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ROHIT GUPTA
SPACE MONKEY

Rohit Gupta (@fadesingh on Twitter) is a mathematician who thinks the universe is a hologram projected by a microscopic disco ball.

Wisdom of Clouds: Nature unwhorls itself in computation

A black pixel cloud on a white grid

ometime in the late 1990s, I remember seeing washing machine advertisements sporting the mantra of 'fuzzy logic', a kind of artificial stupidity. After the technological U-turn that was the new millennium, we now have an entire industry calling itself 'cloud computing', which I can only interpret as algorithmic confusion. So I was probably alone in applauding Sri Vishwa Bandhu Gupta when he asked a befuddled anchor on national television (paraphrased), "Do you know what will happen to the cloud data in a rainstorm?"

I sincerely doubt anyone has made a more profound suggestion in the Indian philosophical tradition since Aryabhatta's invention of the zero. The fury of a cloudburst can bring an entire metropolis like Mumbai to a halt, let alone computer networks and electric grids. For centuries before us, Marwaris in Calcutta studied clouds for the purpose of rain-gambling, African tantrics studied it for witch-doctoring, and farmers everywhere for seed-sowing. The Vishwa Bandhu Finger (see the YouTube video, if you haven't) is pointing at a natural cloud in the sky and saying, look – this is a type of data, and Nature computes. Let us not forget that 'data', if you prolong the first syllable with a soft D in Hindi, means God.

I said 'Indian philosophical tradition' only because the father of modern computers, Konrad Zuse, had already envisioned an entire universe based on computation in his book Calculating Space (1969). Take any computer graphics film or game and think about how the natural things – trees, water and clouds – are simulated. No one sits and paints every leaf on a tree, they are all copies of the same original leaf, generated en masse by a replication program. In the virtual world Second Life, the cloud program is a type of 'cellular automaton'. I'll explain that, but after I point out that my American landlady in Bangalore sells virtual sarees in Second Life for a living.

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Swirling in the jetstream around the cloud computer are airborne spiders, ballooning on a gossamer sail, merchants of matter and data across the outer edge of the atmosphere.

n the Internet, you will find many videos of wet sarees. I mean, apart from animations of Conway's "Game of Life" - the most famous kind of cellular automaton. To start the game, we seed some black pixels on a huge white grid. Now when we start the program, these seeds will either live or die depending on whether they are surrounded by black pixels or not. This simple program evolves into incredibly complex objects, which look like gliders, guns, spaceships, flowers and yes – clouds too. One can even construct by hand certain pixel clouds that perform a kind of computation, such as calculating the infinite series of prime numbers. There are people who have devoted their entire life to making things like this. They suspect, that like a set of Matrioshka dolls nested into each other, deeper and deeper, the universe itself is like a computer within a computer, turtles upon turtles. So the next time you look up at, or fly above – a cumulonimbus cupillatu cloud, imagine a giant computer – and it may be there.

Somewhere inside that white fluffy field of virtual cotton, there is a string of puffs coming out of a whorl, a processional output from a cloud computer, which has been busy for the last few months solving some mathematical mystery like the Riemann Hypothesis. Swirling in the jetstream around the cloud computer are airborne spiders, ballooning on a gossamer sail, merchants of matter and data across the outer edge of the atmosphere. For millions of years, they may have used this biological advantage to do arachnid astronomy, and who knows, who on earth knows, when the first manned moon mission Apollo 11 flew past their orbital colony, they may have laughed or sighed. "Ah, finally the monkeys are going to space. LOL!"

There is probably a good reason why all the aliens of human imagination look like oversized insects. I'm going to start my research by looking at water-bears (tardigrades), which can apparently survive for ten days out there in the cold, dark vacuum of space. Thrown by a sharp 200 kmph hurricane off the edge of an orbit, on a tangent to Martian clouds, not your regular pizza delivery

 
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