Mark Ward


The Startling World of Artificial Life

Pan Books 1999

pg 272

KEYWORDS: Alife - informational bases of life - dynamics of information - cellular automata - artificial chemistry - organization - ALife movement - life is a dynamic, self-organizing process that relies on information to keep it intact and developing - consciousness - brains - thoughts - electrochemical processes - thinking can be explained by its relation to physical activity - physical metaphors - intelligence

....the key insight that Alife is helping to establish is that the informational bases of life can be abstracted away from the bodies we find it in and lose nothing in the process. This insight shows that we are right to think that we are more than just the sum of our parts, but it also reveals the slightly less comfortable fact that so is every other living thing on the planet. This is not meant to be the first step in establishing a latter day vitalism because there is nothing mysterious about information or the ways in which the dynamics of information come to dominate. It cannot be distilled and put in a jar, it can only be seen in action. To see it at work you need only look all around you.

ALife, via work with cellular automata and artificial chemistry is showing that the trends of self-maintenance and reproduction become established at the lowest levels. From this chemical base these trends have managed to create the living world. The implication is that humans are no longer individually special but only as special as everything else around them.

What is important about life, in its real and artificial incarnations, is the organization of the parts not the properties of the parts themselves. Because of this it is possible to study how this organization emerges on computer. Without this convenience the study of life would be a much more difficult enterprise. With it we can start to unravel the conditions under which life arrives and thrives confident that what we are seeing on a computer screen resembles the behaviour of living organisms. Everything that is alive shares these properties.

Some ALife researchers make strong claims about their robotic or software creations. They claim that these creations are not synthetic but in fact are a new form of life that has its own imperatives. If they are correct then this creates a problem. It means that they are engaged in digital natural­ism, the study of new species, rather than simply trying to mimic life so that we can better understand the creatures that we share this planet with. So far the ALife movement has not reached a consensus on this point. Some even resist being identified with the ALife movement or deny that there is a movement at all. It is time that the term ALife is preferred more by journalists than by scientists and research­ers but it is a usefnl catch-all phrase for the work that is taking place.

This work by ALife researchers shows that life is a dynamic, self-organizing process that relies on information to keep it intact and developing.- Information dynamics comes to dominate at a criticial phase transition - a cusp on either side of which information flows too freely or is frozen and cannot be used. Life strives to keep itself at this point.

ALife research is helping to demystify the world. It shows that life is everywhere and that the forces that shape living things are the same throughout the world. Once we realize that humanity is one point in a landscape of possibilities we also gain insights into other issues, such as consciousness, that previously have seemed intractable.

Although every living thing shares some characteristics there are still widespread differences between separate species. Differences in brain size and the mental life experienced by those creatures with larger brains are very diffficult to explain. Clearly humans exist as another point on a continuum of brain functions, but there also seems to be a qualitative difference between the kind of mental experience I possess compared to that of a fly or a dog.

Obviously our brains do the same kinds of things, thoughts happen in the same electro-chemical way. There is no need to appeal to quantum effects to explain what is happening in the brain. Also it is clear that intelligent behaviour is not limited to humans. All living things make intelligent choices about what to do, it is only the kinds of things that they think about and the behaviours that it leads to that differ. Even if some of those choices were made many generations ago and now are more reasonably called instincts. Despite this it does seem to be the case that something else is going on inside human brains. But ALife can help here too.

The work of Rodney Brooks and other robot makers is establishing that a lot of our thinking can be explained by its relation to physical activity we have indulged in. Clues to this can be found in language, which is peppered with physical metaphors that make their point by establishing a link with reality and the kinds of things that we do with our bodies. This removes the need for a lot of the baroque mental furniture that AI researchers have previously assumed we needed to get on with our day.

If everything relates to or is abstracted from physical behaviour there is no need to rely on symbolic structures or centrally held models of the world to explain thought. Philosophers like P.F. Strawson advanced a similar argument.

This leads to a slightly worrying conclusion that there is no intelligence or knowledge within our brains. All that we are is the sum of our experience and behaviour. What we know is based on what we did and is only meaningful in relation to everything else that we, or other people, have done.

We impute intelligence to a creature when we see it moving around purposefully and coping well with the problems that the world throws at it. I suggest that the same is true when we talk of consciousness in humans. It is something that we impute on the basis of behaviour even though we have little or no evidence for believing that it is actually any kind of stuff that can be seen, poked and pointed to.

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