Sarah Chaffee recently brought our attention to a glorious harp rendition of Smetana’s Moldau, which many of us enjoyed because we have the technology to play it back. When you think of the playback problem, it’s pretty elaborate:
- The acoustic waves were picked up by a microphone and converted to electrical pulses.
- The pulses were converted by an analogue-to-digital (A-to-D) converter into numbers representing the frequencies and dynamics of the waveforms.
- The digital signals were compressed by an algorithm into a coded representation storable on an external medium, such as an MP3 file.
- The code was written as magnetic spots on a hard drive according to a storage algorithm that does not necessarily store them in physical order.
- On demand, a read head on the drive reconstructed the bits in their proper sequence and transmitted them as electrical pulses to the central processor.
- The CPU relayed the file to a router, where the file was packetized and sent over the internet to a specified address, possibly traversing electrical wires, the air (radio transmissions), or space via an orbiting satellite along the way.
- The destination site’s router reassembled the packets into a file for storage on a “cloud” server such as YouTube or SoundCloud.
- Evolution News embedded the file’s location in its local server, which you, the listener, accessed by means of touch, using a mouse, keypad, or touchscreen.
- Your computer’s sound card converted the digital signals into audio output through speakers.
Each of these stages presupposed a considerable amount of intelligent design: decades of basic research, engineering, product development, and integration. Without them, only those within hearing range of the harp strings would have ever enjoyed Valérie Milot’s exquisite performance.
Now let’s consider an even more sophisticated playback problem: storing music in DNA. Recently, researchers in France boasted of encoding two songs from the Montreux Jazz Festival in DNA, celebrating the fact that they would last “for eternity” in that medium.
Recent advances in biotechnology now make it possible for humans to do what Mother Nature has always done. Today’s scientists can create artificial DNA strands, “record” any kind of genetic code on them and then analyze them using a sequencer to reconstruct the original data. What’s more, DNA is extraordinarily stable, as evidenced by prehistoric fragments that have been preserved in amber. Artificial strands created by scientists and carefully encapsulated should likewise last for millennia. [Emphasis added.]
Without quibbling about what infinitesimal fraction of eternity is represented by a few millennia, we can and should celebrate another step on the way to DNA storage (see this Evolution News article on DNA as the “world’s ideal storage medium”). Indeed, as these technicians know, with DNA you could fit the entire Internet in a shoebox.
The amount of artificial DNA strands needed to record the two songs is invisible to the naked eye, and the amount needed to record all 50 years of the Festival’s archives, which have been included in UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register, would be equal in size to a grain of sand.
It’s a wonderful medium to store your music library — provided that you have the playback equipment and know how to use it. No playback, no song except perhaps “The Sound of Silence.”
In the movie The Time Machine, futuristic humans had stored much of their knowledge in “talking rings” that spoke as they were spun. Unfortunately, the inhabitants of Earth even further in the future did not know or care about the recordings. Neither did they care about the books crumbling to dust on shelves, a fact that sent British time traveler George into a rage.
We see from the French experiment that information (whether text, music, or video) requires both a transmitting intelligence and a receiving intelligence. If you invent a code but never share it, you could write symphonies or rock songs (take your pick) that would be noise to everyone else, even if the compositions qualified as works of genius. Could future generations reconstruct the Internet in DNA if they lost the code?
Even if they knew the code, would they hear your music if they lost the technology to image DNA and sequence it? If they could sequence it, it would still fall on deaf ears unless they knew the encoding algorithm you used, and had the technology to convert the code into whatever form future generations use to regenerate the original sounds. “Ah,” you reassure yourself; “I’ll write down the directions for playback.” But what if thousands of years from now they don’t speak English?
Your predicament recalls the Voyager Golden Record problem. Carl Sagan and his friends who assembled the “Sounds of Earth” along with images and text used 1970s technology to impress digital information onto a disk. In the process, they had to make assumptions about the nature of the intelligence in “extraterrestrial intelligence.” Surely the ETs would be good at math. They would understand that dots and dashes represent numbers, that some kind of stylus was needed for playback, and that the first image would be a circle. They would know that the plot on the cover represented pulsar positions, giving clues about where the record came from. None of that could be known, of course (except by faith that aliens must be much further evolved than us). As such, the Voyager Record was more of a publicity stunt: a message to earthlings, not aliens.
Quincy Jones, a longstanding Festival supporter, is particularly enthusiastic about this technological breakthrough: “With advancements in nanotechnology, I believe we can expect to see people living prolonged lives, and with that, we can also expect to see more developments in the enhancement of how we live. For me, life is all about learning where you came from in order to get where you want to go, but in order to do so, you need access to history! And with the unreliability of how archives are often stored, I sometimes worry that our future generations will be left without such access… So, it absolutely makes my soul smile to know that EPFL, Twist Bioscience and their partners are coming together to preserve the beauty and history of the Montreux Jazz Festival for our future generations, on DNA! I’ve been a part of this festival for decades and it truly is a magnificent representation of what happens when different cultures unite for the sake of music. Absolute magic. And I’m proud to know that the memory of this special place will never be lost.”
Mr. Jones presumes a lot about future generations. If they lost access to history, they might be like the Eloi and Morlocks in H.G. Wells’s dystopian vision of the future, who had survived a nuclear holocaust and devolved into prey and predator, respectively. All that precious DNA archive, preserved so carefully by intelligent design, could be flushed down the drain. Our Voyager records might never be interpreted, even if they were discovered in the far future. Aliens that had converted themselves into replicating robots might eat them as food, like pizza.
Information, in whatever form it becomes instantiated, presupposes a sender and a receiver. Both entities presuppose intelligence: a sender with a purpose and a design, and a receiver capable of knowing (and caring) how to interpret the message. Without a receiver, the sender merely blows chunks, sending packets that vanish in the either. Without a sender, the receiver deceives himself into imagining a message in gibberish (as in pareidolia). Machines (such as microphones, A-D converters, and speakers — even robots or algorithms) may intervene in the communication, but machines require intelligence to build, and ultimately rely on intelligence to interpret or act on the message.
The point here should come as no surprise. In Being as Communion, William Dembski says, “The whole point of communication is to create novel information at one end of a communication channel and share it at the other end, where it does not exist until its receipt.”
Does DNA contain information if there was no sender? If we learn to play back music from DNA, we will know there was a mind that coded that, even if the playback has degraded during decoding. What about the “natural” DNA that we did not see coming into existence? Does it encode information from an intelligent sender? Picture a deaf person observing the decoding process. He sees the DNA. He sees the sequence. He watches someone running it through a machine that produces sounds from the sequence. The deaf observer can’t hear the sounds, but watches in surprise as the person jumps up and starts dancing to a beat. Would he be justified in concluding that the DNA sequence had a function? How much more should we infer an intelligent sender, when we observe DNA being transcribed, translated, and producing machines that make other machines that perform work for growth, reproduction, and repair?