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Is Software the Result of Top-Down Intelligent Design or Evolution?

By Edward A. Lee

Communications of the ACM, Vol. 61 No. 9, Pages 34-36

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The recent explosion of interest, hype, and fear about artificial intelligence, data science, machine learning, and robotics has focused a spotlight on software engineers. The business magnate Elon Musk has called for regulation and the President of Russia Vladimir Putin has declared that world domination will result from mastering AI. Are software engineers responsible for these outcomes? Here, I argue that software engineers have less control over their designs than they likely realize. Instead, software technologies are evolving in a Darwinian way, or more precisely, they are co-evolving with human culture.

In the field of software engineering, the term "evolution" has been used for gradual change of single, typically large, programs (see for example Lehman6). In this Viewpoint, I use "evolution" in a true Darwinian sense, where it refers to populations, not individuals, and it is driven by procreation, mutation, and survival. My claim is more radical than that individual programs change gradually. It is that populations of programs evolve along with the human cultures that use and develop them. To understand my interpretation requires looking beyond the software engineering literature.


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