Scientists Explain Why Computers Crash But We Don't

May 03, 2010
The hierarchical organization of the transcriptional regulatory network of bacterium E. Coli, left, shows a pyramidal structure compared to the Linux call graph, which has many more routines controlling few generic functions at the bottom.

(PhysOrg.com) -- Nature and software engineers face similar design challenges in creating control systems. The different solutions they employ help explain why living organisms tend to malfunction less than computers, a Yale study has found.

The Yale team compared the evolution of organisms and computer operating systems by analyzing the control networks in both a and the Linux operating system. They report their findings online in the May 3 edition of the .

“It is a commonplace metaphor that the genome is the operating system of a . We wanted to see if the analogy actually holds up,” said Mark Gerstein, the Albert L. Williams Professor of Biomedical Informatics; professor of molecular biophysics and biochemistry, and computer science; and senior author of the paper.

Both E coli and the Linux networks are arranged in hierarchies, but with some notable differences in how they achieve operational efficiencies. The molecular networks in the bacteria are arranged in a pyramid, with a limited number of master regulatory genes at the top that control a broad base of specialized functions, which act independently.

In contrast, the Linux operating system is organized more like an inverted pyramid, with many different top-level routines controlling few generic functions at the bottom of the network. Gerstein said that this organization arises because software engineers tend to save money and time by building upon existing routines rather than starting systems from scratch.

“But it also means the is more vulnerable to breakdowns because even simple updates to a generic routine can be very disruptive,” Gerstein said. To compensate, these generic components have to be continually fine-tuned by designers.

Operating systems are like urban streets - engineers tend to focus on areas that get a lot of traffic,” said Gerstein. “We can do this because we are designing these changes intelligently.”

However, he noted, if the analogy is extended to an organism like E coli, the situation is different: Without fine-tuning, a disruption of such major molecular roadways by random mutations would be fatal. That’s why E. coli cannot afford generic components and has preserved an organization with highly specialized modules, said Gerstein, adding that over billions of years of evolution, such an organization has proven robust, protecting the organism from random damaging mutations.


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SirChazwell
4.1 / 5 (7) May 03, 2010
Excellent!
JJC
3.6 / 5 (11) May 03, 2010
Of course we also crash less often because new software is not constantly being added to the system. Each new "program" takes millions of years to evolve, and every organism that can't handle the program is selected against.

Whereas in a computer, new things that might cause problems are constantly added.
LWM
4.3 / 5 (7) May 03, 2010
That is the power of evolution ... each bacteria can slowly rewrite small portions of its actions. This can't be applied to an OS unless each application has this right, which is impossible when security and efficiency are factored in.
Megadeth312
1 / 5 (1) May 03, 2010
New meaning for the term "computer virus"
meeker
4.9 / 5 (9) May 03, 2010
Of course, we crash ... it's called "Death." ;)

Hopefully, human beings will be getting an upgrade within the next two decades to prevent that.
bottomlesssoul
4.2 / 5 (5) May 03, 2010
Of course we also crash less often because new software is not constantly being added to the system. Each new "program" takes millions of years to evolve, and every organism that can't handle the program is selected against.

Whereas in a computer, new things that might cause problems are constantly added.
You only account for the genetics of conception, once the blastocyst forms it's completely dependent on input from it's environment to adapt to it's local environment.

It's true, software is too monolithic, the world needs an open source library of tens of thousands of tiny almost useless routines like a pool of genes that everyone develops from. Sure it may be susceptible to viruses but single patches can be transmitted globally in hours since this system can evolve at the speed of thought.
Hunnter
3 / 5 (2) May 03, 2010
@ bottomlesssoul
This partially exists, but in many, many separate groups.
Most languages tend to have group followings with large samples of functions and routines for people to grab and throw in to a library somewhere.

And of course, we can't forget out friend, the software patent.
Without him, we'd be like, controlling computers with our thoughts or something. Sickening, it's against everything decent.
Yay software patents! (sarcasm for the slow)
Yet again, patents ruin an industry.
HealingMindN
1.5 / 5 (2) May 03, 2010
You know those people who you feel like you have to walk on egg shells all the time, so you have to be careful what you do or say to that person or else you might disrupt him and break his concentration? Well, that's Xandros, the queeen of all linux bit_hes. I feel like I want to crash.
malapropism
4.3 / 5 (3) May 03, 2010
So I wonder what the Windows graph looks like?
zaai
5 / 5 (1) May 03, 2010
A slightly overlooked aspect is that of parallelism. When one element of a program fails the whole thing can crash. In an organism that element just dies off while the rest just keeps going.
dianearbus
5 / 5 (1) May 04, 2010
Of course I don’t use my brain. It makes me a natural conservative…

Bol Apartments
Jenna_Faith
May 04, 2010
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
Skepticus
4.8 / 5 (4) May 04, 2010
A good knock on the back of the head is all that required to make the brain crash..:-)
finitesolutions
not rated yet May 04, 2010
Uitati ceva: faptul ca un om moare nu inseamna ca si softwareul se opreste! Ba din contra programele de calculator continua. Exista sisteme informatice care inca functioneaza mult timp dupa ce creatori lor au murit.

frajo
5 / 5 (2) May 04, 2010
Uitati ceva: faptul ca un om moare nu inseamna ca si softwareul se opreste! Ba din contra programele de calculator continua. Exista sisteme informatice care inca functioneaza mult timp dupa ce creatori lor au murit.
You're right - it depends on the boundary conditions. In a friendly environment, an OS/2 server has the potential to run forever. A multicellular biological being does not have this potential, even in a friendly environment.
Shaffer
4 / 5 (1) May 04, 2010
New meaning for the term "computer virus"


I was going to say 'Now all we need is a life virus' but then I realized this already happens all the time with viral illness...I reverse engineered the re-invented wheel....oh my.

