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Creation: Life And How to Make It 199

Sue Wilcox has been writing and speaking for years about ALife (Artifical Life), virtual worlds, and other technologies that define (and question) the fringes of life. The seemingly intractable question of whether there can be artificial life doesn't seem to bother Wilcox one whit: she asserts that there can be, and is. Here she reviews a book on making life, but not as we know it. "The author's challenge to himself," she says, "was to make life within a computer, not just unchanging, low-level life, but intelligent life. In this book he describes how to do it from first principles." (Read on for more.)

Creation: Life and How to Make it
author Steve Grand
pages 224
publisher Weidenfeld and Nicolson
rating 8.5
reviewer Sue Wilcox
ISBN 0-297-64391-6
summary The ideas behind artificial life, explained for a non-expert audience.

If God wrote a book about the way he put the universe together, why the laws of physics were the way they were, how he came to design humans and all the other life forms on Earth, and why they are interdependent with each other and with the planet, it would be a lot like Steve Grand's Creation: Life and how to make it.

Steve is a self confessed digital god -- and he can prove it: there are over a million lifeforms created by him running around in computers all over the world. They live in their own world of Albia within the computer game Creatures. These are not the run-of-the-mill scripted non-player-characters common in computer games. These little creatures aren't simply programmed to behave: their behavior emerges from the way they are. They are artificial life -- ALife.

This is a lightly written but mind-bendingly deep book. When you realize you have been smooth talked into abandoning the last fifty years of AI research and development along with the majority of current thinking on ALife you know the Grand philosophy has gotten into your blood.

Creation isn't just about the inhabitants of a game; it's about existence, the nature of life, and perhaps more important to humans, the nature of intelligence. What is a conscious mind, and can machines have one too?

This is not a book about exactly how to write the code behind Alife; instead it's about how to think about both simulations and actual living organisms, so that there's some point to writing the code.

Explaining how to think about the world, starting with understanding subatomic particles, then moving onto items of greater complexity -- atoms, then molecules, then autocatalytic networks, self-reproducing systems, adaptive systems, intelligence and mind -- is something Steve is very good at. It must come from all the thinking he does. He says that sitting in a darkened silent room and just thinking is one of his favorite occupations. It's left him with an almost Buddhist sense of detachment from reality as most people conceive of the world.

He's pushing for a paradigm shift in our view of reality, and like others before him who've tried that -- Copernicus, Gallileo, Newton, and Einstein -- he's finding it hard work standing the world on its head. But as with his predecessors once the ground has moved under your feet the new place you're standing seems completely right and obvious. It's a new way of seeing that is vital to continued progress.

If there has to be a God, I wouldn't mind letting Steve have a go at the job -- as long as he isn't answerable to another marketing department controlling what his creatures look like. Those cutesy Norns -- ugghh!

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"Creation - Life and how to make it" by Steve Grand

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  • by Anonymous Coward
    I feel that this is too simple a brush off. Many definitions made vague enough could allow you too fit any half arsed theory to any observably repeatable thing (like life). A theory must not only hang heavily on a definition it IS A DEFINITION.

    In the fields of AI and ALife (amongst others) this kind of philosophers trap can lead to a whole lot of not doing anything at all and should generally be taken with a dose of salt!

    That aside I applaud Steve Grand's work and have (mostly, haveing met a few!) respect for people still asking these kinds of fundamental questions whilst I code `new mousetraps` for cash.

    Carlos Fandango
  • I also enjoyed Heiserman's books. I built some simple robots "back in the day" when those books were still in print. I have a copy of the machine intelligence one at the very least, I think I have one of the others as well. (not for sale, tho!)

    I spent quite a bit of time as a teen playing with MI. Was alot of fun, even tho the computing power I had at my disposal was a wopping 16K CoCo (later a 64K CoCo, the 256K bank switched, but that's for another discussion). It might be fun to break out my notes and play w/it some more now that the Palm Vx I have is more powerful!

    I have no idea where Heiserman went, but if he did anything interesting it should be out there, either on the web or in Gopher space. I think I'll have a look later tonight. I'll report back if I find anythin!

    If your map and the terrain differ,
    trust the terrain.
  • does anyone know what happened to Mr. Heiserman and his robots?

    I think he founded Cyberdyne Systems and was contracted by the Government to build the SkyNet project. I expect great things from their T-9000 model.
  • Probably the best intro to the subject is Steven Levy's Aritifial Life: The Quest for a New Creation []. Getting old, but still relevant.
  • "Attached to this, and more importantly is the fact that informational simulations HAVE NO CAUSAL POWERS! Having no physical existance, they cannot cause or affect anything except what is formally defined for them in the simulation."

    So, how is this any different from us? We can only affect things that are formally defined for our own existence. I cannot move something which does not exist.

    If I program a nice red bouncy ball object for my artificial creatures to play with and they go about pushing it around all by themselves simply because it triggers a "fun" response in some code someplace (there was no directly coded 'play_with_red_ball' function), how is this any different from Real Life(TM)? I may pick up a basketball and bounce it around simply because I find it fun. Not because anyone told me to do it. In the same way that the AI creatures caused the ball to move simply because they "wanted" to, I caused a real ball to move because I "wanted" to. That seems very causal to me.

    As far as I can tell, you're just as guilty of using "confusion and elaborate talk" and "intellectual slight-of-hand" to make us all believe it simply can't be done because you say so. I fail to see how this comment is proof of anything other than you having not read the book. (I did, BTW)

    Also, Grand doesn't propose that we make simulations of life. In fact, that's exactly what he says the more traditional AI research is doing wrong. He suggests that the only way to make artificial life is to let it happen itself on its own terms. So, he simulates a very simple "world" which has basic rules (similar to our own) like gravity and such. And he then places his creatures into it. Instead of trying to simulate intelligence or actions in the way we experience them, he instead lets the creatures see their "life" from their own point of view. The idea is that as far as the creature is concerned (if it could be concerned at all :-), there is no outside world to be simulated in. This is basically how we function since we are constrained to exist within our own universe.

    I think you have fallen into the trap of not wanting to think outside the box. Who says that the meaning of life is *required* to have causal power in OUR universe? If it can cause change in it's own universe, then that seems to be good enough since that's all we do (as far as anyone knows). Just because our universe may be the container of this virtual universe doesn't mean that you can escape your reality. Is there any reason not to think that perhaps our own universe exists inside of a larger one? How could we ever find out? And does it matter? This is the same reasoning the author used when he got into particle physics and other strange topics. It was not to create a simulation of our universe, but to use that knowledge to create a simpler sub-universe in which his creatures could live.
  • They're reproducing cells *within* their body.
  • the simplest thing would be to have it be the the first post to add partners to any nytimes link. it might take a while but one karama point at a time would add up.
  • It's not even listed on Amazon,, fatbrain. Please, book reviewers, give us rudimentary information about a book's availability.
  • Early on, I got into AL, back when I was in middle school. Ever since then, I've been programming little guys to live out in their worlds. The interesting thing is how it has affected me philosophically. For example, I believe in the existance of natural laws. The reason is not because of some sort of magical force making them be, but that there are certain behaviors that naturally emerge from the system. Amongst humans, we all act a certain way because we are equal, more or less. Of course, as humans evolved, there were different levels of humans living at the same time, so we developed power structures that have made it through to this day. If only we could throw off these artificial laws, the world would be a much better place.

    AL has also led me to be an anarchist. To me, anarchy is the perfect system in which everything will optimize and everyone will be happy.
    Anything else is a desperate attempt to optimize that, at best, might work for a few seconds until something changes. Anarchy is liquid and quick to change, while archies are slow and ridged and unable to adapt to rapidly changing situations.

    I often have a hard time understanding how other people can miss such obvious truths. My best guess has been a simple lack of knowledge. Hopefully, this book and maybe a wider exposure to AL will change people's minds.
  • I searched on both Amazon and Powell's with no luck...

  • The problem with causality, as I anderstand it, is that (most) physicists believe that the description of nature (at subatomic level) given by current quantum physics is (reasonably) complete. Specifically, that a particle has no location, but instead only the probability distribution curve/wave of a location.

    But when the particle is observed, it is found at a specific place. However, without a _causal_ reason. Admittedly, thats sounds pretty strange.

    The following page looks like a reasonably good introduction:
    Quantum Primer [] ( html)

    Quotes of the relevant parts:

    "Q13. Exactly what is it that is "waving"?

