Enter the maze

Pass the Screwdriver Please, Igor

by Paul Curzon, Queen Mary University of London

Heard of Frankenstein? He was obsessed with creating life. In the original story by Mary Shelley, he succeeded, though his creation was treated as a "Monster" struggling to cope with the gift of life it was given. The film Blade Runner explored similar ideas about how intelligent life is created, in this case androids that believe they are human, and the consequences for the creatures concerned.

Fiction? Not totally. Several groups of computer scientists are exploring what it means to create non-biological life, and how it might be done. Some are looking at robot life, working at the level of insect life-forms. Others are looking at creating intelligent life within cyberspace.

Alife is born

For 50 years or more scientists have tried to create artificial intelligences. They have had a great deal of success in specific areas such as computer vision and chess playing programs. However none of these programs really cuts it as being life or even intelligent in the way humans are. A small band of computer scientists have been trying a different approach that they believe will ultimately lead to the creation of new life forms. Life forms that could even claim to be conscious (and who would we be to disagree with them if they do?) These scientists believe life can't be engineered in a piecemeal way, but that the whole being has to be created as a coherent whole. Their approach is to build the basic building blocks and let life emerge from them.

The idea can be seen in part in Sodarace, where you can build your own creatures that move around a virtual world. One approach to building creatures, such as a spider, would be to try and work out mathematical equations about how each leg moves and program those equations. The alternative artificial life way is to instead program up the laws of physics such as gravity and friction and how masses, springs and muscles behave according to those laws. Then just put these basic bits together in a way that corresponds to a spider. With this approach you don't have to work out in advance every eventuality (what if it comes to a wall) and write code to deal with it. Instead natural behaviour emerges. The artificial life community believe, not just life-like movement, but life-like intelligence can emerge in a similar way. Rather than programming the behaviour of muscles you program the behaviour of neorones and then build brains out of them, together with the basic biochemistry of an immune system and the like.

Want to know more? - then read Steve Grand's book: "Creation", on how he created what has been claimed to be "the nearest thing to artificial life yet"...and started life as the game "Creatures". Then have a go at creating artificial life yourself.