Is the Universe a Computer?

By Sean Carroll | January 10, 2008 10:15 pm

Via the Zeitgeister, a fun panel discussion at the Perimeter Institute between Seth Lloyd, Leonard Susskind, Christopher Fuchs and Sir Tony Leggett, moderated by Bob McDonald of CBC Radio’s Quirks & Quarks program. The topic is “The Physics of Information,” and as anyone familiar with the participants might guess, it’s a lively and provocative discussion.

A few of the panel members tried to pin down Seth Lloyd on one of his favorite catchphrases, “The universe is a computer.” I tackled this one myself at one point, at least half-seriously. If the universe is a computer, what is it computing? Its own evolution, apparently, according to the laws of physics. Tony Leggett got right to the heart of the matter, however, by asking “What kind of process would not count as a computer?” To which Lloyd merely answered, “Yeah, good question.” (But he did have a good line — “If the universe is a computer, why isn’t it running Windows?” Insert your own “blue screen of death” joke here.)

So I tried to look up the definition of a “computer.” You can open a standard text on quantum computation, but “computer” doesn’t appear in the index. The dictionary is either unhelpful — “a device that computes” — or too specific — “an electronic device designed to accept data, perform prescribed mathematical and logical operations at high speed, and display the results of these operations.” Wikipedia tells me that a computer is a machine that manipulates data according to a list of instructions. Again, too specific to include this universe, unless you interpret “machine” to mean “object.”

I think the most general definition of “computer” that would be useful is “a system that takes a set of input and deterministically produces a set of output.” The big assumption being that the same input always produces the same output, but I don’t think that’s overly restrictive for our present purposes. In that sense, the laws of physics act as a computer: given some data in the form of an initial configuration, the laws of physics will evolve the configuration into some output in the form of a final configuration. Setting aside the tricky business of wavefunction collapse, you have something like a computer. I suppose you could argue about whether the laws of physics are “the software” or the computer itself, but I think you are revealing the limitations of the metaphor rather than learning something interesting.

But if we take the metaphor at face value, it makes more sense to me to think of the universe as a calculation rather than as a computer. We have input data in the form of the conditions at early times, and the universe has calculated our current state. It could have been very different, with different input data.

And what precise good does it do to think in this way? Yeah, good question. (Which is not to imply that there isn’t an answer.)

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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