Re: Uploaded memories
Wed, 8 Dec 1999 13:45:22 -0800

Robert J. Bradbury, <>, writes:
> Robin, this raises some very interesting questions. Have economists
> considered the parallels between "economies" and "ecosystems"?
> What are the similarities and differences between the two?

I recently re-read an interesting paper which discussed this topic, unfortunately not by economists, but by Mark Miller and Eric Drexler. "Comparative Ecology: A Computational Perspective" was published in their book "The Ecology of Computation". This paper, along with others, lays out their idea for "agoric computing", in which software systems would use market-like mechanisms to interact. In effect a program might pay a subroutine to work for it.

In the process they compare biological ecosystems with economic markets. Their main conclusion is that the driving force in ecosystems is the predator-prey relationship, while in market systems the main factor is cooperative trade, symbiosis:

"Nature is commonly viewed as harmonious and human markets as full of strife, yet the above comparison suggests the opposite. The psychological prominence of unusual phenomena may explain the apparent inversion of the common view. Symbiosis stands out in biology: we have all heard of the unusual relationship between crocodiles and the birds that pluck their parasites, but one hears less about the more common kind of relationship between crocodiles and each of the many animals they eat...

"Similarly, fraud and criminality stand out in markets. Newspapers report major instances of fraud and embezzlement, but pay little attention to each day's massive turnover of routinely satisfactory cereal, soap and gasoline in retail trade. Crime is unusual and interesting; trade is common and boring.

"... [I]magine that predation were as fundamental to markets as to biology. Instead of confronting occasional instances of theft in a background of trade, one would be surrounded by neighbors who had stolen their cars from dealers who had mounted an armed assault on factories in Detroit, which in turn had grabbed their parts and equipment by pillaging job-shops in the surrounding countryside."

Drexler is of course better known for his work on nanotech, but Mark Miller has continued to pursue these ideas quite actively and is currently involved in the construction of the E programming language. This is designed to provide secure communication and information sharing, a necessary prerequisite for agoric computational systems. Information is at