    We pointed out earlier that a wave is a change that varies with location in a periodic, repeating way. What kind of a change do the crests and hollows of a "matter wave" trace out? The answer is that the wave represents the value of a quantity whose square is a measure of the probability of finding the particle in that particular location. In other words, what is "waving" is the value of a mathematical probability function.

    Q14. What is the uncertainty principle?

    In 1927, Werner Heisenberg proposed that certain pairs of properties of a particle cannot simultaneously have exact values. In particular, the position and the momentum of a particle have associated with them uncertainties x and p given by [...]

    As with the de Broglie particle wavelength, this has practical consequences only for electrons and other particles of very small mass. It is very important to understand that these "uncertainties" are not merely limitations related to experimental error or observational technique, but instead they express an underlying fact that Nature does not allow a particle to possess definite values of position and momentum at the same time. This principle (which would be better described by the term "indeterminacy" than "uncertainty") has been thoroughly verified and has far-reaching practical consequences which extend to chemical bonding and molecular structure.

    Q15. Is the uncertainty principle consistent with particle waves?

    Yes; either one really implies the other. [...]

  • So the string of bits is still there, but it isn't doing anything

    When looking at the complete "mathematical equation" (the complete computer program, which includes the AI), then, after "loosing interest", the data comprising the AI no longer exists.

    More precisely: The "equation" (complete computer program) that includes the AI is logically identical to the one that has the AI eliminated.

    E.g., if a Java program cuts the last reference to an object ("loses interest", now and forever), then the Java virtual machine will simplify the equation. There is no recovery possible (otherwise it would be illegal to simplify the equation).

    Our reality was not always the way it is now, how do we know it won't suddenly smash down to one particle?

    This would be modifying the object (us). There is no logical contradiction then, since killing someone by modifying him is easy :)
    In my scenario, the object/AI is not modified in any way. The outside is modified (it cuts the data flow from the object/AI). This is killing someone without changing his state (which seems logically contradictory).

    How does any of this even relate to intelligence?

    Interesting question :) From my point of view it relates to a very strict but common definition of artificial intelligence: An AI can be all what a human person can be.
    Another conclusion from the scenario is: For AIs, existence and nonexistence is the same.

  • A program is, regardless of its size, is a purely mathematical/logical formula/expression.

    Computers simply process precisely defined instructions, they do not think.

    There arise some logical problems if we assume that a human personality also simply is a purely mathematical/logical formula/expression.
  • How odd; I actually got an intelligent response on Slashdot...

    Well, Slashdot surely is not the perfect place for such discussions.

    Your point that an artificial being can only exist if its host computer takes an interest in it is valid, but it applies to humans also. We cannnot live, and cannot be considered self aware, if our bodies do not support us in some way.

    Modifying the support function of (our physical) body would effectively be a modification of the state of the object/person/self awareness, or its conciousness. This differs from the scenario I painted, since there the state of the AI is not modified in any way. Lets just assume that the AI has not input data channel from the outside, just an output data channel. No state change from the outside is possible then.

    You also make another big leap. You just assume that anything that "can intentionally be killed without outside influence to it, at a specific time, and even without that 'artificial being' being able to notice any difference" is not self aware. Why not? Certainly it is not self aware after bring killed, but then again neither are we.

    The interesting question is: Can something be equivalent to a human person, if its complete state, when the being does exist, is exactly the same, as when the being does not exist?

    The problem is, the word "killed" does not really seem to make sense if the state of the object is not altered (which is impossible anyways if there is no input data delivered to this object/subexpression).

    Furthermore, this artificial being's state is changed if you consider the entire computer system as a part of that being.

    Yes, however, the computer may hold all kinds of additional objects, and we can isolate these from each other and the outside, and just leave some specific data connections in place. We have different beings within the computer then.

    Of course, one could still state that anything, which is connected by information links, has to be viewed as parts of one entity/being. However, since the data link to the outside world is required, we would have to include this, too, and probably would end up with the entity "universe" then. This likely would lead to some kind of "information based pantheism".

  • Please see my other answer a (few minutes ago, "being digital has problems").

    But regarding the subatomic level, physicists are pretty much sure that on this level predictability and causality do not exist. All what the (well proven) theory allows to exist, are probability distributions for the observation of specific properties of subatomic particles (like location, speed, etc.).

  • The free will issue is one of the questionable but inevitable conclusions of the idea that computer programs can be alive, or that human conciousness can be the product of a computer program.

    Another such conclusion is that humans then are machines that are completely defined by an initial state and the subsequent input data.

    This effectively means that a human is identical to a static string of bits of limited size (which simply contains initial state + subsequent input data). This surely looks philosophically interesting.

    So, we have the "string of bits" in the computer, or, alternatively an "intelligent" subsystem that creates that string of bits "live" from outside input.

    The specific problem here is (beyond others), that with this picture we have no handle to reality. This string of bits is only "real" relative to the computer it is stored.

    The "string of bits" can only exist if there is an outside interest in it. Because, by inherent necessity of computer mathemathics/logic, for the state of that "string of bits", its existence and nonexistence are identical if the computer loses the "interest" in it.

    "Losing interest", for a computer, means deleting the last reference to the data object (think Java). Now, in computer logic, the object which represented the "artificial intelligent being", can be removed without modifying the meaning of the overall formula/expression.

    The result is: An "artificial intelligent being" can only exist as long as there is an outside interest in it (like a Java reference to the object). As soon as this "interest" vanishes, existence and nonexistence become logically identical.

    Another logical problem here is that an "artificial intelligence" can, as shown above, brought from existence into nonexistence without changing its state (from the outside, we dont change a single bit of the objects state).

    Should we call something a person, if it can intentionally be killed without outside influence to it, at a specific time, and even without that "artificial being" being able to notice any difference?

    Not only that it cannot notice a difference, there effectively is no difference for the "being", as its own state was not changed at all.
  • Why bother arguing about a definition everybody makes up for himself? `Alive' it something completely made up by humans and since there's no common definition, everybody has their own.

    Now why would you want to bother trying to talk a household thermostat into a definition which you just make up on the fly? There's no point in saying `If a define A as being that, i can talk B into being A! Isn't that great?' No it isn't. There's no use. No offense to meant to you by the way; It's just that my Philosophy classes have learnt me just one thing: there's a lot of crap in Philosophy (but some good things as well).

  • You're jumping to conclusions there.. have you actually read the book.

    Just because the reviewer states that the book lays out the reductionist explanation for the emergence of life/intelligence, doesn't mean that the author believes that is the way to create it artificially.

    In fact, given that adaptive systems are mentioned, it would appear that the author is very much aware of complexity/emergence. Let's face it, one doesn't craft AI bots out of molecules even if we believe that's the desired approach.. one builds them to be adaptive and exhibit certain behaviors - not very reductionist, eh?

    I guess you were just shooting for an "insightful" karma troll?
  • Wouldn't the opposite of reductionist be emergent, rather than functional? Functionality is the goal rather than the means of achieving it.

    If one is approaching something like this at the level of adaptive systems (I havn't read the book either, so this is just a premis), then surely that implies that you're putting together a bunch of lower level behaviors that you hope will provide the adaptability you're hoping for. The actual sum total behaviour is emergent, not designed in, even if you crafted the lower level building blocks to have certain synergies with each other.

    A reductionist approach would seem to imply a reductionist hierarchy of modules resulting in well defined top level behavior. Perhaps it's a grey line, but if all the behaviors are programmed in rather than emergent, then that doesn't seem very "adaptive".

  • suck his balls while she's at it?

    this has to be one of the most retarded 'reviews' i've ever read.

    jesus christ, it's just some woman gushing about some guy. i have no more reason to believe either of them knows anything than i did at the start of reading the review (which means the review was totally unsuccessful.)

    comparing this guy to einstein, galileo, copernicus, etc. is laughable.

    i think i'm gonna go vomit now.

    (moderators: this is a good post, mark it up.)
  • HaltingProblemNot (HPN) is interesting, but I do not like it for one reason. What HPN is doing is first waiting for HaltingProblem (HP) to give its answer and then prove it wrong by doing differently. In other words, it asks HP to foretell a changeable future which it itself has control over. To me this is breaking the rules.

    So let us allow HP to break the rules a little bit. If I construct HP to predict the ansver, but never return it to HPN, I will force HPN to either wait for ever or time out and halt. The answer was found (Halting Problem solved), just not returned.

