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The Curious Evolution of Artificial Life

When it comes to research into Artificial Life, commercial projects have begun to outpace academic ones.

  • July 30, 2014

The term “Artificial Life” emerged in 1986 when the American computer scientist Christopher Langton coined it while organizing the first “Workshop on the Synthesis and Simulation of Living Systems.” Since then the idea of artificial life has spread through computer science into gaming, the study of artificial intelligence, and beyond.

One important factor in this spread has been the Web and the way it allows networked computing to generate complex environments in which artificial organisms can thrive and evolve. Today, Tim Taylor from Monash University in Australia outlines the history of artificial life on the Web and the way it might evolve in the future.

He divides the history of Web-based artificial life into two periods: before and after 2005, a characterization that corresponds roughly with the emergence of Web 2.0 and the collaborative behaviors that it allows.

One of the earliest networked artificial life experiments was based on the well-known A-Life system, Tierra. This was created in the early 1990s by the ecologist Tom Ray to simulate in silico the basic processes of evolutionary and ecological dynamics. After Ray began his work, he soon recognized the potential of the Web to create a large complex environment in which digital organisms could freely evolve. So he set up a project called Network Tierra to exploit this potential

The results of this experiment were mixed. One goal of Network Tierra was to reproduce the Cambrian explosion in which single-celled organisms on Earth evolved rapidly into multicellular ones and then into more complex animals.

The in silico experiment began with a human-designed multicellular organism consisting of two different cell types. This survived under natural selection, a significant success in itself, but the number of cell types never increased beyond two.

Nobody knows how or why the Cambrian explosion occurred but artificial life experiments have the potential to throw some important light on the issue, despite Tierra’s limited success.

At about the same time, various researchers launched a variety of other Web-based artificial life projects. These included Technosphere, a project in which online users could design creatures, release them into a virtual world and then receive email updates at key moments in their lives, for example when they interacted with other artificial animals. At one point Technosphere had a population of 90,000 creatures.

The online virtual world of Second Life emerged at about the same time that the Web was transitioning from Web 1.0 to Web 2.0. This world attracted a couple of interesting artificial life experiments in which fully functioning ecosystem allowed various types of plants and animals to evolve.

The emergence of Web 2.0 allowed more vibrant collaboration and interaction. One of the key technologies that makes this possible is client-side storage and computation in which most of the work is done by the user’s browser. One example is Pfeiffer, a system in which snowflakes of different patterns evolve under the influence of the user’s selection. All the work is done in the browser.

Taylor’s favorite Web-based artificial life project is a project known as The Wilderness Downtown. This combines A-life technologies such as flocking with real-time animation superimposed on Google Street View images of any address the user enters.

Taylor was clearly impressed when he first visited the site: “I was sure that what I had just witnessed would change the face of Artificial Life research.”

Indeed, The Wilderness Downtown was highly acclaimed and won many awards. But it’s fair to say that it hasn’t yet changed the face of artificial life research. One reason for this is that the commercial development of artificial life technologies are significantly ahead of academic work.

This is reflected in the success of a number of ventures that have gained Kickstarter funding. For example, WigglePlanet recently raised over $15,000 to fund the development of a project combining artificial life and augmented reality. Even more impressively, Steve Grand one of the early pioneers of artificial life games, has raised over $50,000 on Kickstarter to fund the development of a secretive A-Life project called Grandroids.

Perhaps commercial projects are the future for Web-based artificial life. But even so, there are many interesting scientific questions that artificial life could surely help to answer. Not least of these is the origin of the Cambrian explosion and a more detailed study of the factors and processes that have influenced evolution on Earth.

The fact that artificial life has fallen out of fashion in the academic world may be something to lament but it also provides an interesting opportunity.

Ref: arxiv.org/abs/1407.5719 : Artificial Life and the Web: WebAL Comes of Age

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