TweetFollow Us on Twitter

December 92 - THE VETERAN NEOPHYTE

THE VETERAN NEOPHYTE

DIGITAL ZOOLOGY

DAVE JOHNSON

4 A. M. Friday still feels like Thursday. Five hours remain until the contest. Bean dip slowly dries around the rim of a jar, turning a darker, almost translucent brown. This corner of the table, the one nearest the center of the room, is littered with the strange and particular combination of plastic, paper, metal, glass, and organic debris that typifies the remains of junk food. The room, a large but nondescript meeting room with beige-painted cinder block walls, is bathed in fluorescent light, 60- cycle radiation painting the few remaining occupants a lovely whitish green.

A few of them still hunch over keyboards, pecking feverishly, squeezing the last few desperate instructions into their robots. Others sprawl on the floor around the test course, watching carefully and hopefully as their fragile creations, their little Lego and wire and motor golems, their tiny mind children, haltingly -- but autonomously -- negotiate their way toward the goal. The expressions on their faces are variously rapt, worried, and proud.

The scene is the early morning of the last day of Artificial Life III, a week-long scientific hoe-down that took place last June in Santa Fe. The hardy hackers in the cluttered room at the back of the building are entrants in a robot-building contest that will be run as part of the "Artificial 4H Show" beginning at 9A. M. Their robot creatures run the gamut from the eminently practical to the practically insane.

The insane ones, of course, are by far the more interesting. One, appropriately named Rob Quixote, has only a single wheel, and therefore must steer by rotating an oversized horizontal windmill-like contraption fastened to its head, effectively pushing against the air to turn itself. Another moves by a sort of spastic lurching; throwing its entire front section forward, it gains an awkward quarter inch, then gathers up its hindquarters for another throw. This one is so inefficient that it requires twice the usual number of batteries, and uses them up in a single run. Amazingly enough, though, it successfully traverses the course, albeit slowly and with much ineffectual thrashing.

"Artificial life," as a named discipline, appeared on the scientific scene relatively recently. The first conference happened in the fall of 1987, and gave joyous birth to this new field of scientific inquiry, or rather this new and rich confluence of many different fields. Scientists who had been working in isolation suddenly discovered others pursuing similar lines of investigation, and the meeting of minds was electric.

Artificial life is an attempt to create and study artificial systems -- that is, systems created by humans -- that mimic processes or exhibit behaviors usually associated only with living systems. Predictably, the primary medium that these systems are created on (in?) is computers; this is a field that depends heavily on technology to get its work done (they're doomed if electricity ever becomes unavailable). Also predictably, a large proportion of its devotees are biologists, especially theoretical biologists.

Why would biologists want to study artificial life? Don't they already have their hands full trying to figure out the real thing? Well, for one thing, there are a lot of experiments biologists would love to do that they simply can't: nature doesn't come with convenient levers and knobs, and you can never roll back time and try something over again. So if biologists can develop good models of biological phenomena, they can implement them on computers and run clean and tidy experiments that are repeatable, detailed, controlled, and manipulable down to the last detail. This is a far cry from the messy, inexact, unrepeatable real world, and for some biologists would be tantamount to scientific nirvana.

But there's another, larger reason for biologists to study artificial life. In the words of Chris Langton, self-described "midwife" of artificial life (he organized the first conferences and named the field), "Such systems can help us expand our understanding of life as itcould be. By allowing us to view the life that has evolved here on Earth in the larger context ofpossible  life, we may begin to derive a trulygeneral theoretical biology capable of making universal statements about life wherever it may be found and whatever it may be made of."

I like it.

When I read this I was hooked. Visions of bizarre, unknowable alien intelligences and strange, seething soups that cling and quiver and creep around filled my head. And here are real scientists hanging around seriously discussing it! This is some serious fun! And lots of different kinds of scientists are paying attention; biologists, mathematicians, physicists, chemists, robotocists, and computerists are all well represented at the conferences, with a sprinkling of philosophers, anthropologists, economists, and others. The gee-whiz factor hooked me, but the interdisciplinary thrust of artificial life reeled me in.

(In conversation people say "a -life." I've seen it written as Alife, A-life, alife, and a-life. I wanted to use alife, but people tended to pronounce it like "get a life," so I'll use a-life instead.)

