Some Thoughts on Artificial Life

There is an aspect of human curiousity that is fascinated by control - but not too much control. An environment over which one exerts no control is difficult to deal with and frustrating. A completely controlled environment is boring. But an environment where you can control some factors, but aren't sure of the results - that can be interesting, something maybe we can learn from. Its like a little slice of that great big wide world we live in, but one that we can wrap our heads around and figure out what's going on.

There is a similiar impulse at work driving researchers to study artificial life systems and game players of such titles as SimCity and the Sims. To create or manipulate tiny models that correspond to patterns we see around us. To know the paramaters that spark that behavior - we can change them and alter them. But there is no guarantee of "success", whatever that may be, and very little predictability about the outcome. Just guesses.

Success and winning isn't what we are really after though. What we are craving is an understanding of the complex, well-nigh impossible to articulate algorithm that seems to underly, well, everything, but that thing called "life" most particularly.

Humans have been questioning their origins for a long time. Its kind of hard to say when this started, (the origin of human consciousness is a different discussion altogether) but the question has been asked at least as long as we have exhibited the behavioral traits we know call "culture."

Who knows when the question "What is life?" was first asked. We seem to know it when we see it - most of the time anyway. We know that we have life, that animals have life, that plants have life. But when does this life leave these physical manifestations? And what confines it to a physical object anyway? Most of our definitions of life -- movement, self-perpetuation, etc... -- seem to exist in entities or phenomena we know not to be alive -- corporations, the weather...

Bruce Sterling defines the study of artifical life in an article for THE MAGAZINE OF FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION, December 1992.

"The new scientific field of study called "Artificial Life" can be defined as "the attempt to abstract the logical form of life from its material manifestation."

"So far, so good. But what is life?

"The basic thesis of "Artificial Life" is that "life" is best understood as a complex systematic process. "Life" consists of relationships and rules and interactions. "Life" as a property is potentially separate from actual living creatures."

Watching the unfolding processes of "The Game of Life" or the flocking behavior of "Boids" it is not hard to see the life-like patterns that occur. Individual objects or entities are given simple sets of behavioral instructions. These simple interactions, when combined again and again, lead to seemingly chaotic patterns that in the middle-term are almost impossible to predict.

Since physics teaches us that we all might be composed of the same basic material and set of rules, how much more of a leap is it hypothesis that simple sets of rules, taken to a more macro scale and applied to groups of individual entities, can create complex systemic processes that might emulate, and even explain, that which we almost haphazardly call life?

December 2001

The Game of Life
Bruce Sterling on Artificial Life
Boids archive: GaTech