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But soon the chip began to show some encouraging twitches.
By generation #220 the FPGA was essentially mimicking the input it received, a reaction which was a far cry from the desired result but evidence of progress nonetheless.
In a unique laboratory in Sussex, England, a computer carefully scrutinized every member of large and diverse set of candidates.
Each was evaluated dispassionately, and assigned a numeric score according to a strict set of criteria.
The chip’s performance improved in minuscule increments as the non-stop electronic orgy produced a parade of increasingly competent offspring.
Around generation #650, the chip had developed some sensitivity to the 1k Hz waveform, and by generation #1,400 its success rate in identifying either tone had increased to more than 50%.
The concept is roughly analogous to Charles Darwin’s elegant principle of natural selection, which describes how individuals with the most advantageous traits are more likely to survive and reproduce.
This process tends to preserve favorable characteristics by passing them to the survivors’ descendants, while simultaneously suppressing the spread of less-useful traits. Thompson dabbled with computer circuits in order to determine whether survival-of-the-fittest principles might provide hints for improved microchip designs.
Furthermore, the final program did not work reliably when it was loaded onto other FPGAs of the same type.
It seems that evolution had not merely selected the best code for the task, it had also advocated those programs which took advantage of the electromagnetic quirks of that specific microchip environment.
The five separate logic cells were clearly crucial to the chip’s operation, but they were interacting with the main circuitry through some unorthodox method— most likely via the subtle magnetic fields that are created when electrons flow through circuitry, an effect known as magnetic flux.
As a test bed, he procured a special type of chip called a Field-Programmable Gate Array (FPGA) whose internal logic can be completely rewritten as opposed to the fixed design of normal chips.
This flexibility results in a circuit whose operation is hot and slow compared to conventional counterparts, but it allows a single chip to become a modem, a voice-recognition unit, an audio processor, or just about any other computer component.