, employing all manner of state-of-the-art laboratory equipment, creating ideal conditions, etc. However, the actual system submitted for demonstration of the solution to this Challenge may not be preprogrammed with any form of code whatsoever. Any system found to have preprogrammed code in it in any form will be disqualified from the competition.
11. The system submitted for demonstration of the solution to this Challenge may not be directly from any living organism, virus or similar entities. So, for example, phenomena such as bee waggles, dog barks, RNA strands derived from cells, mating calls of birds, etc. are not acceptable elements of a winning solution to this Challenge. RNA that forms spontaneously from simple sets of non-living chemicals (like glycolaldehyde) would be acceptable. Entrant must be prepared to show that their results are not contaminated by previously existing biological material. The submitted material will be examined for containing any pre-existing living entity, or derivatives of previously living entities, with exacting standards. Detection of such materials is an automatic disqualification.
12. The origin of the system submitted for solution to this Challenge must be documented to show that its process of origin can be observed in nature and/or duplicated in a real-world laboratory according to the scientific method.
Partial Solutions to the Problem
Winning of the prize is only assured for the first solver who meets all points of the specification. The specification here outlines the simplest known configuration that constitutes a proper communication system, based on Claude Shannon’s seminal paper “A Mathematical Theory of Communication” (Shannon, 1948). All living organisms rely on this system, which is both a communication system and a Turing machine (Yockey, 2005).
If you have a solution which meets a significant fraction of this specification, the judges and backers of Evolution 2.0 consider such discoveries potentially valuable.
The backers of this prize have extensive business, finance, marketing, distribution, technology and product development expertise, as well as access to capital. Any solution indicating commercial potential is subject to discussion and we are interested in exploring commercial applications of your work. If your solution constitutes significant progress towards the Origin Of Information problem, you should submit your solution. Efforts that do not solve significant portions of the problem will be rejected.
The ultimate winner will need to:
-Provide data showing they have met all portions of the specification -Conduct a live demonstration of the operation of said system -Have their work verified by at least three independent judges appointed by Evolution 2.0
Term and Time Limit
13. The initial term for this Challenge ends on November 17, 2026. However, the Sponsor reserves the right to extend the term of the Challenge in the event that no prizes have been awarded by that date.
Proposal and Data Requirements
14. The merit of Innovator’s submission will be assessed based first on the content of the write up that Innovator submits. The write-up of the proposed solution should be thorough, specific, clear, and easy to read. The Judges will evaluate the content of the write-ups and will invite various Innovators to demonstrate their solutions under laboratory conditions in the presence of the Judges.
15. The write-up should include descriptions of processes, tools, and techniques utilized in the solution. Be sure to go into sufficient detail, especially in areas there your approach may deviate from conventional or traditional methods.
16. Proposals must be uploaded as a single unlocked PDF document, 20 MB maximum. Embedded hyperlinks to external content, such as videos or animations (maximum two minutes duration recommended) or anything else that might help the Judges come to a decision on a winning idea or concept, are allowed. However, there is no guarantee that the Judges will view that external content, so the proposal document itself must stand on its own.
Prizes to be Awarded
Prize to be Awarded
Sponsor awards initial prize to Winning Innovator (chosen by Judges)
Winning Innovator who has assigned patent rights in the Technology to Sponsor obtains a Viable Patent on the Technology from the United States Patent and Trademark Office
$10 million USD (as provided in Challenge Guidelines) and an equity interest in Sponsor
17. The first person to submit and successfully demonstrate such a process to the satisfaction of the Challenge Judges will receive from the Sponsor a cash prize of One Hundred Thousand Dollars ($100,000.00) USD. Only one $100,000 Prize will be awarded, and that to the first Innovator in this challenge who successfully demonstrates to the satisfaction of the Judges of this Challenge that Innovator has found a solution to this Challenge that meets all the criteria specified in these Challenge Guidelines. The demonstration of the process must be made at a location in the continental United States of America. All costs associated with this demonstration, except for travel expenses and fees for the Challenge Judges, must be borne by Innovator.
18. If the prize-winning process is also patentable, the “Winning Innovator” (the Innovator who has won the $100,000 Prize) is also eligible to receive the balance of the Prize Fund, provided the Winning Innovator complies with all of the rules and guidelines detailed below and the Innovator’s chemical process proves to be “Viably Patentable” (as that term is defined in these Guidelines). When the patent has been granted, Sponsor’s investors are legally bound to fund a Prize Fund of at least $10 million USD. Sponsor anticipates that it will take a minimum of one year, perhaps longer, to obtain this patent, from the time that the initial $100,000 Prize is awarded. If a Viable Patent is granted on the winning process by the United States Patent and Trademark Office, and the Winning Innovator has complied with all the Guidelines detailed below, the Winning Innovator will receive the balance of the Prize Fund, net of the $100,000 prize money already awarded to the Winning Innovator, the balance to be paid when the patent is granted on the winning process.
