Conway’s Game of Life

I first came across Conway’s Game of Life randomly a few years ago on Wikipedia.  I had heard of cellular automata before then, but hadn’t really understood what they were.  Reading through the article, I was fascinated by how a collection of extremely simple “cells” (each having a binary state, “alive” or “dead”), when allowed to interact in an environment with extremely simple rules, can come to exhibit extremely complex behavior, even giving rise to “multicellular organisms”.  Students of complex systems will find this phenomenon quite familiar, but for me at the time, it was new and mind-expanding.

Having worked on networked systems for the past few years, I can’t help but think Conway’s Game of Life is a great metaphor for how they behave.  Each device in the system may be relatively simple, and its design and behavior relatively well understood.  However, when allowed to interact with one another, such devices may exhibit behavior that’s very difficult to anticipate from the designs of the individual devices (and sometimes just plain baffling).  It’s important to keep this in mind when estimating the workload and complexity of a project involving any sort of networking functionality.