Another appeal for me is the tacit approval of the "build it first, then study it" approach in a-life. This method of building things and learning things (stumbling around, really, butintelligent stumbling,directed stumbling) has always been my particular forte. The premise is that we don't need to completely understand something before we can build it or build a model of it, and that it's very often more instructive to get a crude version up and working immediately than to try to refine the thing completely before trying it out. By fumbling around and building things blindly, we can often learn a lot by virtue of the happy accidents that inevitably occur. And it'stons  more fun that way.

There were far too many interesting things at the conference to describe them all here. Instead I want to tell you about one particular talk that caused me to have a powerful "Aha!" experience (and Ilive for "Aha!" experiences). If you know something about evolution already, the following may not be news to you, but presumably most computer programmers don't study biology.

The talk dealt with Lamarckian evolution. Lamarck was a contemporary of Darwin who postulated that the things experienced by an organism during its lifetime could affect the traits handed down to the next generation. As an example, a Lamarckian might believe that proto-giraffes had to stretch their necks up to reach the leaves at the tops of the trees, and because of all the stretching, their descendants were born with longer necks. Unfortunately for Lamarck and his followers, this is rubbish.

It turns out that as far as biological evolution is concerned, Lamarckism is nonexistent: there was no such thing at work in the development of life on Earth. So my curiosity was piqued when I saw the title of this talk by David Ackley and Michael Littman: "A Case for Distributed Lamarckian Evolution." What, were they crazy? Talking Lamarck to all these modern scientists? (At the previous conference, Ackley had one of the few really amusing presentations, so of course I would have gone no matter what the topic, but this one looked particularly juicy.)

Ackley and Littman weren't trying to convince people that Lamarckian evolution had anything to do with life on earth. What they did instead was compare the efficiencies of the two types of evolution. (They created a simple evolution simulation, and then compared Darwinian and Lamarckian evolution in their abilities to find a solution to a particular problem.) Hey, this is after allartificial life, so if Lamarckian evolution works better, we can use it, right?

What they found was that when Lamarckian evolution was allowed to enter the picture -- when the things learned in one generation were at least partially passed on to the next -- the system was much, much better at solving the given problem. It consistently found better solutions faster in every single case they tried. This of course makes some intuitive sense. Rather than waiting for genetic shuffling to find a solution to the problem, the prior generation can point the current one in the right direction. So Lamarckian evolution is pretty much a great thing, evolutionarily speaking, because it gets you a lot further and it gets you there a lot faster. (Where it is exactly that you're going is a question for the philosophers; for the moment, let's just blithely assume that we reallydo want to getthere.) Their point was that as simulation builders we should think about using Lamarckian inheritance in our simulations, because it works so well. But this point reinforced something else that had been rolling around in my head.

There's an evolutionary premise that I initially learned about through reading an article by a robotocist named Hans Moravec in the first Artificial Life proceedings. I learned more about it in Richard Dawkins's bookThe Blind Watchmaker and in a fascinating book calledSeven Clues to the Origin of Life by a Glasgow chemist named Graham Cairns-Smith. This particular concept is called "genetic takeover."

According to this idea, one substance can gradually replace another as the carrier of genetic information. Cairns-Smith postulates that life began with replicating inorganic crystals -- clays, as a matter of fact -- and that a genetic takeover gradually occurred, with proteins and nucleic acids gaining in dominance until finally the original materials were no longer needed. Dawkins and Moravec (and many others) think that a genetic takeover is occurring now, with human culture taking over from nucleic acids as the evolving entity, though they differ in their candidates for the new "gene-equivalent."

Dawkins likes to speak about the "meme," a very useful term first coined in his bookThe Selfish Gene . A meme is an idea, really, or a piece of information. It is immaterial, and requires a material substrate of brains, books, computers, or other media to exist. But given that substrate, the parallels with genes are very good. Just like genes, memes replicate (we tell each other good ideas, or write them down for others), memes mutate (we don't always get it right in the telling), memes mate (ideas in combination often give birth to new ones), and memes compete for survival ("good" ideas stick around a long, long time, but "bad" ones die by not being passed on to anyone: mindshare is their means of existence).

Moravec, on the other hand, seems to be more interested in the evolution of machines, and speculates convincingly and entertainingly that our machines, our artifacts, will eventually become the dominant evolving entities on Earth. Science fiction, or science fact? I don't know -- there are compelling arguments both ways -- but in either case it makes for very good reading.