19. If Innovator intends to qualify ultimately for the award of the entire Prize Fund and not just the basic $100,000 Prize, Innovator’s initial submission to the Challenge must be made in a confidential manner and meet the disclosure criteria of the United States Patent and Trademark Office. Violation of those criteria voids any agreement made between Innovator and Sponsor.
20. Definition of “Viably Patentable”: The invention is valuable enough and sufficiently protectable by a patent (granted by the United States Patent and Trademark Office) for an investment in the development of this invention to pay for itself before the patent expires. Such a patent granted which appears to be commercially viable in Sponsor’s sole opinion is referred to in these Rules as a “Viable Patent.” If the patent yields $10 million dollars in aggregate, via sales, licensing or contractual deals to any set of people involved in the patent or licensing by the time of the award, then that will be considered unambiguous, and not require an opinion as to whether it meets the definition of a “Viable Patent” in these Rules.
21. The decision of whether the invention is Viably Patentable is in the sole discretion of Sponsor (except as specified in Rule 20). Innovator agrees to make every effort to work with Sponsor and identify a Viably Patentable configuration, if Innovator wins the $100,000 Prize and chooses also to pursue the award of the balance of the Prize Fund.
22. By submitting an entry to this Challenge, every Innovator gives Natural Code LLC the right of first refusal to buy the patent rights to the technology, process and system (the “Technology”) which forms the Innovator’s solution to this Challenge, regardless of Innovator’s pursuit of the balance of the Prize Fund beyond the award of the $100,000 Prize. This right of first refusal provision will be part of the Non-disclosure Agreement that Innovator must sign and will take the form of an option granted to Sponsor by Innovator to purchase the patent rights to the Technology at the same price and terms offered in writing to Innovator by a bona fide purchaser unrelated to Innovator. If Natural Code LLC declines to exercise its right to purchase the patent rights to the Technology, the Innovator is released to pursue other buyers.
23. Natural Code LLC agrees to cover all patent fees if the Winning Innovator agrees to sign over all patent rights in the Invention to Natural Code LLC and a Viable Patent is obtained from the United States Patent and Trademark Office.
24. If the Winning Innovator signs over all patent rights in the Invention to Natural Code LLC and a Viable Patent is granted by the United States Patent and Trademark Office on the process the Winning Innovator submits to solve the Challenge, the Winning Innovator will get the balance of the Prize Fund, net of the $100,000 Prize already paid to the Winning Innovator and will also receive an equity interest in Natural Code LLC or in the business entity created by Natural Code LLC to hold the patent rights on the Technology, as that term is defined in these Guidelines.
25. Both the Winning Innovator and Sponsor will agree in writing to work together, believing in good faith that the discovery of this invention is scientifically, technologically and commercially very valuable. A Non-disparagement clause will be included in the document conveying Winning Innovator’s patent rights to Sponsor.
26. The investing members of Natural Code LLC are legally bound to fund a Prize Fund of at least $10 million USD.
27. The Innovators’ submissions of solutions to this Challenge will be screened initially as for viability by certain officers or members of Sponsor. As potentially winning solutions are received, Sponsor will engage a minimum of three (3) judges (“Judges”) with appropriate scientific background and credentials to evaluate further the submissions to this Challenge which passed the initial screening. These judges will evaluate those submissions and will determine whether any of these Innovators should be invited to demonstrate their solution in the presence of the Judges under laboratory conditions.
28. The Judges’ decisions, including as to whether any particular solution merits the $100,000 Prize, are final and binding. Sponsor reserves the right in its sole discretion to disqualify at any time any entry that it determines does not comply with the criteria stated on this webpage or with these official Challenge Guidelines generally.
29. Natural Code LLC will post non-qualifying submissions of all entrants who grant permission to do so. Several non-qualifying submissions have been posted and can be viewed at www.evo2.org/submissions.
30. English is the official language for submissions, proposals, presentations, and all communications.
31. Applicants may be contacted for follow-up information by Sponsor; telephone or Skype interviews may be requested.
Eligibility – Who May Submit Entries
32. The Challenge is open to all individuals or groups of individuals who are over the age of majority in their province, state, territory or country of residence. It excludes employees representatives, relatives, dealers and agents of Natural Code LLC and/or HeroX (and their respective affiliates).
