Life Is Just A Big Math Problem

John Maeda
5 min readDec 8, 2020
A few iterations of “playing” Conway’s Game of Life from How To Speak Machine

Back in 1985, I took my first computer science course at MIT. We had spent the whole term discussing concepts borne completely in text, numbers, and punctuation marks.

I was so hungry to see something visual. Perhaps it’s because I was one of a handful of freshmen who had brought the new Apple Macintosh computer to campus — and was made fun of because it had pictures on the screen rather than just text. To the upperclassmen and my peers, it all seemed terribly unnecessary.

But then there was a special presentation toward the end of term, where the brilliant, gnome-like instructor, Professor Hal Abelson, slightly aged and slightly balding, figuratively let down his hair. Having a computer science professor with a name reminiscent of the “Hal” computer in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey always got me in an excited mood for the future. Hal took us through some new animated visualizations of The Game of Life as rendered onto a videotape by a colleague of his. Naturally for all of us who grew up on Milton Bradley games, we leaned in excitedly to see our favorite family game being played on the computer.

But instead of colorful cards and little cars filled with people living out their lives we saw blinking dots on a black and white grid. You have to remember that at the time there was no such thing as computer animation, so our expectations were super low. But this was a new low.

I felt really stupid that day as the other nerds around me seemed to get it way more than me.

I struggled to match Hal’s excitement as he described the importance of these blinking dots. He kept saying how their patterns indicated that there was a new kind of life that could be represented inside the computer. I felt really stupid that day as the other nerds around me seemed to get it way more than me.

Many years later, after I had dipped my mind into the emerging discourse around artificial life, I finally became excited as Hal…

John Maeda

John Maeda: Technologist and product experience leader that bridges business, engineering, design via working inclusively. Currently VP Design and A.I. at MSFT.