Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Artificial Life

I’ve been a huge fan of artificial life for as long as I can remember. In junior high school, I wrote a computer program in BASIC to compute generations of The Game of Life as defined by John Conway in a 1970 issue of Scientific American. The CDC mainframe at CSUN would display a snapshot of the evolving population of cellular automata every 100 generations. I’d see surprising results like a glider-gun spitting out gliders that would slam into beehives, obliterating them. It didn’t take much to impress me back then, but just the thought of creating new and innovative a-life populations inside the computer was enough to keep me coming back for more.

Another interesting simulation game that I found very compelling was included in Richard Dawkins 1986 book The Blind Watchmaker. The Blind Watchmaker applet is easy to use and demonstrates very effectively how random mutation followed by non-random selection can lead to interesting, complex forms. These forms are called "biomorphs" (a word invented by Desmond Morris) and are visual representations of a set of “genes.”

Then in 1992, Maxis came out with the game SIM LIFE (see inset image), and I was hooked again. This time, the “genetic playground” simulation game was based more on real biology concepts where you could explore the interactions of life forms and environments. You could define a new organism and its genetic make-up, along with flora and fauna and specify environmental variables such as temperature, terrain, predators, etc. I would define a new organism and leave my computer on overnight running the simulation. In the morning, I would be pleased if I saw things running around the screen because it meant the populations I defined had flourished.

In the years that followed, I would follow the artificial intelligence community closely, especially expert systems. I dreamed of capturing my own “essence” inside of a computer one day as an expert system so that I could interact with myself and maybe conduct a Turing Test (remember Blade Runner) on the simulation of myself. Wild huh?

Constructing computer-based life is one thing, but creating actual biological artificial life is another. On Friday, May 21, 2010, famed molecular biologist J. Craig Venter announced in the journal Science that he and his team created the first cell controlled entirely by DNA assembled from laboratory chemicals. He described the cell as “the first self-replicating species we’ve had on the planet whose parent is a computer.” My, we’ve come a long way from my days playing with Game of Life simulations!

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