33. You do not need to be an engineer or scientist to enter this Challenge. Anyone from any academic field or discipline may enter the Challenge.
34. Any individual, business entity or other organization may submit their own solutions to the Challenge. However, any solution so submitted must be the original discovery of the Innovator and not a mere reporting of someone else’s discovery.
35. Sponsor reserves the right, at its sole discretion, to disqualify any Innovator who is (i) found to be tampering with the entry process or with the operation and administration of the Challenge; (ii) acting in an unsportsmanlike or disruptive manner, or with the intent to disrupt or undermine the legitimate operation of the Challenge; (iii) or in violation of the Challenge Guidelines at any point.
36. Automated entries or votes sent via bots will be disqualified. Automated and/or repetitive electronic submissions (including but not limited to entries made using any script, macro, bot or contest service) will be automatically disqualified and transmissions from these or related accounts may be blocked. Sponsor reserves the right to seek damages and other remedies from any such Innovator to the fullest extent permitted by law, including but not limited to criminal prosecution.
37. Innovators must comply with these Challenge Guidelines. Innovators will be deemed to have received, understood and agreed to these Challenge Guidelines through their participation in this Challenge, as evidenced by their submitting a solution to the Challenge.
38. No purchase or payment of any kind is necessary to enter or win the competition.
39. Each Innovator must sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement with Sponsor before that Innovator’s initial submission is accepted for review by the Judges.
40. Innovator is responsible for all state, Federal and local income and other taxes, etc. which may be levied against Innovator as a result of winning any of the prizes offered in this Challenge.
41. Innovator is responsible for all expenses related to the initial development of the invention into a demonstrable solution to this Challenge. In other words, all of the costs associated with developing, preparing, demonstrating and submitting a solution to this Challenge will be borne by the Innovator, including Innovator’s transportation and travel expenses if asked by the Judges to demonstrate Innovator’s solution.
42. The Challenge is subject to applicable Federal, state and municipal laws and regulations and is void where prohibited by law. All issues and questions concerning the construction, validity, interpretation and enforceability of these Challenge Guidelines or the rights and obligations as between the Innovator and Sponsor in connection with the Challenge shall be governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of the State of Illinois and the laws of the United States of America as applicable, including procedural provisions, without giving effect to any choice of law or conflict of law rules or provisions that would cause the application of any other jurisdiction’s laws.
43. The decisions of Sponsor and the Judges of this Challenge with respect to all aspects of the Challenge are final and binding.
Licensing and Copyright
44. Any submission made in connection with this Challenge must be an original work created by the Innovator or the Innovator team members, and the Innovators must have all necessary rights in and to the submission.
45. The submission must not infringe upon or violate any laws or any third party rights, including, but not limited to, copyright, patent, trademark, trade secret, privacy, publicity or confidentiality rights or other proprietary or contractual rights and must not include material that is libelous, defamatory, or tortious.
46. Innovators must obtain, and make available to Natural Code LLC upon its request, all necessary permissions, licenses, releases, waivers of moral rights and other approvals from third parties necessary for Natural Code LLC to use and exploit the submission, in whole or in part, including without limitation, to reproduce, make derivatives, edit, modify, translate, distribute, transmit, publish, license and broadcast the submission and the results of Innovator’s demonstration worldwide, by any means.
47. To participate in the Challenge, Innovators must agree to these terms, as amended from time to time during the time period of the Challenge.
48. Applications and submissions will be retained by Sponsor; information and data will be accessed only by Sponsor and its competition partners and not sold or shared.
49. The specifications posted at http://www.naturalcode.org regarding the competition to provide the winning invention or solution to this Challenge, as well as similar text published in the book Evolution 2.0 (by Perry Marshall), have been expanded and clarified by these Challenge Guidelines. Therefore if there are any contradictions among these sets of published rules and guidelines, the provisions in these Guidelines, as may be later amended, shall govern.
50. These Challenge Guidelines are subject to change. Registered Innovators will receive notification when changes are made. However, Innovators are encouraged to visit the Challenge Site often to review updates.
51. Sponsor is not responsible or liable for late, lost, incomplete, illegible, misdirected, stolen, delayed, damaged or destroyed entries, notifications, or replies; nor for lost, interrupted, inaccessible or unavailable networks, servers, Internet Service Providers, websites or other connection, related to the Challenge; nor for errors of any kind, including but not limited to human, electronic, mechanical and/or technical in nature; nor for failure or technical malfunction of any telephone network or lines, computer and online systems, servers, computer equipment, software, e-mail, players, or browsers on account of technical problems or traffic congestion on the Internet, any websites related to the Challenge, including without limitation the Challenge Webpage, or any combination thereof or otherwise; nor for any injury or damage to Innovator, Innovator’s computer, or any other person’s computer related to or resulting from participating in or downloading material in connection with the Challenge; nor for incorrect or inaccurate information; nor for weather conditions, event cancellations, delay or rescheduling or other factors beyond the Sponsor’s control.