  • But it seems to me making intelligent life in a computer is just a matter of finding a computer with a big enough case to get both yourself and your girlfriend into at the same time. These look like they might be big enough. []
  • Oh god. Can't you see how naive you are? It's like part of your brain got poisoned when you were little. I don't think the concept of a deity is necessarily trivial, but to think that someone's "experience with God" proves anything is ridiculous. People have experiences with Cocaine, too, of which they sometimes speak quite highly. Many people have "witnessed" the lochness monster. So neener neener, now because some crackheads believe in the lochness monster... you can never prove that wrong.

  • I disagree that we should be taking an approach that simulates life as we know it. Why should we assume that life has to resemble us in any way? The concept of life for a computer is going to be entirely alien. For example, replication, which is a big deal for organic life, is a trivial problem for a computer program.

    Making simulations of DNA life with assembly programs that recreate, such as Tierra, and RedCode, are fascinating ways to study alife, but they're not the way to go.

    Computer virii are currently the best example of how alife can exist. It would be good however if we could write some good virii. Imagine a series of open source computer virii that self propagate between linux and/or windows boxes and automatically tighten up security loopholes. They fulfill a function on the machine, and in turn are fed CPU time they need to survive and reproduce. So you put a box on the net and within minutes it's self-secured. I know this is a ridiculous pipe dream, just a speculative example of how alife might work.

    But to really be considered life, such an organism would need the ability to modify itself in a coherent way.

    Now if this author gets into nanobots self replication, I can see why he would be going on about atoms.
  • Didn't I just say that we should not worry about creating life in our own image? That life in computer form can be completely alien?

    So why is it necessary to stipulate that Alife shouldn't be able to self modify just because *we* can't.
  • That's a bizarre definition. Are you saying that a hamster isn't alive unless it could learn to speak French? How about plants - do they "think" enough to fit your definition? Bacteria? Protists?

    I think you've gotten Artificial Intelligence and Artificial Life confused.
    Obfuscated e-mail addresses won't stop sadistic 12-year-old ACs.
  • But the question relating Conway's Game of Life to ALife in general is: Given an infinite (or at least sufficiently large) random field of cells, will Life develop self-organization?

    You could use a true random number generator to generate the original field. All the randomness comes from the beginning. Certainly what happens afterward is deterministic, but it's chaotic.

    Cells in Conway's Game of Life would probably never develop intelligence, but that's not necessary. ALife is not the same as AI.
    Obfuscated e-mail addresses won't stop sadistic 12-year-old ACs.
  • AI life is much more complicated than just striving and competing processes.

    I haven't heard of "AI life", but it would seem you're talking about AI. Meanwhile, this article is about ALife, which is, in fact, "striving and competing processes".

    I agree that AI is a buzzword - so much of a buzzword that people hear it even when nobody says it.
    Obfuscated e-mail addresses won't stop sadistic 12-year-old ACs.

  • Why should they have to? The goal is to simulate life, unlike AI which is meant to simulate human thought.

    A dog would not pass the Turing Test. Yet, it is alive and conscious. There goes your definition.
    Obfuscated e-mail addresses won't stop sadistic 12-year-old ACs.
  • If you're talking about the God in the Bible.... I don't think that what you just said could be farther from consistant with it. The whole folly of Satan was that he wanted to become as powerful as God. Also, it makes it very evident throughout the book that we are to be humble and understand that God is much bigger than us.. ]

  • It's been a whlie, but I've heard talk of this very thing being done.

    Someone built a PC Board with a radio wave receiver on it that sampled many frequencies and generated random numbers constantly.

    This card was effectively "Dice" for your computer.

    Likewise, there are other ways to get truely random numbers, if you don't mind poking deep into the hardware.

    How random you want your number is soley dependent on how complex you want to make your method of getting the seed.

    Methods I've heard about include taking values from psuedo randomly selected locations in video memory, sound memory, and other buffers in the system, putting them together to create part of a seed, and then using other methods such as system timers to finish it all up.

    The more factors being brought in to generate the random number, the more random it becomes.

    "Everything you know is wrong. (And stupid.)"
  • >Then you need some kind of grammar algorithm so that it sounds reasonably coherent.

    Either that or post it under CmdrTaco's ID....

  • Roger Penrose has come up with a formal argument to the effect that "mind", whatever it may be, is fundamentally not any sort of computation, no matter how complex. His proof rests on a clever use of Godel's Incompleteness Theorem. He has written two books on the subject, Shadows of the Mind and The Emperor's New Mind. An interesting question would be whether his arguments can be extended to all life or only "conscious" life such as ourselves and perhaps some of the higher animals. If he's right most of the current AI work is simply doomed.


  • I think it was DEC (could be wrong) that used to have an online random number generator based on the position of the "bubbles" in a Lava Lamp. There is nothing deterministic about their location.

    The lava lamp system is chaotic, not random. The difference is that randomness is unpredictable. A chaotic system is deterministic, but so sensitive to initial conditions that we cannot predict its operation very far into the future.

  • The mind and consciousness depends on randomness ...

    That's quite a bold assertation. It is most probably false (and you have no scientific evidence that it is true).

    Randomness does not result in free will, but in "random will", just as determinism results in no free will.

    The free will we appear to have cannot be adequately explained [at this point in time] by a random universe any better than it can a deterministic one.

  • Acording to some people (scientists) we use a primitive part of our brain when we dream. We got this part of the brain from reptiles and small mammals.

    I use a primitive part of my brain when i walk and have sex, too. That in of itself doesn't prove anything.

    Did you notice how you can't think straight, or you can't read on a dream? can you say you are not self aware? You are, but on a lower level.

    I can mostly think straight in my dreams - when i remember to do so. At those times i have will and intent. I can read in a dream, however, attempting to read in a dream as we normally would is usually inappropriate, as the printed words tend to change with time. Rather than turning the page in a book, try reading the same page again. Most likely its different, and perhaps just as useful. ;-)

  • Actually, the "creatures" in the game "Creatures (I, II, and III)" can all do this. They can learn by observing the other creatures exclusively. You can teach them, too, but it is not required.
  • We have excellent observational evidence that we are - namely we can feel ourselves think, and we can watch other people do things that clearly involve reasoning. What more do you want?

    I have evidence that I am thinking. I have no evidence that my thinking is not controlled (ie. brain in jar). The rest is supposition.

  • The single identifying trait of real life is when it shocks it's creator.

    When i was building a Tesla Coil, i got shocked all the time. Does this mean it was real life? :-P

  • Obviously the ones that did survive are the ones that have some brains. ;-)

    "Hang on a second, exactly why am I jumping off a cliff again?

    "People who bite the hand that feeds them usually lick the boot that kicks them"
  • There are differing levels of intelligence.

    "People who bite the hand that feeds them usually lick the boot that kicks them"
  • are all animals capable of thought

    Yes. Not at our level of thought, but thought nonetheless.

    Ameobas, paramesiaum

    Yes, they can intelligently adapt to an enironment.

    Do viruses count as thinking life

    A virus is usually not considered alive AFAIK. It exhibits few of the traits of life since it has no facilities for reproducing itself and exhibits little behaviour and adaptability... they just float along until they run into a cell. So virii don't count in this discussion.

    "People who bite the hand that feeds them usually lick the boot that kicks them"
  • The more factors being brought in to generate the random number, the more random it becomes.

    Not necessarily. You should revise that statement and say, "The more random factors being brought in to generate the random number, the more random it becomes." If you start including non random factors, then the randomness does not increase or decrease.

    "People who bite the hand that feeds them usually lick the boot that kicks them"
  • since no one had access to the the initial conditions(or the model of the system for that matter), it was effectively random.

    "People who bite the hand that feeds them usually lick the boot that kicks them"
  • Why is the stupid idea that randomness is required for life so common among ordinary people? Are people so dumb that they can't distinguish between randomness (indeterminacy) and practical unpredictability?

    Exactly! Life is chaotic [](physics def'n), not random []. ;-)

    "People who bite the hand that feeds them usually lick the boot that kicks them"
  • Can we say that the insect is not self aware? How about a simple rectile?

    No, I don't think my rectum is self aware, though sometimes it seems like it has a mind of it's own because it doesn't do what I want it to... "I said out dammnit!" Oh! you meant reptile! ;-)

    "People who bite the hand that feeds them usually lick the boot that kicks them"
  • No, reasoning is not learning from accidents, but alot of learning is based on accidents(ie. serendipity). Most of the learning you do when you're first born is based on accidents; poking, probing and seeing what happens. You don't yet have the faculties to reason anything out.
    The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not "Eureka!" (I found it!) but "That's funny ..."

