01 September 1998

Artificial life begins its own evolution

“To every thing there is a season,” says the Book of Ecclesiastes, and Babbage finds it satisfying that two scientific advances that ‘missed’ each other historically should at last find their season and flourish together. When Mr Charles Darwin set out his theory of evolution in The Origin of Species in 1859, Babbage’s computing engines were already a curiosity, unfunded and fading from official memory. But now, as a new millennium approaches, Darwinism and Analytical Engine are intricately entwined, and we are seeing Engine programs that evolve over time via a process of mutation, mating and selection.

A brief excursion upon the Internet finds many examples of genetic programming, which evolves populations of programs in a mimicry of Darwin's ‘survival of the fittest’. In the field of artificial intelligence (AI) especially, this solves problems ranging from the academic, such as the University of Michigan's GAIA agent which analyses radar images to classify sea ice roughness, to the recreational, such as the Spanish GENEURA team’s MasterMind game server.

Genetic programs are often teamed with neural networks, another tool developed from the same biological analogy. Examples of neural-genetic algorithms include Advanced Investment Technology's stocks and shares analyst, and the Danish-Italian art software, Artificial Painter.

However, a British company, CyberLife (http://www.cyberlife.co.uk) has gone further with an innovative marriage of AI with biochemistry. Its synthetic organisms, ‘norns’, possess neural network brains bathed in a sea of virtual biochemicals that stimulate or suppress their response to stimuli. In an ecology of virtual plants and animals, the norns adapt over generations through natural selection. Their present applications include a charming software toy, Creatures, but norns might see a darker future as artificial military pilots.

Are norns truly autonomous? Babbage recalls Lovelace’s view - that the Analytical Engine is limited to “whatever we know how to order it to perform” - as but one expression of the claim that AI is, at heart, merely a wealth of carefully encoded human experience. Even if not consciously applied, this experience might still colour the programmers’ assumptions of the rules underlying life.

But with norns, interestingly, unprogrammed properties have emerged, such as bees swarming, and plants adapting to different conditions. Babbage wonders if technology is poised to evolve in ways that take it beyond human understanding. Perhaps with these techniques, we are beginning to witness not just life as we know it, but life as it could be?