52. CAUTION: ANY ATTEMPT TO UNDERMINE THE LEGITIMATE OPERATION OF THIS CHALLENGE MAY BE A VIOLATION OF CRIMINAL AND CIVIL LAWS AND SHOULD AN ATTEMPT BE MADE, NATURAL CODE LLC RESERVES THE RIGHT TO SEEK DAMAGES OR OTHER REMEDIES FROM ANY SUCH PERSON(S) RESPONSIBLE TO THE FULLEST EXTENT PERMITTED BY LAW.
In the year 2000, Silicon Valley titan Bill Joy delivered a bombshell in Wired magazine: “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us.” He warned: Future machines will have no need of human beings, and we will have to compete with them for resources.
Not only is this NOT going to happen, it’s a handy distraction from the real problem.
All those sci-fi “computers taking over the world” stories like HAL9000 and Terminator are impossible given the current definition of computer.
As are the predictions of mass unemployment. As is the much-ballyhooed “singularity” when we humans upload ourselves into the cloud and become immortal.
Such scenarios require something vastly different than anything we are building today.
Moore’s law says computers double in speed every two years and the price drops in half. Still doesn’t change anything. A pocket calculator was as dumb as a box of rocks in 1975, and Siri is as dumb as a box of rocks today. Speed is not the issue. To solve the problem of intelligence, we need brand new “laws of physics.”
Erwin Schrodinger said so in his book What Is Life in 1943, and now Mathematics itself proves this. This is gigantic and still awaits our discovery.
When your six year old talks to Alexa, it only takes her 60 seconds to figure out: No one is home.Everyone instinctively knows the difference between a machine and a dog or goldfish. Life is so special, non-life can’t even fool a six year old.
The difference between computers and life is:
Computers obey instructions.
Life creates instructions.
The difference cannot be overstated.
I’ve developed a mathematical proof of this. Please don’t assume only mathematicians can understand this. The proof is simple and most people can understand it, as I shall explain.
Alan Turing, the British mathematician who famously cracked the German code in WWII, invented the concept of the computer in 1936. His “Turing Machine” is a black box with an input, an output, memory, and a program running 1s and 0s. Turing is now pictured on the UK’s new £50 note.
Everyone is familiar with Turing Machines because we carry them around in our pockets every day. You’re reading this blog post on one right now.
Turing’s Insight #1 was: A computer can crunch any math formula.
Turing’s Insight #2 was: It’s impossible to know whether it will find the answer without running the program first.
The implications run for miles. The simplicity of these statements is what makes these so profound. They establish clear boundaries for what computers can and cannot do. When combined with a third insight below, they define a sharp boundary between computers and life itself.
Insight #1, computers do math, is why computers crunch data far faster than we can. It’s why any language, text, audio or video can be converted to 1s and 0s and transmitted. Anything that can be reduced to formulas can be computed.
Insight #2, you have to run the program before you know if it will finish, is why computers crash. It’s far less appreciated than insight #1, but it proves what computers cannot do. Computers can’t solve a math problem if it can’t be reduced to a formula. As any math professor can assure you, there are many problems in mathematics that can’t be reduced to formulas.
Because computers by definition only do deductive reasoning. But humans, animals, plants and cells do inductive reasoning.
Deductive reasoning is straightforward logic. “A is true therefore B is true.” “All men are mortal, therefore Socrates is mortal.” “3+9=12.” Working from general principles to specific truths.
Inductive reasoning is solving riddles. “B is true, so maybe A is true as well.” “Everyone I know of who got old, died. Therefore will everyone die?” That’s a riddle, and the answer is: Probably. But you can’t prove it. Induction (also known as “inference”) is working from specific truths to general principles. There’s no way to know an exception won’t be found. Swans are white, but you cannot guarantee that there are no black swans.
Computers cannot make inferences. In fact, even when they appear to infer, they are only making pre-programmed deductions. This comes from the very definition of computing and math functions. In your high school algebra course, they told you “A function is when there is ONE Y for a given X. If there are two possible answers, it’s not a function.” In the formula Y = X2 there is only one output for any input.
Computers cannot make choices. They obey rules.