    ~ Isaac Asimov ~

    "People who bite the hand that feeds them usually lick the boot that kicks them"
  • I think it is the opposite...the more powerful your magnifying glass is, the less predictable world you'll see - for example, the "electrons" actually exist everywhere in the atom at the same time with a particular probability distribution which I cannot recall. The Uncertainty principle matters more to smaller particles, etc.

    The only predictable level is the one we can touch and see and do stuffs to with our own hands. All other levels are far from being "predictable".

    And, the provision that "everything in the universe is deterministic" may or may not be right - evidences on both sides exist.
  • What a silly argument. There is no point in arguing objectively when you can't match definitions. About your point a) and b), those are highly subjective opinions that most people share because they (we) are trained to believe in them. A belief-system on which our science is founded.

    Btw, what is deep?

    - Steeltoe
  • The big problem I have had with systems such as Conway's Game of Life is that it is essentially a deterministic system. How can life emerge in such an environment? It can't, because evolution depends on random mutation, and the Game of Life's outcome is determined from the very beginning.

    Regarding whether life is possible in a computational environment, I would dissagree and say that it is not. Simple life, such as viruses and bacteria certainly is, but I think that conscious life in a computational universe is not possible. The mind and consciousness depends on randomness - hence the importance of quantum mechanics - but in a computational universe this does not exist. Only pseudorandomness can be said to exist - meaning that everything is, again, utterly moribund and predictable.

    I hope that I am proved wrong - it would be excellent if we could produce intellegent computers, but somehow I think that it is beyond our technology. Life is not a simple Turing machine, and intelligent life cannot, I suspect, be reduced to a Turing or Von Neumann machine. We are more complex than that, more beautiful, more mysterious, and more profound.

  • Science reqires no faith. It does the one thing no religion has ever done, nor ever dares to do...

    Science constantly questions itself.

    Those who question core religious beliefs have always faced the harshest of punishment, expulsion/excomminication, or death. Science ALWAYS questions itself. Any contradictions discovered are not covered up nor just accepted on faith, as somehow true beyond our understanding. The false concepts are eliminated (e.g., Earth centered solar system), or reconciled into a higher truth (e.g., Newtonian mechanics into general relativity.) Science constantly questions itself and grows stronger as a result. No religion can make that claim. No other religion has gained new truth. No religion grows stronger or more true. In fact, quite the opposite, religion has been weakeded over time, often by science, more often by simple reality and the growth of mankind. Location of the Earth, age of the universe, there are plenty of situations of where religion has had to swallow its falsely held tenets.

    And while some of science's ideas have died hard and lingered longer than they should have, like e.g., people who couldn't accept that the Earth was not at the center of the universe, nor accept quantum mechanics over traditional natural philosophy, but those adherents eventually grow old and die and a new generation grows with the revised beliefs. And science grows stronger.

  • The point here is while that's science... you have no self-evident rational basis for believing in science. ("Self" here means you, the person, not the basis.)

    Have you personally examined data from a particle accelerator (preferably built by you) and seen the evidence for, say, gluons? Have you personally seen evidence for blank holes, or personally explored theories of gravitation sufficiently to make a theory of black holes?

    Science does ask for a few "religious" beliefs, such as "other people really exist", "other people (called 'scientists') tend to tell the truth", "real truth exists" (an epistomological result that can not be truly proven, merely accepted). You can prove none of these. (Should you disagree, please write the book to prove it; it'll inevitably win every award you can think of.) On the basis of the faith you have in the truthfulness of these unprovable statements, you accept the stuff you are calling "science". (Ask a post-modern literature professor if all people accept all of these statements.)

    To drag this back on topic, and to agree with a couple of other posters on the story, I suspect that at the heart of the reviewed book lies some different definitions of 'life' then those we are traditionally comfortable with. This is not a bad thing, but it does probably mean that nearly none of the review or the book should be taken at face value (i.e., in the absense of whatever defintion of "life" the author lays out), because our "default" definition of "life" carries a lot of baggage with it.

    (If the author simply never defines life, then this book is sensationalistic trash.)

    "What is life?" is a highly religious question, and in fact, "Science", which you claim doesn't ask you to believe anybody, does ask you to at least accept certain definitions of life when talking about biology, which are often religious. (Pop quiz: Are viruses alive? (Traditionally, yes, but barely.) What about prions? (Ummmmm... can I have another?)) The author of this book will ask probably ask you to accept another definition (and it's hard to avoid saying he's probably "proselytizing" the definition).

    Indeed, there is an entire branch of philosophy called the philosophy of science [] (and that's a google search with hundreds of thousands of results, not some obscure ten-employee "think tank" stationed in California), and if that ain't a religion as much as a philosophy, I don't know what is.

    I accept much of the philosophy of science (thought I do personally reject that the universe is closed, that there is necessarily no external influence, I think it's an impossibly strong statement), but it's philosophy/religion nonetheless, not some sort of immediately evident-to-Self reality. You say, "in science, nothing is supposed to be taken as gospel, but revealed to all for critical scrutiny." And I say, that statement is Gospel in science. Try arguing against that statement and see how far you get. (And yes, that's a perfectly valid point... Godel's Proof rests on something quite similar. "There is no gospel truth" is a self-contradictory statement, as the statement is claiming to be Truth.) And this quibbling over the definition of life is properly and most correctly understood as a philosophical debate, not some sort of scientific experiment. No lab experiment can ever prove what "life" is.

  • All your ideas are belong to David Chalmers!
  • Radioactive decay is the prime example

    Interestingly enough, this is not necessarily the case. (Put in boldface because the first time I ran across this, it stunned the hell out of me.) It's possible to find RNGs based on radioactive decay which exhibit a degree of determinism. Why? Depends on the time window that you're looking for a radioactive decay in, and the recharge time of the Geiger counter.

    Take an extreme example: let's say that if a Geiger counter picks up a stray bit of radiation in a 1-second window, it'll peg a '1'. Otherwise, it pegs '0'. However, after pegging a '1' the Geiger counter has to spend 60 seconds resetting itself. During this time, it'll peg '0's.

    Now say that your radiation source is something viciously radioactive, like Pu-238 (even more active than Pu-239). You're essentially guaranteed a peg in the first 1-second window, and then the Geiger counter will peg 60 straight 0s.

    That means that with this setup, which is based on creating random numbers by measuring radioactive decay, you can successfully predict that over 98% of the time it'll return a 0, and virtually 100% of the time it'll follow a repeating pattern of 1 followed by 60 zeros on a 61-second cycle.

    This example is very contrived so that you can immediately see the problems with generating random numbers via radioactive decay. When the reset time is a fraction of the exposure window, you'll get a mostly random stream.

    But you'll never, ever get a truly random stream from a radioactive source/Geiger counter setup.

    Even if the source of your randomness is absolutely and totally entropic, your measuring instruments aren't. Hidden determinism enters the system and lowers the quality of your entropy.
  • I was younger when I first read the books, and didn't have anywhere near enough money (or skill) to try to build one. When I got older, and managed to find and buy the books (no mean feat, those kind of TAB books you grab when you see them, no waiting), it was clear from reading them (knowing you have the skills now) that it would cost more to build either device than it would be worth in the end.

    But by having all three, and seeing how simple Rodney is sensor-wise (I think all it has, IIRC, is some bump sensors, and some current-draw sensors on the motors - maybe a sound and light sensor), was that you could wire it all up to a cheap 486 laptop, and use the code from "Robot Intelligence" to achieve the same device, but cheaper.

    Such is progress...

    Worldcom [] - Generation Duh!
  • I have no idea where Heiserman went, but if he did anything interesting it should be out there, either on the web or in Gopher space. I think I'll have a look later tonight. I'll report back if I find anythin!

    Actually, finding anything about any of the 70's and 80's robot makers is near impossible, in my experience. Recently, I found what happened to Ben Skora, and his robot AROK - they both were featured on a home show recently about "strange" homes (Ben lives in this weird UFO shaped house he built in the early 70's - complete with all the disco era trimmings - you know automated lights and entertainment, that kind of thing). Apparently AROK is still around.

    There are other robots whose whereabouts are completely unknown - one that I was always curious on was named C.H.A.R.L.I.E. (an acronym that means something, I forget what, but his inventor was also named Charlie, I believe). There are many others from the time. I just tend to wonder what happened to them...

