Scientists who need to get ALife

Silicon Second Nature

September 17, 1999

While artificial intelligence (AI) attempted to model the mind, artificial life (ALife) workers aim to build computer simulations of the life processes that support the development and evolution of such things as minds and even, possibly, spirituality.

It was in fact Terry Winograd who in his book with Fernando Flores, Understanding Computers and Cognition (Ablex 1986), pointed out the need for a wider perspective beyond the symbolic representation of intelligence provided by AI. Other critics of AI (such as John Searle) have argued that minds are properties of living organisms and thus the attempt to build an artificial mind is doomed to failure.

Instead of giving in to the doom and gloom merchants, the ALife community has raised the stakes by taking on the more ambitious enterprise of building life which could exist inside a computer or as an autonomous robot. While some of these programs represent ants and mosquitoes, others exhibit lifelike behaviour that could be considered new instances of "life-as-it-could-be". Such populations of digital organisms could replicate, evolve and exhibit intelligence, and be alive, according to Stefan Helmreich in the book under review, Silicon Second Nature .

As a radical anthropologist, Helmreich argues that these "possible biologies" are inflected by scientists' cultural conceptions and their understandings of gender, kinship, sexuality, race, economics and cosmology, and by the social and political contexts in which these understandings take shape. As such, ALife transcribes culturally particular details into its new creations.

The book is centred on human communities working on ALife projects, in particular that at the Santa Fe Institute, while at the same time attempting to show how the work of these people is transforming the meaning of nature, evolution and life.

Being basically an anthropology thesis, the book reports the author's attempts to immerse himself in the "other culture" of ALife researchers. It begins with a description of the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico, considered the nursery of ALife. It then gives details of specific projects and simulation experiments. Chapter four describes how ALife might serve as a sort of religion for some of the people who work in it. Researchers interviewed claimed to have discovered in ALife a somewhat spiritual sense of the world.

For me the book begins to become interesting in chapter five, where it deals with definitions of life and nature. Traditionally scientists have argued that "life" and "nature" are ultimately separate from human descriptions of them. "Nature has meant for many of us that which is moral, inevitable, given, perhaps rationally or harmoniously designed."

However, ALife is beginning to change this dominant certainty. If "life" might not be an exclusively "natural" object or process then "nature" itself may be an outcome of histories of practical conclusions about what works rather than what is true. ALife lends scientific credibility to the postmodern view where doubt replaces certainty as the common currency.

Silicon Second Nature is both a record of the author's journey of discovery and a tutorial on ALife and its implications. The combination of a "popular science" book on ALife and an anthropology thesis is not an easy one. However, for those willing to persevere this book is a rewarding read.

Masoud Yazdani is professor of digital media, University of the West of England.

Silicon Second Nature

Author - Stefan G. Helmreich
ISBN - 0 520 20799 8
Publisher - University of California Press
Price - £22.50
Pages - 326

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