This is where things get interesting! Because how do you “trick” a computer into making a choice?
Easy. You insert a random number into the program. Suddenly the computer has options because it is no longer 100% predictable. It spits out a list and you pick an option. The GPS offers you two or three routes rather than one. Maybe it chooses from the three options itself.But… how does it choose?
“Drive the route that takes the least amount of time.” It still has to be given a set of rules in order to decide.
There’s no way around this – the computer needs rules to get anything done. It can’t make up its own.
It doesn’t matter whether your computer is twelve transistors strung together on your kitchen table, or the latest Pentium with billions of transistors running neural network software; this basic fact never changes. You can add inputs and more outputs, but none of that alters its essential nature. Computers run on pure logic. Period.
Which brings us to the problem:
All logic requires choices. Logic cannot create itself.
In mathematics, choices are called axioms. Examples of axioms:
“In geometry, a line segment can be extended infinitely in both directions.”
“Our numbering system has ten symbols, 0 through 9. When we want a number bigger than 9, we add digits.”
The decision to do geometry with straight lines is a choice. Base 10 is a choice. Our number system could just as well be based on 2 or 8 or 37 symbols. In DNA it’s 4.
So… where does choice come from?
The knee jerk answer some people give is “It’s random.” While randomness can generate all the options you could ever want, someone still has to choose where to insert the randomness and what the criteria for success are.
Nobody battles randomness more than communications engineers. It’s called noise. It comes from the sun, arc welders, cosmic rays, thunderstorms and spark plugs. Noise is any interference you don’t want. In 1948 Claude Shannon called this “information entropy.” He showed that the equations for it are identical to heat entropy.
Heat entropy says: Once the toast pops out of your toaster, it gets cold, not hot, EVERY SINGLE TIME.
Information entropy says: Once you add noise to a signal, it gets worse, not better, EVERY SINGLE TIME.
One way ticket.
In a computer, you can add noise anywhere you want and it will generate options for you. But without further choices being made by external agents, all the noise will get you is degradation.
A random letter generator would take longer than the age of the universe to write the sentence you’re reading right now. You can have all the natural selection you want… but agents have to make choices in order to generate information.
So there are three levels of information:
They always run in that order. Choice creates rules. Rules are the rails that computers run on. Chance is the opposite of choice. Chance erases rules. In my paper I label these Cognition, Codes, and Chemicals. Three distinct levels of causation. “Chemicals” only generate chance interactions, not information. I offer a $10 million prize for anyone who can name an exception.
Chance is noise and noise destroys. But agents harness chance. We do this in games by rolling dice. Chance plays an essential but limited role in any game, especially good games. In poker, the order of the cards is random and that’s why we shuffle the deck. But the number of cards isn’t random; the cards themselves aren’t random; and the rules aren’t random.
So no matter how sophisticated your machine learning / AI / expert system / robot / neural network is, it still runs on choice first (made by living things, usually humans), computation second, chance third. No exceptions.
I said at the beginning that the hype around AI is really just a distraction from the real problem.
What is the real problem?
The real problem is: Someone owns every AI and machine learning platform. 100% of what these platforms do results from choices that human beings made.
I’m the guy who wrote the book on Google and Facebook advertising. My 20 years as a consultant have revolved around “the Big Four” – Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon. The ad platforms are heavily dependent on AI that cost billions to build, and now earns hundreds of billions of dollars.
The author has written bestselling books on both these platforms and educated hundreds of thousands of advertisers in the use of these technologies. These platforms do not exhibit any form of cognition. If the capabilities of Google or Facebook rivaled even that of a tiny colony of bacteria, the market caps of these companies would skyrocket overnight.
When Elon Musk warns us AI is going to take over the world, it’s about spiking Tesla’s stock price, not future reality. AI is incredibly useful… but over-hyped.
AI is all “A” and no “I”
All the starry-eyed musings about AI becoming smarter than humans are a convenient distraction from this fact:
All machine learning algorithms are controlled by humans who deliberately sway public sentiment, politics, elections, medical and health advice, pandemic policies, news stories, media content, financial markets, government policies and mass movements to a degree most people cannot fathom.
1% of the people steer 99% of the conversation.
Welcome to the Matrix. You’re living in it now.
Most people think the problem is “greedy advertisers stealing my personal information.” But advertisers themselves only get the information you give them. It’s Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon who have your information. For the most part, all advertisers care about is: Not showing an ad to you if you’re not likely to buy.
The real question you should be asking is: What are the agendas of the owners and managers of these platforms?
It’s not like their agendas are a big secret – it’s easy enough to sketch that out. Just watch what they do, what they censor and who they ban. This affects everything you see on your computer, smartphone and “news feed.” Most people are oblivious.
