What is A-Life?
Artificial Life is a branch of software engineering which seeks to mimic natural phenomena by using the principals of evolution and adaption to solve otherwise unsolvable problems. Genetic software takes advantage of the computers ability to do lots of simultaneous things very very fast to produce what are termed emergent results. There are many examples of emergent systems. the patterns of litter left around McDonalds stores, the way people file into and out of rooms, the shape of termite mounds. No individual is aware of the overall pattern. the patterns just emerge.
For example. say you have a small critter with genes for move forwards, don't hit things and stick with your mates. This is a very simple critter and assuming there are a few of them they'll buzz about forever. Craig Reynolds formerly of SGI used these very three rules to build his now famous 'boids' flocking algorthim.
Genetic algorithms are able to reproduce and mutate their behaviour. A process of natural (aesthetic, whatever) selection removes the critters that don't do what you want and leaves the ones which do, or sort of do.
To build an ensemble of genetic software you follow this simple recepie.
- define the genes for the simple behaviour of any variable quantities in your world model.
- choose or invent a set of reproductive behaviours. (there can be genes for this too)
- create a random bunch of critters and let em breed
- test each critter for fitness and kill any that don't measure up
- go back to 3 until you have what you want or get bored.
(demo TSP 2d and 3D)
Genetic programs are especially useful when you are trying to solve problems in a constantly changing or poorly known environment. eg the stock market, video games etc.
(demo backing truck)
But is it alive?
we have to ask the question what is life. Is a mule alive even though it can't reproduce? is a virus alive? a prion? a tomato seed?
even a single cell has some awareness and an ability to respond to stimuli and even alter its responses over time. is each cell in your liver alive? how did it know to be a liver cell and not an elbow cell?
I would propose that thoughts are alive too. Language is its body, deeds are both its food and its excrement. (read an excellent disagreement with this notion)
Picture the following scenario
You are sitting around with your friends and an idea pops into your head. You mull the idea over for a short while. By chance the conversation has lulled and the idea seems to be interesting, relevant and sound. You express your idea in words. Your friends go "huh?" express interest and an interpretation of your idea infects their minds. Anti-ideas, traditions, taboos stop the newcomer in its tracks. Friend or foe.
Sometimes an idea might be so "far out" that it just gets shunted off to purgatory. some are imprisoned, interrogated further and a response idea is created and expressed. Some ideas are welcomed like a drug dealer at a rave party and mingle freely.
Either way debate ensues and the idea, and related ideas survive or die based on their fitness within their environment.
Memes, a word coined by Richard Dawkins in his book the Selfish Gene, are like genes but for information based life forms rather than physical life.
Informational life requires a physical host as much as physical life requires info-life to affect it's behaviour in a life sustaining way.
How many bits of shit had to slam together before the solar system got it's shit together?
Gravity is behaviour. Behaviour is the excrement of information and gives rise to physical changes which form the landscape for information.
The BIOSPHERE and the INFOSPHERE are co-evolved interdependent beasts, so much so that for a very long time no-one recognised that there was a difference.
The thing is, the INFOSPHERE is a lot like Dr Who's tardis, it's much bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. While the universe may be made up of a finite amount of physical stuff, the INFOSPHERE is infinite, pulsing with life and rearranging the the physical universe and itself as it goes.
It is simple arithmetic which explains why each year we say "gee hasn't this year gone by fast!" At the age of one, a month is a mere 1/12th of your life. By the time you are thirty a month is only 1/360th of your life. By the same token the difference between a month when you are 29 and a month when you are 30 is only 1/1270 (or 3/3820 to be exact). You don't really notice time getting faster, but as you get older your experience of time dwindles. If you could approach an infinite age time would collapse into no time.
As the INFOSPHERE develops however our ability to experience simultaneous times increases. Each successive generation can handle more simultaneous information than the preceding generation. Extend this notion to infinity and we see that time is heading for a crunch where it has infinite density but takes no time.
Humans interface between the INFOSPHERE and the biosphere in much the same way trees interface between the air and the soil. We have an amazing ability to turn thought into deed, interpret and tokenise/quantify deeds into thoughts, harbour thoughts and provide an environment for them to breed.
Ideas, not happy with just passing from person to person directly, have the whole of the mediascape to play in. The mediascape is a wrinkly, gnarly, twisty turney tableaux of ideas in a variety of representations, being exposed to as many willing minds as possible.
A case in point:
Last Sunday morning Jesse, the other director of VA, and I were sitting in Sydney airport waiting for a plane home. Fuxtel was broadcasting some sort of awful TV evangelist at us. My memetic immune system was strong enough to resist the barrage (I wasn't about to convert) but I was tired and it was 6am and it was irritating the shit out of me. Jesse, top bloke that he is, asked the airport security if he could do something about it. "Yeah, pretty fucking annoying isn't it" he said and switched off the TV. We relaxed.
People who get into that sort of thing however will lap it up and their own new ideas will be manifestly similar.
Everything is a text.
The power of computers lies in their ability to work with symbols. Text is the stuff of the web, the root of all media. Haiku, the sonnet, a Java applet source file and a web page are all just words, grown on a tightly structured lattice.