    Worldcom [] - Generation Duh!
  • You'll have to check out Oolon Colophid's books for that...

    - - - - -
  • Colluphid, Oolon []

    Controversial philisophical author of the blockbuster trilogy Where God Went Wrong, Some More of God's Greatest Mistakes and Who is this God Person Anyway?

    - - - - -
  • Check out "Permutation City" by Greg Egan; it deals with a very similar scenario, among other ai-related topics.
  • I've written a couple a-life programs and have the following observations: one can definitely program systems that demonstrate some behavior that was not explicitly programmed into them. For a coder, this is a cool thing, especially when it works and especially when it surprises you with what it does. But emergent behavior based on programmed-in attributes rather than procedural instructions does not "life" make.

    As far as I could tell, the a-life crowd has (to date) failed. All the things we agree on in the real world as being "life" are enormously more complex than these digital abstractions. The definitional issues are hard to agree on ('what is life? what is intelligence? what is consciousness?') And an honest practitioner recognizes the huge amount of work required to set up "just the right initial conditions and assumptions for something 'interesting' to happen". So one way for them to succeed is to dumb down their definition of life. IMHO, the field is in significant danger of doing this. When you hear people proclaiming that they are gods (sounds ridiculous, i know, but the word was even applied in this slashdot review) and have created digital life, take it with a pound of salt as the hubris and grant-inducing-hook that it really is. IMHO.

  • True randomness does exist. Radioactive decay is the prime example, and there are random number generators that use radioactive decay as their seed. I think it was DEC (could be wrong) that used to have an online random number generator based on the position of the "bubbles" in a Lava Lamp. There is noting deterministic about their location. Pseudorandomness is a result of lazy programming not an immutable property of a computational universe.
  • Ah, yes, "Creatures". Good idea. But they copy-protected it so ineptly it won't run on NT. I can view the startup animation, but then it keeps asking me to insert the CD-ROM, even though it's in the drive.

    Maxis has SimLife, which is somewhat similar in concept. There are genomes, combination, mutation, etc. It's hard to see what's being accomplished, though. It's not a game at all, just a genomic simulator with graphics.

  • Sorry. If I could type traditional in on this keyboard, I would. but I can't, so deal.

    Rate me on []
  • It wasn't until I read the article itself that I realized you guys were talking about more then one person, it seemed like you were referring to 'Sue Wilcox' as the author, and as both 'she' and 'he' interchangeably.

    Rate me on []
  • This is just my opinion, but I think this is completely the wrong way to go about it. I think an analogy will help explain what I mean. Suppose I show you a picture, then ask you to write a program which generates pictures....

    A much better approach in the case of the picture (and I would assert in the case of life) would be to give up the reductive approach. Instead, one should focus on the function the picture serves and try to replicate that. I.e. try to do the same job rather than trying to do the job in the same way.

    This is exactly the approach used by Samuael when he wrote his groundbreaking checkers playing program in the 80s. He wanted to make a program that would play checkers the way people do. So he started comming up with all sorts of interesting ideas for how to do it, such as search trees with alpha-beta pruning, buffering board scores, etc.

    He ended up with a program that played checkers extremely well. Unfortunatly, it did so in a way that was NOTHING LIKE the way real people play checkers. Particularly in light of various insights from psychologists and neuroscientists, it has become aparent that people play checkers in a signifigantly different fashion than this program did. (We don't really use search trees nearly as much, for example)

    The moral of this story (I think) is that if you want to emulate a complex system, if you go from the direction of "This is what I want it to do; how would I set up something to behave like it", then you'll probably get something that is quite a bit different from what you're looking for. Particularly in the case of extremely complex systems (such as life or AI) the possibility that your implimentation is the same as that of the example you're trying to duplicate is probably pretty tiny.

    So while I'll freely admidt (without having actually read the book) that to my thinking, starting subatomic might be a little in the extreme, I think that it is at least aproaching the problem from the right end.
  • damn the graphics are good Source can be a pain, though.
  • Do the creatures pass the Turing Test, being able to carry on an extended conversation of at least human ability?

    Firstly, the Turing test is intended to identify intelligence, not mere life, so it doesn't really apply to this discussion.

    Secondly, it is still hotly disputed whether the Turing test is really any good, even for its intended purpose.

    If you think about it, all it really proves is that some "thing" is capable of fooling one or more people into believing that it's intelligent. Unfortunately, there are all sorts of silly reasons why people can be fooled, most of which probably have to do with psychology and empathic reactions.

    There is the telling fact that in contests where the Turing test has been applied, there have actually been human beings who failed the test. Which, of course, is merely a measure of how poorly the person is able to fool his peers into believing that he is intelligent. :-P


  • Write a robot that posts replies to articles on Slashdot. The winner would be the first unaided bot to hit the karma cap. Anyone know if this has been attempted before?

    If I'm not mistaken, someone was using a MegaHAL []-like bot trained on JonKatz's ramblings. (At least I'm guessing that it was a script -- it's entirely possible that the person was cooking up their own fake JonKatz ramblings.) The postings were done under some name that implied it was a fake JonKatz. I do remember it getting moderated up as funny on a few occasions.

    Personally, I think it wouldn't be too hard to hit the karma cap by writing a bot that posts "First, they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win." to every Slashdot story that has both Microsoft and Linux in it.

    I suppose you might also make a bot capable of recognizing similar Slashdot stories and then just have it still a few +5 posts from the earlier story. There's a bit of risk with having it grab irrelevant comments -- it'd probably be worthwhile to ignore any (+5, Funny) posts since they tend to be more specific to a given article. It'd also be funny if someone posted the latest DeCSS/DVD thing and the bot tried to pick an article out of the Big Brother awards [], because the article text has a gratuitous mention of the MPAA. But in general, I think it would do decently, although probably not as well as the google-bot.

    Finally, if you wanted to get really ballsy, you could do a script that skimmed The Register, the NY Times, and a few other popular sources of Slashdot articles for anything with "Linux", "Internet", "MPAA", "RIAA", "DVD", "DeCSS", "Intel", "AMD", "Transmeta", "Playstation", "PS2", "Dreamcast", "DMCA", or any other keywords that're especially hot on Slashdot and then submitted the resulting story. It'd be an all-or-nothing gamble, with a whopping 5 points of karma for every hit, but the potential to reach new levels of negative karma should it raise the ire of CmdrTaco and crew.

  • This is a lightly written but mind-bendingly deep book. When you realize you have been smooth talked into abandoning the last fifty years of AI research and development along with the majority of current thinking on ALife you know the Grand philosophy has gotten into your blood.

    Hmm, I think not. There's nothing going on with Grand's approach that is alien to recent AI/AL research. Check out D. Hofstadter or S. Kauffman, for example.

  • I wonder if a simple script that ripped unusual words from the article, Google searched for sites with those words, then posted an 'informative' link would work...

    Wonderful! Karma Whorebots!
  • Supposing for a moment that this is possible and one day somebody will be able to create intelligent artificial lifeforms within a computer. I wonder will they...

    Speculate on how they came into being?

    Postulate a Creator (or Creators)?

    Create religion(s) around those Creator(s)?

    If so, have arguments/wars based on their religious beliefs?

    Philosophise about the meaning of life?

    Imagine if they came up with something like "I think therefore I am", based purely on their own intelligence.

    Of course, if they're really intelligent, they'll realise that we were created 75 million years ago by Xemu the intergallactic alien ruler :-)


  • Jargon + outdated ideas = powerful criticism - that's clever, i like it.
    However I don't think these ideas are at all outdated - rather in recent years many of the most noted proponents of AI ( Jerry Fodor among the most notable ) have largely reversed their perspectives for precisely this reason.

    A potato can't cross levels from inside to outside because a potato is a physical object. Music (and intelligence) CAN cross levels because it is just a pattern of information.
    Yes, I agree completely ( at least as far as the music goes - intelligence is another matter ) - because in digital media we have found a way to formally define ( nearly ) all forms of information. A potato is not formally defined, therefore it cannot truly pass the these levels because it is not formally defined. This is the point of my criticism - life is not formally defined, and like the potato cannot be digitally encoded.

    And what's wrong with that? When I copy MS Word to another computer, isn't that a "perfect simulation" of the original?