Also, dear reader, please notice that every computer needs a caretaker. Despite decades of warnings that computers are going to create massive unemployment, the computer industry continues to employ more and more and more and more people.
This will never change – not until someone invents a completely different kind of computer that is not a computer. That New Thing, whatever it is, will be something entirely different.
In Part 4 I’ll explore what that New Thing might look like.
Today I offer a simple explanation of cancer. It’s far bigger than just cancer because it’s a basic truth of all life:
The problem with cancer cells is that they are doing what they want to do. All the chemotherapy in the world will only strengthen their resolve to do it with more gusto.
Cancer is not essentially about malfunctioning genes or broken parts. Those things are real, but they are symptoms, not the problem. If you want to cure cancer, start by making cancer cells want to go back to being a cooperative part of you.
In other words, curing cancer is not a matter of fixing broken parts. It’s actually more like persuading the parts to cooperate.
This might seem like common sense, yet in most of the medical profession, talking about cancer cells (or any cells) as though they are living beings with wants and desires will get you dismissed. What most people don’t notice, though, is that somewhere in the tree of life we still have to start admitting that there’s a point at which life is a “being” and not just a “thing.”
As my friend Doug Mitchell, a Medical Doctor, said: “If all the cells in my body are just wind-up toys, it gets hard to explain how *I* am not just a wind-up toy.”
Some people do believe we are wind-up toys (Sam Harris for example). But the funny thing is, people resent it when you treat them like wind-up toys. If you don’t believe me, try it.
Next time you have a disagreement with someone, try saying “Yeah, well your genes probably programmed you to be a republican / bricklayer / ill-mannered slob. It’s not like you have a choice in the matter, so what’s the point in explaining anything to you?”
Then watch how they react.
I don’t know about your friends, but all the folks I know like to be treated in conversations and daily life as though they have genuine thoughts, opinions and choices.
This isn’t only about humans. It extends to all life, and there has always been a great number of biologists who, despite fads, dictums or political correctness, agree that all things from single cells on up are agents with the ability to choose and act and construct their environments. Frankly I think this is the only perspective that actually makes sense.
The problem is that it’s hard to square with the “Newtonian science” view of the world, which for 300 years has presumed that everything in the universe is simply an outgrowth of fixed universal laws. The more “educated” you are about science, the harder it is to see the world any other way.
Yet the “Newtonian” view has never managed to explain how life works or where it comes from, and for a century, its failures have grown more apparent with each passing year. The list of things it fails to account for is endless. (Start with “where does code come from” – it only gets worse from there.)
It’s time for a new view. But it’s really the old view! It reaches back to the ancient Greeks. My place is simply to add rigor to what we’ve already known for 2500 years.
Several of my own contributions to the world turn cause and effect on its head. My re-working of the 80/20 Principle appeared in Harvard Business Review in 2018 with new mathematics. Most people won’t care much about the math, which is entirely understandable. But a quick look at the Amazon reviews of 80/20 Sales and Marketing demonstrates a great number of people who suddenly saw the world in a whole new way.
Once you see it, you can’t un-see it. 80/20, rather than being a ‘biz school rule of thumb’ is a fundamental law of cause and effect. It’s everywhere and it’s fractal, meaning there’s an 80/20 inside every 80/20. Thousands of entrepreneurs have used the 80/20 Curve to find holes in pricing strategies, make their businesses more profitable and make simple changes that make a big difference.
Similarly, Biology Transcends the Limits of Computation transforms the conventional understanding of cause and effect. Except this addresses the relationship between life and the non-living matter that it is constructed from.
At first glance this may seem heady and philosophical. But it has everything to do with how we treat disease. My mom struggled with bipolar and mild schizophrenia. She spent 30 years of her life slicing pills into tiny little pieces, spiraling into either mania or depression if she took a smidgen too little or much.
Everybody knows we have an epidemic of opioid abuse; one of my colleagues overdosed a few years ago at age 38 after a long battle with addiction. Everyone knows the pharmaceutical industry is hardwired to hook us on a lifetime subscription to some drug or another.
Yet when I’m not feeling well, a $95 trip to my acupuncturist solves the problem much of the time – as several friends who’ve suffered from chronic pain and fatigue can attest. I don’t know that we understand why Chinese medicine works. But that doesn’t keep it from working very well, thank you very much.
“Holistic” medicine (acupuncture, chiropractic, functional medicine) is the red-headed stepchild of the medical profession. Cynics accuse these fields of being “woo woo.” But would there be 50,000 chiropractic clinics in the United States, with most patients paying out of their own pockets, if their treatments didn’t work? Witness “wisdom of crowds” in action.