Maybe PcCillin was a good idea after all.
Skeptic_Heretic
4 / 5 (2) May 04, 2010
A lot of people would disagree and argue that we crash often. Just like old school Microsoft systems, the Human OS functions via daily reboots, called sleep and dreaming.
Rosario_Elliot
not rated yet May 04, 2010
A light bulb that is turned on and never turned off in theory will burn forever. Because it is the surge of power from the switch that most times blows the bulb. PC's last longer when they are never turned off, for example the one I am on now is 7 years old and runs like a tank. It is rebooted once or twice a month for 7 years.

Thats about all I can say about that..lol
Skeptic_Heretic
5 / 5 (1) May 04, 2010
PC's last longer when they are never turned off, for example the one I am on now is 7 years old and runs like a tank. It is rebooted once or twice a month for 7 years.

The physical components and software components are not one in the same.

Your body could run forever if your telomeres were never damaged or shortened by the environment and cellular replication.
Royale
3.5 / 5 (4) May 04, 2010
Although you're right about the light switch usually being what blows the bulb, you're wrong about the theory. The tungsten in the bulb is burning, that's what makes it light up. When it burns to thing the bulb will go out regardless. Try it. A light bulb in theory will not burn forever.
Ravenrant
not rated yet May 04, 2010
I don't see the comparison. A computer processes data, the human body is an engine. Only the brain processes data. There is a fundamental difference between the brain and a computer which I think better explains 'crashing'. An OS operates by default, it resists doing what you want and will only co-operate as a last resort (which explains why they are so damn aggravating). When it has exhausted every possible way to NOT do what you want, only then will it do anything. Every single detail has to be exactly right for it to do anything. The human brain does not work like that, it will try to do what you want in every way possible until it succeeds. This is why computers crash, the least little thing it doesn't like and you've stymied it. Also if you compare an OS that has been running for 5 years to a 90 year old brain you might have a closer crashing correlation.
Jungle
5 / 5 (2) May 04, 2010
The study isn't talking about human brains, it's talking about E. Coli genetic regulatory systems. Genes do require input to run most of the time- if they didn't then the organism would probably die pretty quickly. I think the study was less about determining why computers crash and humans don't and more about how we can attempt to reorganize our operating systems so they crash less.
mastergmr
1 / 5 (1) May 04, 2010
A windows graph would look like a Seventeenth stellation of icosahedron, some smoothe edges, and a lot of tight corners that lead into eachother because you will eventually run into the same windows OS problems no matter what you do to avoid them. (i.e the corners of the tetrahedra represent the problems one faces using windows.)

IMAGE: http://en.wikiped...dron.png
RealScience
5 / 5 (2) May 04, 2010
Royale - the tungsten is not lighting up because it is burning.
It is hot from electrical current times its resistance to that current, not from oxidation.

What happens is that any thin spot on the filament has higher resistance and hence gets hotter, which tends to evaporate the tungsten slightly more, which makes the thin spot grow even thinner, which makes it even hotter, etc. until the filament breaks at the thin spot (but the tungsten has not 'burned', it has evaporated and been deposited on the iside of the glass which also makes the bulb grow darker as it ages).
RealScience
1 / 5 (2) May 04, 2010
Royale - the tungsten is not lighting up because it is burning.
It is hot from electrical current times its resistance to that current, not from oxidation.

What happens is that any thin spot on the filament has higher resistance and hence gets hotter, which tends to evaporate the tungsten slightly more, which makes the thin spot grow even thinner, which makes it even hotter, etc. until the filament breaks at the thin spot (but the tungsten has not 'burned', it has evaporated and been deposited on the iside of the glass which also makes the bulb grow darker as it ages).
tkjtkj
5 / 5 (1) May 05, 2010
In a friendly environment, an OS/2 server has the potential to run forever. A multicellular biological being does not have this potential, even in a friendly environment.


Well, first of all, i think the analogy concerning a genome and operating system is incorrect: a genome ought better to be considered as a database. The cellular OS would be the mechanisms for managing the DB to the benefit of the organism.. But that was not related to your own comment, one with which I disagree also: The entire concept of cell death only appeared with the introduction of sexual reproduction! Only then did it seem that in most cases the organism itself became expendable. Consider the primative unicellular amoeba: it divides. so it can be then seen as still the same 'individual' but now living in two places at once.. ie, since the inception of that life-form, death is impossible if there are any of its kind existing at all!
See my next comment, im out of room here ..
Aghilmort
May 05, 2010
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
Onceler37
not rated yet May 09, 2010
People crash all the times it is called fainting or passing out or coma