Maxwell’s Daemon

7 months ago
50 in biocomputing

X walks away from the clearing into the forest. The dancing group pays no attention. They are completely absorbed in the music. The lasers mounted on top of the speaker-stacks create a glowing ceiling overhead. The beams intersect with the trees to form a matrix. X walks further. Ultraviolet lights activate a sign with hand-painted words in fluorescent colors:


A cardboard sign glows with a drawing of a mandala. It combines a large number of geometrical shapes. Lines and arrows connect each part into a balanced whole. The diagram spirals towards the center in a seashell-like way.

X pass by row after row of perfectly positioned pine trees. The music is fading, leaving only a low-frequency pulse. The lasers are now a faint glow in the distance.

X climbs down a slope of moss-covered rocks. Using the light from his phone to see where to place the feet, trying to keep balance.

There is a beach below. X walks over the sand, kicks off his shoes and step into the water, until he is knee deep. The sun is rising over the islands.

X remembers the time he saw Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, at Burning Man Europe, on a deserted island in the Greek Archipelago. At least he thinks he did.

X has to return to his job as Human Resource Manager at a seed-funded fin-tech augmented-reality start-up on Monday. Right now, that feels as distant as the sound of the bass drum.

X thinks of a lecture he heard last winter. The speaker spoke of version six of the Internet Protocol, currently worked over by the Internet Engineering Task Force. She described how it has two to the power of one hundred twenty-eight individual address points. That is the number three, with thirty eight zeros after it. Enough to give an address to each living cell, each star, each idea, each grain of sand on earth, and still, have some to spare. An Internet of Everything, she called it.

X thinks of nano-scale networks, micro-liquidics, microbial biocomputing, droplet-based logic gates, biokleptic assemblers and atom-level information storage.

X thinks of autonomous financial instruments, self-governing hedge funds, and sentient, exotic derivatives.

X thinks of laws: the law of diminishing returns, Moore’s law, Ashby’s law, Conway’s Law, Asimov’s second law of Robotics, the law of Attraction and the law of Repulsion.

X thinks of this as the water cools his legs and the faint glow of the sun warms his face. The wind through the trees sounds like an overheating laptop, or a beast drawing breath.

X thinks of Maxwell's Demon. He visualizes the line drawing from James Clerk Maxwell’s 1872 treaty on Thermodynamics. He projects it over the early morning sky: Two chambers both filled with equal-temperature air. The chambers are connected by a door. Above the door in the diagram, a goblin-like creature squats. With a glee-full smile, the demon proceeds to sort the molecules according to energy level, by opening the door for faster-than-average molecule and closing it for slower-than-average molecules. The demonic gatekeeper laughs loudly: it has broken the second law of thermodynamics. It can reverse an irreversible process, without breaking a sweat. It can create order from un-order and extract value from randomness, through pure entrepreneurial energy. The demon can un-burn firewood and make rivers flow backward.

Who is this demon? The question seems to come from a seabird that has landed on a rock five meters in front of X. Is it related to the Demon of Pierre Simon Laplace? The demon who knows the location, direction and speed of every particle in the universe? Who can predict the landing spot of every rain drop? Who can compute any future state from a total knowledge of the present? What tricks does it use to break the laws that are programmed into the very fabric of existence? The bird flaps its wings and fly off.

The sky is turning pink and purple as sunlight filter through the polluted air. The demon is taking great pleasure in the temperature difference it has created. Two objects appear in its clawed hands: In the right, Charles Watt’s Centrifugal Governor, rotating wildly. In the left: a first generation Nest smart-home thermostat swung by the ripped out power cord. The demon does a ecstatic dance, spinning around with giddy delight, faster and faster.

As the sun breaks above the tree tops, X sees shiny silver spheres swinging across the sky. The kind of perpetual motion machine you can find on the desks of CEOs and doctors in old movies. One ball hitting the other, causing the next to move without losing momentum. The spheres collide with a metallic sound. Creating an endless rhythmic pulse.

X walks backward out of the water, puts on his shoes and return towards the music, that is still playing, and the humans, who are still dancing.

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