by John Lobell
Artificial life (AL) is a concept pioneered by Christopher Langton. Langton starts with the cellular automata (CA) that were originated by John von Neumann and Stanislaw Ulam, developed by John Conway in his Game of Life, and widely promoted by Stephen Wolfram in A New Kind of Science.
Langton distinguishes between those CA whose cells die out in a few generations, or that produce boringly repetitive patterns, and those that seem chaotic. The boundary between these two kinds of CA he terms the “edge of chaos,” and sees in the CA that lie in this realm many features shared by biological life. He refers to such phenomena as “artificial life.” This AL can reside in its own computational worlds, has many of the features that define biological life, including evolution, and can emulate social communities.
Langton sees biological life as a special case of a broader category of all possible life, and seeks to understand the underlying principles of this broader category. In addition, by studying AL, Langton hopes to discover things about life that are not immediately apparent by looking at biological life.
From John Brockman’s The third Culture: “Christopher G. Langton has spent years studying evolution through the prism of computer programs. His work has focused on abstracting evolution from that upon which it acts. He has created “nature” in the computer, and his work has given rise to a new discipline called AL, or artificial life. This is the study of “virtual ecosystems,” in which populations of simplified “animals” interact, reproduce, and evolve. Langton takes a bottom-up approach to the study of life, intelligence, and consciousness which resonates with the work of Marvin Minsky, Roger Schank, and Daniel C. Dennett. By vitalizing abstraction, Langton hopes to illuminate things about life that are not apparent in looking at life itself.”
For an overview, look at Langton and Artificial Life on Wikipedia.
For the concept of “Edge of Chaos,” see:
Following the links from this page both backwards and forward will give you a tutorial in CA, a series of Java applets, and an application with a slider you can play with to explore this edge of chaos. This material is by David J. Eck at Hobart and William Smith Colleges Geneva, New York. His faculty page is:
For a discussion of Artificial Life by Christopher Langton with commentary by Stuart Kaufman, J. Doyne Farmer, Richard Dawkins, W. Daniel Hillis, Daniel C. Dennett, Francisco Varela, and Murray Gell-Mann, see: “A Dynamical Pattern,” Chapter 21 from John Brockman’s The Third Culture. It is on Brockman’s Edge web site at:
(Thanks John for this ever-growing resource.)
But there is something else needed here.
Langton and others remain in their computers. AL can simulate many of the things biological life can do, but in Generative Genomics, we are looking for something more. We come from a world of making, of constructing buildings and fabricating things. Our interest is in systems that can fabricate. As I have written elsewhere, if you wanted to make an oak tree, you would not assemble it from components, and you would not be satisfied with using fractals to generate one inside a computer. You would introduce rules (the oak tree genome) into a supportive environment and let it make itself. We look forward to getting outside of the computer and eventually making computer chips, cell phones, etc. through similar rule-based methods.