    No, its not a simulation at all - they are exact copies. Don't confuse a copy with a simulation - they are not the same things at all. A simulation is a model of a system that attempts to render a reasonably accurate copy of a certain reduced set of the original system's parts. A computer program which models thunderstorms or tornados models a reduced set of the aspects of the airmasses in which those weather systems occur - the set of features being modeled are those which meteorologists have deemed to be relevant to the pursuit of understanding those weather systems. These programs are unlikely to model the movements of seagulls through the same airmass, or the relative density of seagull feces - because nobody considers these to be relevant features, despite being parts of the system. A copy of MS Word is a one-to-one exact digital copy, there is nothing of simulation about it.

    What about when I reimplement a program to read Word files?

    You could say that this was a simulation of MS Word, yes. And depending on how good a job you did you might even be able to prove that the two programs were formally equivalent ( although chances are you'd have to have access to MS Word source code for this ). Formal equivalence is only reached when you have an exact matching in functionality of all the features of two systems - so if your program could do everything that MS Word could do in exactly the same way then both programs would be formally equivalent.

    And when I reimplement a program to behave exactly like me? Sure, you can't simulate a system in another medium that is less complex. But that leaves it up to you to prove that computers are less complex than brains.

    Well showing that computers are less complex than brains is really very easy. Considering that your average human brain has something on the order of 10 billion neurons connected to make over 10 trillion neural connections each of which creates and responds to a vast array of environmental stimuli both electrical and chemical, most of which is poorly mapped and ill understood.

    As far as creating a program that behaves exactly like you, I hope you won't be offended if I remain sceptical and say that I'll believe it when I see it. But granted that you were able to create a system that could successfully pass for T3 equivalence ( ie the Total Turing Test - simulating all human behaviour convincingly for a human life span ), this is still not enough to claim formal equivalence. For a truly rigorous examination of what would satisfy a scientific definition of a truly accurate psychological model read Jerry Fodor's "Psychological explanation" particularly chapter 4: "The logic of simulation". You'll see why simply simulating behaviour is not good enough to count for a model of the thing being simulated - particularly when it comes to intelligence.

  • My point about causal powers was to point out just one way in which it is very tricky to try to define what does and does not qualify for life - given that nobody has any idea what would make for a valid definition. But its common sense to say that causal powers are something important to life, I should think. There are lots of machines with causal powers - but that in and of itself does not define them as intelligent or alive. A pile driver has causal powers, but nobody's going to claim it is alive. The tricky bit with informational systems is that its easy to project our own assumptions about intelligent seeming behaviour onto a system and imbue it with intelligence it doesn't necessarily have.
  • But there are some informational things for which simulations are no different from reality. Suppose I write a simple BASIC program with an infinite loop, and run that in an Apple II emulator on a Pentium. Is it a real infinite loop, or just a simulation of an infinite loop? It's a silly question.

    Yes, it is a silly question. Especially because one of the features of all computers is that they are Turing machines - or if you prefer they are interpreted automatic formal systems. As such they can be made to emulate each other. An emulation is a perfectly accurate recreation of everything that the other system does ( if it is a low level emulator ). Chances are that the timing of the operations won't be the same - but the steps to doing anything in an emulated system will be the same. Two formal systems which are formally equivalent to each other are not simulations of each other at all. They ARE each other, so there's no simulation involved. So a pentium emulating an AplleII in an infinite loop is the same thing as a real AppleII in an infinite loop - as far as the relevant systems are concerned.

    As far as your comparison to a gerbil in a cage and an ALife gerbil in a virtual cage are concerned, the problem here is that totally unlike your previous example the ALife creature is going to be formally defined at some level, whether it be implicitly or explicitly - all its behaviour and operations have to be enumerated into code at some point or it could not be programmed. A real gerbil in a real cage is not formally defined at all. If you can reverse-engineer and give me a complete technical spec. for a gerbil in a cage I will be very surprised indeed. This is my whole point - a living thing is not formally defined, so there is no basis for saying that you've created a living thing in a purely formal system.

  • Yes, I must agree with you completely here. The real crux of the whole issue is where we choose to define life. And because there is no clear definition for life, there can't be any basis for saying that one has or has not created life in a computer.

    I agree that given any formal definition X for life, a computer program can be created which fulfills X. But the real point is that any definition X ( as far as has existed - nobody knows what the future may bring ) is insufficient for satisfying a definition for life because it is either too strict, and would deny that many living things are not alive, or it would be too loose and allow many non-living things to qualify.

    Yes, a college textbook will give you a ~10 characteristics of life. This is used as a rough and ready teaching aid - not a final and definitive definition. Humans have an intuitive common-sense way of discriminating living and non-living things that is not understood, but seems right to us. If you take the 10 characteristics you'll most likely find that they would allow many things to qualify for living things that seem obviously wrong and vice-versa disqualify many things that are obviously alive.

    My original point was that in the absence of a formal definition for life any claims to have made living things in a computer is empty and meaningless. However, I see nothing wrong with the attitude that says: "give me a definition for life and I shall give you living computer organisms."

    Personally I doubt whether it will ever be possible to create a formal definition for life, but that is something only time will tell.
  • There's a big difference between somethign "existing" and being formally defined. A red ball is not formally defined. You cannot give the complete set of all its behaviours to all possible situations, so it is not formally defined. Basketball is not a formal system, and so the analogy between a human playing basketball for fun and a computer "creature" playing a simulation of basketball is not proof of anything other than the human imagination.
  • Thanks, its always nice to get positive feedback amongst the barrage of criticism =)
  • I'm sorry, I don't think I understand you.
    I don't undserstand how any of this is relevant to the discussion.

    Slipping and falling on a chess board is not a legal chess move, and as such is not a part of the "game system". A computerized game of chess is just as much a real game of chess as any game that can be played with a physical board, but you can't slip and fall on a computer chess board.
  • So does it "pass" then if it hacks into your modem, dials 911 and gets you into trouble? Or sends an e-mail to your wife claiming you are cheating?

    No, not at all. Why would this make it count as life?

  • The point is that there is NO clear definition of life, one must work on common sense and other features, not a list of defining features. This is why it is easy to confuse people with fancy talk and make it seem like a computer system is alive. Exactly because there is no clear definition.
  • Since several people here have been talking about (among other things) "if we do create ALife, what are the implications?", I just thought I would mention I wrote a paper on that topic back when I was an undergrad, titled "Implications of Creation". It was published in the journal Idealistic Studies vol. 23 no. 1 (Winter 1993), and you can also find it online at my publications page []. Looking at it now, it's kinda embarassingly amateurish, but I feel that way about almost everything I've written after enough time passes...
  • I don't think that anything which is designed can qualify as life - genetically modified things are, by the way, very far from being designed (I'm a geneticist.) The really fascinating property of real living things, as they exist in nature, is that they are not designed or streamlined - they are endlessly refreshing and unexpected, they have properties which you could not concieve of, acquired in response to environmental factors of which you are not even aware. Even an artificial creation which you place in a highly complex environment and permit to "evolve" is really just echoing your own ideas and preconceptions back at you - an environment designed by more than one person is more along the lines of what I'm thinking about but is still qualitatively different from the real world in a way that precludes, to my thinking, containing anything which is alive.
    Consciousness, however, you can have. We think it's such a cool trick just because we do it but the mixed scum living under twenty cubic meters of top soil is, as an aggragate, far more complex than a human being, possessed of more of this quality that I think seperates actual life from this digital stuff, and nothing like sentient.

    I just got into the columbia university biology graduate program. I will do my victory dance.
  • There is a common notion of 'beliefs' and 'intention' in artificial intelligence thinking. The only reason to attribute such concepts to a system is if, by adding these attributes, it makes it easier to understand or describe that system.

    For a thermostat, we could say it "intends to keep the house temperature just right," but that doesn't really help up understand or describe it any better. However, describing the hated Microsoft paper clip as "intending to help (or should I say hinder?) a user's writing style" makes a bit more sense.

  • after that slightly OT comment... I really don't understand why there is such a facination with creating life.... thats not impressive at all

    What is impressive is self awareness. Big deal if you can create some program that fits some vague system of what is life (see thermostat post)... make it self aware and funtion at that level at that is something to talk about.

    You can't just program something to check and see if something is attacking it/trying to change it and then make it protect it self. You have to program the program so that it notices something attacking and defends or protects itself BECAUSE it is self-aware and not because its a principle programmed into it.