In any case, they think that perhaps here on Earth biological evolution is thoroughly obsolete, and almost despite myself I have to agree. Sure, it's still operating, but the evolution of human bodies has been completely outstripped by the evolution of human culture. Bodies evolve at an extremely slow pace, but culture evolves incredibly fast, and humans are having such a profound impact on the Earth that biology simply can't keep up. Look at the changes on Earth in the last millennium. Most of the species alive a thousand years ago have remained physically about the same, yet there's no question that the Earth has undergone a radical transformation, and primarily at the hands of humans, as a by- product of their culture. (You might hesitate to call the rampant, wanton destruction and boundless consumption of resources that Earth has suffered at the hands of humans "evolution," but remember that the word "evolution" doesnot  necessarily imply improvement.) But why is it going so fast? How come humans do this and other species don't?

One of the primary distinctions between human beings and their close animal relatives is language. Humans can communicate with abstract symbols, and their communications can be "fossilized" in time (that is, written down for later). Here comes the "Aha!" we've all been waiting for: this ability allows humans to engage in a form of Lamarckian evolution! The things we learn in our lifetimescan  be passed on to the next generation, though in a filtered sort of way. We can't change the way our offspring are built, but wecan change their behavior (teenagers notwithstanding). Other species do this to some extent, but humans are the unquestioned champs at shaping their offspring.

As you can see, a-life -- just like life itself -- is rife with philosophical conundrums and radical, thought-provoking concepts, and that's much of the reason I stay interested. But probably the biggest reason of all that I like a-life is hard to express, except by analogy: I get the same feeling peering through a glass screen into a computer world full of digital critters that I do peering through the bars of a cage at the zoo. The xenophile in me wants to see all the forms that life can take, and get to know the minds of every other being. I want to puzzle out the motivations behind a critter's behavior, and I love that shock of recognition I experience every time I look into an animal's eyes -- even the ones that are so alien, like birds and reptiles and fish. Again, it's this feeling that there are universal properties of life waiting to be discovered, properties that apply not only to life as it has evolved on Earth but to allpossible  life, including the digital variety.

Are any of these a-life explorations really alive? That's an energetic and ongoing debate among a- lifers, of course, and the answer ultimately depends on the definition you pick for the word "life." Rather than arguing whether metabolism is more necessary to life than reproduction, though, I like to duck the definition issue. I don't really care too much whether wecall them alive, I want to see if people react to themas if they're alive. I want to see that shock of recognition occur when people and digital organisms collide. (What if "they" recognize "us"?!) It's sort of the Turing Test approach for life: if it seems alive -- if people can't tell that it'snot  alive -- then no matter what we call it, people will treat it as if it's alive. That  I'd like to see.



RECOMMENDED READING

  • Artificial Life  by Steven Levy (Pantheon Books, 1992).
  • The Blind Watchmaker  by Richard Dawkins (W. W. Norton & Company, 1987).
  • The Selfish Gene  by Richard Dawkins (Oxford University Press, 1976).
  • Seven Clues to the Origin of Life   by A. G. Cairns-Smith (Cambridge University Press, 1985).
  • ZOTZ!  by Walter Karig (Rinehart & Company, Inc., 1947).

DAVE JOHNSON's mother recently moved across the country, and sent him a total of eight large cardboard boxes crammed with junk spanning his entire life that she didn't want cluttering her garage any more. Among his old school stuff was a report card from second grade that included a couple of N's, meaning "needs improvement." The N's were in the categories of "Is Prompt" and "Works Steadily." Here's a quote from his teacher, Mrs. Doris Short, that accompanied the report: "We've talked about being prompt, but it's always 'I'll finish tomorrow.'" This is strong evidence for the claim that personality is established early in life, and never changes. *

Dave welcomes feedback on his musings. He can be reached at JOHNSON.DK on AppleLink, dkj@apple.com on the Internet, or 75300,715 on CompuServe.*

 

Community Search:
MacTech Search:

Software Updates via MacUpdate

Airmail 3.3.2 - Powerful, minimal email...
Airmail is an mail client with fast performance and intuitive interaction. Support for iCloud, MS Exchange, Gmail, Google Apps, IMAP, POP3, Yahoo!, AOL, Outlook.com, Live.com. Airmail was designed... Read more
Numi 3.15.1 - Menu-bar calculator suppor...
Numi is a calculator that magically combines calculations with text, and allows you to freely share your computations. Numi combines text editor and calculator Support plain English. For example, '5... Read more
TextSoap 8.4.1 - Automate tedious text d...
TextSoap can automatically remove unwanted characters, fix up messed up carriage returns, and do pretty much anything else that we can think of to text. Save time and effort. Be more productive. Stop... Read more
TextSoap 8.4.1 - Automate tedious text d...
TextSoap can automatically remove unwanted characters, fix up messed up carriage returns, and do pretty much anything else that we can think of to text. Save time and effort. Be more productive. Stop... Read more
Backblaze 4.3.0.44 - Online backup servi...
Backblaze is an online backup service designed from the ground-up for the Mac. With unlimited storage available for $5 per month, as well as a free 15-day trial, peace of mind is within reach with... Read more
Numi 3.15 - Menu-bar calculator supports...
Numi is a calculator that magically combines calculations with text, and allows you to freely share your computations. Numi combines text editor and calculator Support plain English. For example, '5... Read more
EtreCheck 3.3.3 - For troubleshooting yo...
EtreCheck is an app that displays the important details of your system configuration and allow you to copy that information to the Clipboard. It is meant to be used with Apple Support Communities to... Read more
BusyContacts 1.1.8 - Fast, efficient con...
BusyContacts is a contact manager for OS X that makes creating, finding, and managing contacts faster and more efficient. It brings to contact management the same power, flexibility, and sharing... Read more
TunnelBear 3.0.14 - Subscription-based p...
TunnelBear is a subscription-based virtual private network (VPN) service and companion app, enabling you to browse the internet privately and securely. Features Browse privately - Secure your data... Read more
Apple Final Cut Pro X 10.3.4 - Professio...
Apple Final Cut Pro X is a professional video editing solution.Completely redesigned from the ground up, Final Cut Pro adds extraordinary speed, quality, and flexibility to every part of the post-... Read more

Latest Forum Discussions

See All

The best new games we played this week
We were quite busy this week. A bunch of big mobile games launched over the past few days, alongside a few teeny surprises. There're lots of quality games to load your phone with. We've gone and picked out five of our favorites for the week. [... | Read more »
Magikarp Jump beginner's guide
Magikarp Jump is a mystifying little game. Part Tamagotchi, part idle clicker, there's not a whole lot of video game there, per se, but for some reason we can't help coming back to it again and again. Your goal is to train up a little Magikarp to... | Read more »
Goat Simulator PAYDAY (Games)
Goat Simulator PAYDAY 1.0 Device: iOS Universal Category: Games Price: $4.99, Version: 1.0 (iTunes) Description: ** IMPORTANT - SUPPORTED DEVICES **iPhone 4S, iPad 2, iPod Touch 5 or better Goat Simulator: Payday is the most... | Read more »
GRID Autosport delayed until autumn
Sorry mobile racing fans -- GRID Autosport has been delayed a few months. The game is now expected to launch this fall on iOS. Feral Interactive announced that they wanted more time to work on the game's UI and overall performance before launching... | Read more »
Zombie Gunship Survival Beginner's...
The much anticipated Zombie Gunship Survival is here. In this latest entry in the Zombie Gunship franchise, you're tasked with supporting ground troops and protecting your base from the zombie horde. There's a lot of rich base building fun, and... | Read more »
Mordheim: Warband Skirmish (Games)
Mordheim: Warband Skirmish 1.2.2 Device: iOS Universal Category: Games Price: $3.99, Version: 1.2.2 (iTunes) Description: Explore the ruins of the City of Mordheim, clash with other scavenging warbands and collect Wyrdstone -... | Read more »
Mordheim: Warband Skirmish brings tablet...
Legendary Games has just launched Mordheim: Warband Skirmish, a new turn-based action game for iOS and Android. | Read more »
Magikarp Jump splashes onto Android worl...
If you're tired ofPokémon GObut still want something to satisfy your mobilePokémon fix,Magikarp Jumpmay just do the trick. It's out now on Android devices the world over. While it looks like a simple arcade jumper, there's quite a bit more to it... | Read more »
Purrfectly charming open-world RPG Cat Q...
Cat Quest, an expansive open-world RPG from former Koei-Tecmo developers, got a new gameplay trailer today. The video showcases the combat and exploration features of this feline-themed RPG. Cat puns abound as you travel across a large map in a... | Read more »
Jaipur: A Card Game of Duels (Games)
Jaipur: A Card Game of Duels 1.0 Device: iOS Universal Category: Games Price: $1.99, Version: 1.0 (iTunes) Description: ** WARNING: iPad 2, iPad Mini 1 & iPhone 4S are NOT compatible. ** *** Special Launch Price for a limited... | Read more »