The holistic view asserts that the body is a marvelous, self-regulating, intrinsically purposeful entity; systems within systems that support the whole. It has a particular way it wants to be, and mostly takes care of itself. The holistic view is emphatic that the body is not a machine. In all healing, the body does the heavy lifting. We just assist with our meager efforts.
The “reductionist” (non-holistic) view insists life is nothing more than a machine, that the whole is merely a sum of its parts. And if we study the parts closely enough, we will automatically understand the whole.
The non-holistic view has the advantage that all of the “parts” are (at least allegedly) quantified and measurable. This view is no doubt successful. Nobody can appreciate this more than an engineer like myself, because reductionism works even better in engineering than it does in medicine.
The processor chip that runs your phone or computer was perfectly modeled on a computer before it was built and it works in the real world exactly the way theory said it would. With 99.999% accuracy.
But any engineer also understands that analysis is not design. All the analysis in the world will never build you an airplane. So engineers more than most people appreciate that reductionism only gives you half the story.
This is why one is hard pressed to find any drug that actually cures any disease. Drugs manage symptoms. They are band-aids. Rarely do they deal with root causes.
This is why there has long been a war in science. What I’m going to show over the next several installments is that reductionism is not “wrong” as though people who use it need to apologize for their mistakes. Within its proper purview, it works extremely well. However, it is very incomplete, and living things cannot be fully understood without thinking in terms of wholes.
The news is that there is now hard proof for this, and it is mathematical. It says the “bottom-up” view of the world contains an inherent contradiction. It shows that biology does nine specific things that computers by definition can never do. Machines die no matter how hard we try to keep them alive. Life stays alive no matter how hard we try to kill it.
This new paper which I published in Progress in Biophysics and Molecular Biology offers a mathematical proof that accounts for a 100 year impasse in science and how we can escape from it, by unifying six major scientific questions under a single framework.
These questions are:
How is it possible that cancer cells out-maneuver any therapy we throw at them?
Where did life come from?
Where did the genetic code come from?
What is consciousness and where does it come from?
How can we create AI that is genuinely smart and doesn’t need constant babysitting?
Given that Microsoft needs thousands of talented programmers to issue software updates, how is it that bacteria and viruses evolve with zero help from anybody?
I don’t believe these are six questions. They are one question. The question is:
What is choice and where does it come from?
Where do novelty and creativity come from? (Not just in evolution but in anything, including art, literature and technology.)
Or to phrase it a different way: How does any whole – a whole cell, a whole organism – exercise control over its own parts in order to maintain itself, survive and thrive?
Not only have these questions evaded the finest minds in history, answers to any of the above will be a Nobel Prize level breakthrough. Much rides on this, because the US government alone has spent a quarter trillion dollars on its war on cancer, and not improved patient outcomes by much.
Real AI doesn’t even exist yet. (We can and should be asking whether we really want real AI in the first place; that’s debatable.) But if you’re concerned about that, this paper should alleviate some of your concerns because it proves computers in their current form will never achieve it.
In Part 3, I ask: What is the AI hype designed to keep us from noticing?
When I was in high school, I was in the basement on a hot summer afternoon when I heard my dad arrive early from work. He walked through the door and broke sad news to my mom:
Betty, the cancer is back.
Two years earlier, he’d been diagnosed with cancer in his kidney. After surgery, the doctors said they’d nipped it in the bud. We breathed a sigh of relief.
But now the second time around I listened from the bottom of the stairs as my mom went to pieces. Mom became hysterical and was an emotional wreck for the next several months.
It didn’t take a genius to see that dad’s outlook was not rosy. Eventually he got
accepted into a special treatment program at Johns Hopkins in Bethesda Maryland. This brought three unexpected dramas for me.
The first drama was the fierce roller coaster of hope and despair that befalls cancer patients and their families. I battled depression my entire junior year of high school.
The second was that while my parents went to Bethesda, a college professor and his wife took me and my brother in for a month. Living with a different family and their two daughters was a remarkable growing-up experience.
My dad was a minister, and the third surprise was that our faith community sent out a secret fundraising letter: “Bob has never been to the west coast and he has terminal cancer. If you’d like to send Bob, Betty and the family on a special vacation, contribute and let’s help them enjoy their final days together in a memorable way.”
They broke the news to my parents on a Sunday night. $11,000 had come in and someone loaned their luxury van. To us, this was a princely sum of money. There was not a dry eye in the place. Their generosity funded a 5-week tour of every state west of Nebraska – including Alaska and Hawaii. I had never been west of Colorado so this was special indeed. We took the photo above on that vacation.