    1. This book seems a little over-excited or over-hyped in the review. We haven't created anything too impressive yet.
    2. Alife is just about the coolest thing ever. What we are hoping to make is pretty exciting.
    3. Yes, definitions of life can cause problems, but what is new about ALife is that it tries to approach everything by learning from life, rather than just introspection about how we might think or behave, which is what traditional AI is based on. It also generates artefacts that are interesting to some people because they show characteristics that had previously been thought to have been exclusively shown by "real" lifeforms.
    4. I think the Turing test is totally inappropriate, since it seems to be neither necessary nor sufficient for life. If you talked for hours to a machine through a wall and believed it was a person, and then I showed you the machine, would you think it was alive?
      (...clearly it's not a necessary condition.)
    5. ALife is being applied to loads of stuff, from very abstract, through scientific, engineering/robot design to entertainment. Check out ge/alife.html [] for a fairly comprehensive list of the more academic stuff.
    6. I don't agree that consciousness is the vital ingredient. In fact, all I look for in a "good" experiment is interestingness.

    Have a look at [] for some fun with ALife (and a touch of AI).

  • by BigZaphod ( 12942 ) on Sunday March 11, 2001 @09:35AM (#371046) Homepage
    I have read the book and this is NOT the approach he takes. In fact he strongly argues against this exact approach for the reasons you've given (and others).

    As I remember it, the main reason he got into subatomic particles and such was in the area of the book where he was talking about life itself and how it works. He never once suggested that we should emulate that in order to create artificial life. In fact, one of the key arguments was that artificial life shouldn't be the same as physical life since the enviroments are different. Life tends to form and grow according to the enviroment it lives in and it wouldn't make sense to have normal biological life in a computer simluation.

    Instead, the approach he takes is that he starts with some very basic principals and builds from there adding things like desire, attention, needs, wants, etc. to the creature. The end result is that it looks and acts a whole lot like real life. And with the addition of a digial DNA concept, it even reproduces like real life in that genes are inherited and even a little bit of teaching between parents and children take place (from what I can gather this is just one of the millions of behaviors that have been observed that were not directly programmed!). It even goes so far that the genes describe the color of the "fur" on the creatures and so sometimes common traits will pop up where you can recognize familes by physical attributes. It is quite amazing, really (I have played the game as well).

    At any rate, my point is that he does *not* suggest starting at the bottom and building a complete life/universe simulator up. He just started there so as to better understand the process of life itself and its various drives and motivations. Then he went about similating those drives and NOT the actual details that lead us bilogical beings up to them (because, after all, an artificial life form does not live in our world!).

    It really is an amazing book and IMHO the review does very little justice to it. You just have to read it!

  • by grappler ( 14976 ) on Sunday March 11, 2001 @11:28AM (#371047) Homepage
    Here's an idea - go through the keywords of the given story and look them up on everything2 []! Find relevant nodes and perhaps follow those to other nodes until you have enough text to put a comment together. Then you need some kind of grammar algorithm so that it sounds reasonably coherent.

    How about a post generated by a neural network? You could train it by feeding it stories and resulting replies for each story - and then the scores for each of those replies. The idea would be to train it for +5 posts. Of course, every time it posted something itself, it would recieve feedback on what score its own post recieved.


  • by SpinyNorman ( 33776 ) on Sunday March 11, 2001 @12:37PM (#371048)
    Aside from the fact that your thermostat example is stolen from Chalmers, the real problem is that you both seem to be claiming to have said something deep, but then admitting it all hinges on the definition.

    If we define life in such a way as to include thermostats then:

    a) that's probably doesn't capture the essence of what we want to use the word for, and

    b) it's then not very deep to say that thermostats are alive!

    OTOH, if we define life in such a way as to exclude thermostats, then you are wrong.

    I'm going for the latter.
  • by cr0sh ( 43134 ) on Sunday March 11, 2001 @08:29AM (#371049) Homepage
    I haven't read the book mentioned in the article, but I have read (and played with the programs contained in it) a much earlier book, published in 1981 by TAB Books, called "Robot Intelligence (with experiments)" by David L. Heiserman (TAB Books, 1981, ISBN 0-8306-9685-7).

    In this book, the author explores ideas and meanings behind a type of life he calls "Evolutionay Adaptive Machine Intelligence" or EAMI for short. He explores this through a number of BASIC code programs written in stages, from simple "Alpha-class" systems, to much more complex "Gamma-class" systems.

    What makes this book all the more interesting is that in theory (and I believe this is explored somewhat in the book) you can apply all of this back to real-world machines: This book is simply the culmination of two earlier robotics project books by the same author: "Build Your Own Working Robot" (TAB Books, 1976, ISBN 0-8306-6841-1) and "How to Build Your Own Self-Programming Robot" (TAB Books, 1979, ISBN 0-8306-9760-8). This last book actually started to explore the concepts outlined in "Robot Intelligence", but stopped just short of it. The point is, this series of books showed the hobbiest of a couple of decades ago (thereabouts) how to build real ALife, long before it was very popular (not to mention cheap).

    I encourage anyone with interest in this subject to pick these three books up. As far as I know, they are long out of print, so happy hunting.

    In a side note - does anyone know what happened to Mr. Heiserman and his robots?

    Worldcom [] - Generation Duh!
  • by DrXym ( 126579 ) on Sunday March 11, 2001 @11:33PM (#371050)
    Obviously some people think Norns are alive judging by the amount of hatemail AntiNorn got for his Norn Torture [] page. Personally I think it's hilarious.
  • by lukel ( 142033 ) on Sunday March 11, 2001 @08:44AM (#371051)
    Explaining how to think about the world, starting with understanding subatomic particles, then moving onto items of greater complexity -- atoms, then molecules, then autocatalytic networks, self-reproducing systems, adaptive systems, intelligence and mind -- is something Steve is very good at. It must come from all the thinking he does.

    This is just my opinion, but I think this is completely the wrong way to go about it. I think an analogy will help explain what I mean. Suppose I show you a picture, then ask you to write a program which generates pictures. It would be stupid for you to start analysing the subatomic particles so that you could get a better idea of the pigments, so you could understand the use of colour...

    A much better approach in the case of the picture (and I would assert in the case of life) would be to give up the reductive approach. Instead, one should focus on the function the picture serves and try to replicate that. I.e. try to do the same job rather than trying to do the job in the same way.

    I think this whole obsession with reductive solutions stems from the success of physics. In physics looking at subatomic particles has been fruitful, but this is because of the particular nature of the problems physics tries to solve. Problems involving life and consciousness, for example, are very different: we should rethink our methods rather than blindly trying to apply those that worked in the past.

  • by WolfWithoutAClause ( 162946 ) on Sunday March 11, 2001 @09:08AM (#371052) Homepage
    Emotions are just things that animals/humans have evolved to enhance survival of genes.

    Jealousy? That's someone have sex with someone you want.

    Anger? That's someone who has just taken your food.

    Love? Someone you want to perpetuate your genes with.

    The point is that AI can have just the same emotions and for the same reasons. The digital genes (and all genes are digital in fact) behave very much the same.
  • AI creatures don't climb artificial mountains.

    Of course not;

    Because it isn't there.
  • by corvi42 ( 235814 ) on Sunday March 11, 2001 @10:07AM (#371054) Homepage Journal
    Ah, yet another book which uses cute language and twisting analogies to make us believe we're seeing something that isn't there. If I were to tell you that I created a potato in a computer, and then invited you to eat it, you'd laugh at me. When dealing with solid examples of real things, computer simulations of them seem laughably easy to separate from the real mccoy, however, when you come to abstract concepts for which nobody has a clear definition ( Life, Intelligence, etc. ) its actually much easier to fool people ( including yourself ). It becomes especially easy when you take the time to spin yarns about the structure of the universe, from subatomics upwards, in order that it all fit your end goal.

    Formula: Uncertainty + sophisticated language = plausible story.

    Now don't get me wrong here, I'm sure the book is a great and valuable work in the field of ALife, which is a very intriguing field in computing today. But to make claims that one has actually created life in a computer that is equivalent to even the simplest forms we see around us in the natural world is just plain ridiculous.

    I'm not going to waste time debating the particulars of the systems involved here and whether they do or don't meet the criteria for living things as abstracted by whomever, or whether those criteria are a sufficient definition for life. I just want to point out something that all too often gets forgotten when dealing with informational systems - the gulf between a simulation and the simulated.

