In the end, breeding a useful thing becomes almost as miraculous as
creating one. Richard Dawkins echoes this when he asserts that
"effective searching procedures become, when the search-space is
sufficiently large, indistinguishable from true creativity." In the
library of all possible books, finding a particular book is equivalent
to writing it.
This sentiment was recognized centuries ago, long before the advent of
computers. As Denis Diderot wrote in 1755:
The number of books will grow continually, and one can predict that a
time will come when it will be almost as difficult to learn anything
from books as from the direct study of the whole universe. It will be
almost as convenient to search for some bit of truth concealed in nature
as it will be to find it hidden away in an immense multitude of bound
William Poundstone, author of The Recursive Universe, contrived an
analogy to illustrate why searching huge Borgian libraries of knowledge
is as difficult as searching the huge Borgian library of nature itself.
Imagine, Poundstone said, that there is a library with all possible
videos. Like all Borgian spaces, most of the items in this library are
full of noise and random grayness. A typical tape would be two hours of
snow. The main problem with searching for a viewable video is that no
title, call name, or symbol of any sort could represent a random tape in
any less space or time than the tape itself. Most of the items in a
Borgian library are incompressible into anything shorter than the work
itself. (This irreducibility is the current definition of randomness.)
To search the tapes, they must be watched, and therefore the
information, time, and energy needed to sort through all the tapes would
exceed the information, time, and energy needed to create the tape you
wanted, no matter what the tape was.
Evolution is a slow-witted way to outsmart this conundrum, but what we
call intelligence is nothing more (and nothing less) than a tunnel
through it. If I had been especially astute in my search in the Library
for my book Out of Control, after several hours I might have discerned a
cardinal direction to my wanderings through the library stacks. I might
have noticed that in general, "sense" lay to the left of the last book I
held. I could have anticipated many generations of slow evolution by
running ahead miles to the left. I might have learned the architecture
of the library and predicted where sense would hide, outrunning both
random guessing and creeping evolution. I could have found Out of
Control by a combination of evolution and by learning the inherent order
of the Library.
Some students of the human mind make a strong argument that thinking is
a type of evolution of ideas within the brain. According to this
argument, all created things are evolved. As I write these words, I have
to agree. I began this book not with a sentence formed in my mind but
with an arbitrarily chosen phrase, "I am." Then in unconsciously rapid
succession I evaluated a headful of possible next words. I picked one
that seemed esthetically fit, "sealed." After "I am sealed," I went on
to the next word, choosing from among 100,000s of possible ones. Each
selected word bred the choices for the next until I had evolved almost a
sentence of words. Toward the end of the sentence my choices were
constrained somewhat by the words I had already chosen at the beginning,
so learning helped the breeding go more quickly.
But the first word of the next sentence could have been any word. The
end of my book, 150,000 choices away, looked as distant and improbable
as the end of the galaxy. A book is improbable. Out of all the books
written or to be written in the world, only this book, for instance,
would have found the preceding two sentences in a row.
Now that I'm in the middle of the book, I'm still evolving the text.
What will the next words be that I write in this chapter? In a real
sense I don't know. There are probably billions of possibilities of what
they might be, even taking into account the restriction that they must
logically follow from the last sentence. Did you guess this sentence as
the next one? I didn't either. But that's the sentence I found at the
end of the sentence.
I wrote this book by finding it. I found it in the Library of Borges by
evolving it at my desk. Word by word, I traveled through the Library of
Jorge Luis Borges. By some kind of weird combination of learning and
evolution that our heads do, I found my book. It was on the middle
shelf, almost at eye level, in the seventh hexagon of region 52427. Who
knows if it is my book or merely one that is almost my book (differing
by a paragraph here or there, or maybe even by the omission of a few
The great satisfaction of the long search for me -- no matter how the book
fares -- was that only I could find it.