During our trip, we had ample time to process and plan for “life after dad.” The vistas of Alaska and the painted deserts of New Mexico were breathtaking, but our days were punctuated with reminders that dad was slipping away. He took painkillers on regular intervals, with rising discomfort as the most recent dose would fade. Bedtime triggered coughing that often lasted an hour before he fell asleep.
His treatments at Johns Hopkins, sophisticated though they were, did not succeed. The cancer spread and his voice became hoarse. Three months after our vacation, he passed.
Having first lost dad when I was 17, then witnessing numerous friends and mentors being taken away by cancer; now having organized a symposium on Cancer & Evolution with some of the world’s most respected scientists… I can’t help but ask:
Are cancer cells flat out smarter than any oncologist or scientist? Or is this just an illusion, a story that we tell ourselves?
Answer: I don’t believe cancer cells appear to be smart or simply act as though they are smart. I believe cancer cells are smart. To a startling degree.
But “smart” is a category that mainstream science doesn’t know what to do with. In fact a large part of the profession has been in denial of this for 100 years. The field has evolved an entire terminology to evade the purposiveness of life… all the way down to the dictum that every scientific paper should be written in passive voice (which makes for a lot of dreadful reading).
But far worse, it obscures cause and effect.
As a result, research is beset by what appears to be a thicket of seemingly unrelated questions, cancer being one of many. Some people even define cancer itself as “100 different diseases, all under the same name.” But I believe a whole range of science’s deepest mysteries are all the same question – the question of purpose.
The technical term for this is “agency” – the capacity to act with intent. The very question that materialistic science has tried to avoid for a century.
My new paper in Progress in Biophysics and Molecular Biology offers a mathematical proof that accounts for this 100 year impasse in science, and how we can escape from it – while unifying six major scientific questions under a single framework. All are Big Questions.
When I say proof, I use the word in the formal mathematical sense – which is an important detail. Science can only disprove; mathematics proves, using pure logic.
As I say in the paper:
“If it can be proven that information or mathematics itself cannot be reduced to computation, then such a proof would shake the very foundations of science itself. It would mean that science’s goal of defining rules for everything is impossible. This paper provides such a proof.”
In Part 2, I’ll explain why, far from being some philosophical or academic abstraction, this offers a completely different way of viewing our familiar world, and engineering new solutions to old dilemmas.
This discovery is key to very practical problems… like our medical profession’s failure so far to find a cure for cancer.
It was the day after a seminar in Australia. I was taking the day off, biking around Sydney’s sumptuous parks. November 14, 2019. Phone buzzed in my pocket.
Text from my friend Bill about his wife: “Laura just came back from the doctor. She has pancreatic cancer.” She was a gorgeous fitness instructor. Not yet 60.
5 months later, Laura was gone.
* BUT… *
That very same day, I got an email from my science mentor James Shapiro. “I’m organizing a Cancer & Evolution symposium in Cambridge Mass with a group of scientists. Will you help us?”
Bill’s text and Jim’s email plunged me down a rabbit hole that has only grown more fascinating by the day. I would like to share it with you. A little bit each day over the next 30 days.
Of course it’s depressing. It’s cancer. And the war on cancer, declared by Nixon 50 years ago, has been a near total bust.
But it’s also VERY hopeful. Because we’re a lot closer to solving this than you might think. Not just in one way, but many.
I need to share this with you. Entrepreneurs CAN do something about this - right now.
This will command your attention. It also involves stories that shouldn’t be shared on social media - for reasons you instantly understand, given the state of the world these days. So it needs to be communicated a certain way - in limited channels. Like this.
Register here - and the first installment will be in your email box one minute from now:
We get a significant number of submissions for the Evolution 2.0 Prize. Unfortunately, most of them do not even come close. However, some make very respectable attempts to reframe the problem and this new entry by Dmitry Kukuruznyak is significantly above average. Dmitry is a physicist from Russia and I often find that, for some reason, physicists often bring a blend of artistry and rigor to these questions. He explores whether there might be a blurry boundary between life and non-life and has a lot of good observations about the unique characteristics of biology. You will also find detailed explorations of emergent properties in chemistry. His submission is followed by a thoughtful response from my research team explaining what he has and hasn’t achieved thus far.
You can explore other past submissions, several of which are extremely interesting, here. Finally, don’t miss the interview I had last year on the Unbelievable? show with world renowned chemist Lee Cronin who assured us that he is someday going to win this prize.