    Firstly it is a necessary element of all simulations that they are a reduced set of the properties of the system being simulated. You cannot pefectly simulate a real system - the only perfect simulation is the original system itself. But this is a minor point. Attached to this, and more importantly is the fact that informational simulations HAVE NO CAUSAL POWERS! Having no physical existance, they cannot cause or affect anything except what is formally defined for them in the simulation. If I say that I have simulated a tornado in my computer, nobody is going to worry that it might destroy my city. If you put a lovely roaring log fire screensaver on your computer it will never keep you awake at night worrying if the fire will melt your monitor. A computer will never be crushed by the weight of the eifel tower if it has a 3d model of it. All of these are informational simulations of NON-FORMAL systems and therefore do not entail the be-all and end-all of the systems they simulate, and therefore ( finally... ) are not equivalent to the real thing. Only formal systems ( ie like a game of chess ) can be said to exist entirely in any medium in which they are rendered. Non-formal systems can only exist as a simulation when rendered in other media. Life is not a formal system.

    Why is it that stories like these are so easy to fool us? Well probably because humans are informational creatures - we are the makers and consumers of our own information. Therefore we sometimes find it difficult to see the line between simulations and the simulated - because both get represented to our minds by roughly equivalent information. Add to that the above mentioned confusion and elaborate talk and its a marvelous act of intellectual slight-of-hand that makes us see life where it doesn't exist.

    Nice try guys, keep it up - its a fun show =)
  • by Section_9_604 ( 324934 ) on Sunday March 11, 2001 @06:28PM (#371055)
    I ran into a few people from his company at the Alife VI Conference in LA in 1998. The Creatures game was part of what they were discussing, but not really. They were really excited about a new contract they had with DERA. (British Defence Evaluation Research Agency, public/private defence contractor org, and home of the Harrier jet)

    They had contracted to build more adaptive and intelligent combat flight enemies for the simulations. The pilots were able to predict how the existing rule based systems worked, and were becoming rigid in their own reactions. So they contacted these guys, and they built a system (way less complex than the characters in Creatures) pretty quickly.

    The first version that they came out with was incredibly effective, but you'd be unlikely to come across this strategy in a human pilot: barrel roll incessantly, pull up if the enemy is above you, and fire when they're in your sights. Very simple rules, works no matter what the position of the enemy, and would pulp a human pilot. After some tweaking, they ended up with something that more resembled human behavior.

    But the first round got them thinking. In a dogfight, maneuverability is key. A plane can handle maybe 15 Gs, a human pilot 8-10 tops. If a fighter plane weren't dependent on the limitations on the human pilot, it would win against a plane having such limitations, *every time*. or nearly. be able to pull sharper turns, more extreme maneuvers, etc.

    Based on this, and the way the flight sim was coded (the neural net flying the plane got its inputs from the data that would be available from the actual instruments), they were proceeding with a proposal to put this puppy in a live plane. Haven't heard anything more about it, but I still get the willies when I see the Creatures box in stores.

    --Shameless SelfPlug Check out the papers I published on social environments and language origination using multiagent sims. []
    (about halfway down the page
  • by Alien54 ( 180860 ) on Sunday March 11, 2001 @08:36AM (#371056) Journal
    I suppose that everyone is going to post up their favorite theory of what life is.

    The one that gets my vote is the idea that life is a game because the definition of a game supplies the metarules. Things that you need in things like things you can do, things you cannot do, loopholes to exploit, limitations due to the nature of the game itself, multiple levels of games, games within games, games you do not know about, being someone's pawn, etc.

    Then you get into the philosophy of game design. It was an illuminating thought that most people would not like to live in real life that world that is their favorite gaming world. And looking at the games people play, and sometimes trap themselves inside.

    The philosophical payoff is knowing what is the price you have to pay to get out of the game or change it if you want, and knowing better the games you are really playing in the first place.

  • by BillyGoatThree ( 324006 ) on Sunday March 11, 2001 @09:05AM (#371057)
    1) This is not a book review. We heard nothing about the contents of the book except that they were "mind-bending". So bend our minds a little with some excerpts or paraphrases or something.

    2) You twice compare the author to God (including one comparison that compares the book to something God would write)...yet you only give it an 8.5. Surely it would be newsworthy to explain how "God went wrong" and lost 1.5 points.
  • by Bowie J. Poag ( 16898 ) on Sunday March 11, 2001 @08:14AM (#371058) Homepage
    Well, I cant say I've read the book, but I can tell you this much -- I once wrote a paper for a Philosophy class I was in that argued that ordinary household thermostats can technically be considered alive, if you agree that the fundemental definition of life is an object that both consumes and produces energy, responds to its environment..The ability to reproduce isn't necessarrilly required -- Life itself could be a dead-end.

    If you make the definition intentionally vague, you can fit pretty much any dynamic system under the flag of being "alive"...So be careful when someone tells you that they have a formula for it. Chances are it hangs heavilly on the definition of "alive" to make it work.

    Bowie J. Poag
  • by FTL ( 112112 ) <slashdot.neil@fraser@name> on Sunday March 11, 2001 @08:38AM (#371059) Homepage
    We've all heard of the Turing test (and if you haven't, you're reading the wrong website). I wonder how feasible it would be to pass a "Slashdot test". Write a robot that posts replies to articles on Slashdot. The winner would be the first unaided bot to hit the karma cap.

    Anyone know if this has been attempted before? (I'm aware of the First Post scripts; they obviously aren't going to get karma.) If I had some free time (oh I wish) this would definitely be a cool project to undertake.

    I wonder if a simple script that ripped unusual words from the article, Google searched for sites with those words, then posted an 'informative' link would work...

  • by SimHacker ( 180785 ) on Sunday March 11, 2001 @11:40AM (#371060) Homepage Journal
    Life does not depend on unpredictability. If something's really alive, then it would still be alive whether or not you could completely predict its behavior. The ability to predict the behavior of an organism does not by definition kill it. Life doesn't necessarily depend on randomness, either.

    You can totally predict the evolution of Conway's game of Life, and other deterministic cellular automata, given the initial configuration. It's not necessary to solve the halting problem in order to predict the state in the future -- you just execute the completely deterministic rules. Simple. Conway's Life is awkwardly Turing complete, but it's inefficient for the purpose of general computation (much less efficient that a Turing machine). But at least it means that theoretically you could implement a higher level of Conway's Life (or any other computable function) in terms of a lower level Conways' Life implementation, but it would take a whole lot of time and space.

    Andy Weunsche at the Santa Fe Institute has come up with a beautiful way to plot out the deterministic state map of any cellular automata rule: it's a colorful branching graphical fish-eye tree representation of the topology of every possible state and transition of a cellular automata rule (the basin of attraction fields).

    You can see for yourself how a given cellular automata rule is completely deterministic, by viewing all the possible interconnected states at once. "Garden of Eden" states (that there was no possible way to arrive at through the rule, so they must be original conditions) are drawn at the extreme tips of the branches, that converge into cycles of the basins of attraction (repeating dead-ends where there is now way to break out). This is really wonderful stuff, well worth scrolling through the whole gallery: ery.html []

    On the other hand, the halting problem has to do with one program's ability to predict if another program will halt (not to just simply simulate the program's execution at a higher level: because if the other program doesn't halt, the simulator will never halt either, therefore failing to give the result). It means that there are undecidable questions that a deterministic Turing complete program can't answer: even if the answers are out there somewhere, they just can't be reached by a Turing machine. It also depends on being able to represent any program as data (a number), that can be given to another program as input, which is essential to the Universal Turing Machine in "On Computable Numbers".

    The paradox can be demonstrated by asking such a hypothetical program (called "HaltingProblem") to predict whether another subtly (yet insideously) modified version of itself, called "HaltingProblemNot", will halt.

    Given a program "HaltingProblem" that attempts to predict if another program halts (taking as input data that program and its inputs), you can always construct another program "HaltingProblemNot" to give it as input, for which it will never be able to give you a correct answer.

    "HaltingProblemNot" just has to call the first program "HaltingProblem" as a subroutine, and then it inverts the return value (not just logically, but by halting if it says it won't halt, and infinitely looping if it says it doesn't halt). An obnoxious trick (called diagonalization), but it's proven to work every time. The fatal Achilles' heel of logic -- Godel strikes again.

    No matter how cleverly written, the original program "HaltingProblem" is doomed to fail given "HaltingProblemNot" and another program as input, by either looping infinitely or returning the incorrect result.

    This does not mean the mind is any more powerful than a Turing machine, nor unpredictable. Nobody really knows for sure. The only thing we know for sure is that there are many things we'll never know.

    Gilda Radner summed it up:

Thus spake the master programmer: "Time for you to leave." -- Geoffrey James, "The Tao of Programming"