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Cams

What makes machines life like? What one mechanism gives simple machines the ability to move in complex and programmed ways? Cams. They are easy to understand, easy to design, and they give machines life like motions far beyond what could reasonably be achieved with any other mechanism. Cams are a sophisticated information encoding process developed centuries before the computer.

A gear or link contains only one piece of information, its size. A cam contains information along its entire surface. In auto engines the cams control the timing and positioning of the valves. The cam enables simple machines to perform complex movements because information is built into simple machines by means of cams.

Cams inside an automatic record changer make the arm move and the records drop. The phonograph record itself is a cam which wiggles the phonograph needle sideways as it passes along the grooves. Early phonographs with no electronic parts transformed the simple rotary motion of the turntable into complex programmed sound energy by means of a such a cam. The blueprints of living things are encoded on a long narrow strip of DNA like music is encoded on a long narrow groove in a vinyl record. Nature has encoded life itself in molecular cams. Living things are full of information compared to machines so by building information into machines we make them lifelike.

It is impossible to draw a picture representing cams in general for the same reason that it is impossible to draw a picture representing animals in general. Cams can have all different shapes and that determines what they are; likewise animals.

A few thousand years ago people believed spirits were everywhere and everything was alive. Today we are surrounded by machines that behave as if they were alive although we know they aren't. Consider how much the machines around us are like living beings. This is the new animism, the realization that the distinction between ourselves and our machines is not as great as we used to think.

We need to understand ourselves as machines. As we unravel the mysteries of life we begin to realize that although it is complex beyond our present understanding there is nothing magical about it. On a molecular level living things are amazingly complex machines. Our negative reaction to thinking of ourselves as machines is because our machines are still quite stupid compared to ourselves.

The question of whether machines can think forces us to study what thinking really is. When we understand thought we will be able to make machines that think and understand ourselves as thinking machines.

Acknowledgments to Ken Wise for originating this idea.