A picture may tell a thousand words but it takes words to say that. :-)
Words act as triggers for complex interactions within people and machines. The structure of words is their sounds, their look, their texture, colour, range of typical associated images or movements, ANY arbitrary name=value pair.
Families of letters with associated genes for shape, sound, behaviour form readily to make words, paragraphs, lines, stanzas, poems, code, names and novels.
Languages evolve, adapt, die and are reborn. To deny that languages are alive is like denying that the earth is round.
All languages, be they English, C++, the language of cinema or pheromone trails left by ants evolved as representations of associations between physical stuff and imagined, remembered or direct stimulation of nervous systems.
Chemical changes cause alterations in perception. Tired, hungry, relaxed, stoned, tripping, drunk, excited, scared, bored are all words which conjure memories of physical events within your body.
Even someone who has never been drunk feels and imagines something based on second or third hand sources of information, leading to dispersed memories where very often your own brain fills in the dots and makes up 'facts' to fit.
When the optical, mechanical and chemical technologies required to make movies all got together a much faster, more readily absorbed language evolved to suit. The language of cinema is harder to write in but easier to read.
People adapted to understand the meaning of cuts, close ups, and at the same time new systems of encoding meaning were experimented with. The film Nosferatu used sped up film as a cue to invoke a sense of horror but now it just looks funny. Its meaning is as confused and antiquated as olde English looks.
Romeo and Juliet (the new one) with it's ultra fast editing and textural approach to cinema where the story is not as important as the flow of images, sound and the feelings evoked by the melange is an evolution of this principal. New technologies like video disk and the remote control enable us to reorder and mix our own viewing experience. this is the future of visual entertainment.
Languages all evolve all the time, despite the efforts of the French. You can "upsize" your popcorn :-) or I can add a colon, a dash and a right parenthesis to denote good cheer to a line of text. emoticons emerged in many languages at once... just like birds evolved on the Galapagos islands.
Languages breed. In Japan I could buy a HAMUBAGA, or in Russia I could work on a KOMPUTA Or access the INTERNYT. That's if I could find a NYT Cafe of course. :-)
A poem is alive. as is a saying, proverb, or belief system. Life is the simplest form of life, having one property, that of life.
So yes, A-Life is a form of life. It is A-Live.
So what is the future of software?
Software development will evolve into an agribusiness as we approach the end of the hunter-gatherer stage of software development and start info-farming on an industrial scale. GA tool sets exist now for Java and other programming languages and only recently the term Genetic Programming has sprung into common use.
The next great evolutionary leap has been gathering momentum for some time now. Thousands and thousands of years - not that long in the history of evolution.
We will see in our lifetimes a massive attention exodus into the mediascape where ideas are bountiful and time and distance are meaningless.
Network computers made of a few million atoms will swarm and multiply within and without our physical selves doing net knows what. Building with nanotech has been compared to building with lego. right now we are building crude structures by heaping the blocks into piles and pouring on glue. Soon we will clip individual blocks into place with a hitherto unimagined precision. Small reusable components which can rebuild themselves over and over again out of simple carbon and other raw elements will abound. They have to - that's what they do.
Computational devices which can program themselves, assemble copies of themselves and network like crazy will be the norm.
In his book, "the Diamond Age" Niel Stephenson paints a picture of life in the early days of nanotech, where diamond is the simplest of all structures to manufacture and most people have a home "matter compiler".
Public access terminals dispense simple food, clothing and shelter to the needy..
All this leads me to conclude that manufacturing of anything is a dead end industry. genetic engineering and cloning will remove the need for farming as mince beef is grown or assembles in vats and sold via networks of vending machines in the form of burgers. You may have to pay a small software license while it digests.
Law firms, banks, accountants as all dispensable as entire corporations wean themselves off human beings entirely. A typical multinational food company will not employ anyone, make anything but will be software vending information in a variety of forms. Even food will become part of the mediascape. You can see it starting already.
Children will be born online. Their first conscious experience, and their entire lives will be sharable, on-line networked. Why? Because of of their ancestors - one of our descendants - will have swallowed 50 ccs of ExtraNet which floods their body with nanotech network infrastructure. A weird sensation for people at first, but they'd get used to it. They'll have to. The idea would have been around for years before the real thing arrived. It will probably even go through a public beta test stage. :-)
A few months later that same person would install an applet which modified the genes of their sperm or egg cells so that ExtraNet is produced as part of their offsprings' blood stream.
By grafting the ExtraNet gene to plants and animals you get a very weird wired world indeed. Network paints, digital inks, online mice, rabbits and kittens will all be able to interact with toons in the 'real' world.
Our ability to deal with this morass of information will depend on our ability to understand the language of this new beast. Dogs, cats, mice and toons I imagine will have no problems. People too.
Toon Town will reign supreme. Bugs bunny could lead a march down rundle street (a dispute by ractors Equity ?) and it would not be outside anyone's real of possible experiences. Space jam and the like are warming us up to this now.
Warner Brothers, with their ongoing research into a-life (Cyberlife, creatures etc) and interactive graphical chat environments (The Palace) are already prepared for this. They know where our minds will be. The final scene from David Cronenberg's masterpiece Videodrome is not so surreal after all.
How the capitalist system adapts to a world where there is no capital and no-one's labour is required is yet to be seen. I embrace the 21st century and all who sail in her and will be very happy to answer questions over coffee.