Price Scanner via MacPrices.net

Memorial Day savings: 13-inch Touch Bar MacBo...
B&H Photo has the 2016 Apple 13″ Touch Bar MacBook Pros in stock today and on sale for up to $150 off MSRP. Shipping is free, and B&H charges NY & NJ sales tax only: - 13″ 2.9GHz/512GB... Read more
Apple refurbished 13-inch MacBook Airs availa...
Apple has Certified Refurbished 2016 13″ MacBook Airs available starting at $849. An Apple one-year warranty is included with each MacBook, and shipping is free: - 13″ 1.6GHz/8GB/128GB MacBook Air: $... Read more
Apple restocks refurbished 11-inch MacBook Ai...
Apple has Certified Refurbished 11″ MacBook Airs (the latest models recently discontinued by Apple), available for up to $170 off original MSRP. An Apple one-year warranty is included with each... Read more
12-inch 1.2GHz Retina MacBooks on sale for up...
B&H has 12″ 1.2GHz Retina MacBooks on sale for up to $150 off MSRP. Shipping is free, and B&H charges NY & NJ sales tax only: - 12″ 1.2GHz Space Gray Retina MacBook: $1449.99 $150 off... Read more
15-inch 2.7GHz Silver Touch Bar MacBook Pro o...
MacMall has the 15-inch 2.7GHz Silver Touch Bar MacBook Pro (MLW82LL/A) on sale for $2569 as part of their Memorial Day sale. Shipping is free. Their price is $230 off MSRP. Read more
Free Tread Wisely Mobile App Endorsed By Fath...
Just in time for the summer driving season, Cooper Tire & Rubber Company has announced the launch of a new Tread Wisely mobile app. Designed to promote tire and vehicle safety among teens and... Read more
Commercial Notebooks And Detachable Tablets W...
Worldwide shipments of personal computing devices (PCDs), comprised of traditional PCs (a combination of desktop, notebook, and workstations) and tablets (slates and detachables), are forecast to... Read more
Best value this Memorial Day weekend: Touch B...
Apple has Certified Refurbished 2016 15″ and 13″ MacBook Pros available for $230 to $420 off original MSRP. An Apple one-year warranty is included with each model, and shipping is free: - 15″ 2.6GHz... Read more
13-inch MacBook Airs on sale for up to $130 o...
Overstock.com has 13″ MacBook Airs on sale for up to $130 off MSRP including free shipping: - 13″ 1.6GHz/128GB MacBook Air (sku MMGF2LL/A): $869.99 $130 off MSRP - 13″ 1.6GHz/256GB MacBook Air (sku... Read more
2.8GHz Mac mini available for $973 with free...
Adorama has the 2.8GHz Mac mini available for $973, $16 off MSRP, including a free copy of Apple’s 3-Year AppleCare Protection Plan. Shipping is free, and Adorama charges sales tax in NY & NJ... Read more

Jobs Board

*Apple* Retail - Multiple Positions - Apple,...
Job Description: Sales Specialist - Retail Customer Service and Sales Transform Apple Store visitors into loyal Apple customers. When customers enter the store, Read more
*Apple* Media Products - Commerce Engineerin...
Apple Media Products - Commerce Engineering Manager Job Number: 57037480 Santa Clara Valley, California, United States Posted: Apr. 18, 2017 Weekly Hours: 40.00 Job Read more
*Apple* Media Products - Commerce Engineerin...
Apple Media Products - Commerce Engineering Manager Job Number: 57037480 Santa Clara Valley, California, United States Posted: Apr. 18, 2017 Weekly Hours: 40.00 Job Read more
Best Buy *Apple* Computing Master - Best Bu...
**509643BR** **Job Title:** Best Buy Apple Computing Master **Location Number:** 001482- Apple Valley-Store **Job Description:** **What does a Best Buy Apple Read more
*Apple* Media Products - Commerce Engineerin...
Apple Media Products - Commerce Engineering Manager Job Number: 57037480 Santa Clara Valley, California, United States Posted: Apr. 18, 2017 Weekly Hours: 40.00 Job Read more
All contents are Copyright 1984-2011 by Xplain Corporation. All rights reserved. Theme designed by Icreon.