Cutting Edge

January 7, 2000

Steve Grand is director of The Cyberlife Research Institute and a pioneer in the bid to create

artificial life-forms. He was awarded an OBE in the New Year Honours. As a child I was bullied mercilessly by a certain class of people. Those people have since grown up and swapped the playground for the golf club and their leather jackets for grey business suits. Nevertheless, they still like to crib off my homework

These were well-balanced, outgoing types, for whom a stimulating intellectual conversation could begin with the words "Did you watch the match last night?" I, on the other hand, was a nerd - an awkward geek who preferred playing with machines. The well-balanced folks used to mock me for staying in and dabbling with my chemistry set. "Go get a life," they said. So I did.

The first time I went and got a life, I did it the easy way. The result was called Chris and he is now 18. However, my second attempt was rather more unusual. A decade later, blissfully unencumbered by any qualifications for the job, I set out to create life the hard way.

Living things are what emerge when enough of the right kinds of components get put together in the right configurations: Assemblages of mindless, mechanical objects such as neurones, biochemicals and genes miraculously unite to produce something with a mind of its own. In 1992 I embarked on a nine-month project to attempt the same trick in software - to create artificial lifeforms from complex aggregates of simulated biological building blocks. I did this under the cunning disguise of writing a computer game and, five years later, my nine-month project came to fruition.

The first creature was called Ron, which admittedly is not a terribly heroic name for the patriarch of a new species (but did you know that King Arthur, wielder of the fabled sword Excalibur, also had a spear called Ron?). Next came a female, more traditionally named Eve, who quickly responded to the twinkle in Ron's eye. The pair have since spawned a whole dynasty of digital lifeforms called Norns, kept as pets by almost a million enthusiasts throughout the world. They now outnumber the world's population of elephants by five to one.

This was much to the delight of the men in suits, who profited from the proceeds. However, the whole enterprise was only possible because I was given unprecedented space, time and freedom. As my new-found academic friends will testify, artificial life is a difficult field. It required vision and patience from the men in grey, and I thank them for it.

Nevertheless, it appears to have been an aberration. British industry seems ill- equipped to understand or incubate advanced technology. Most executives have enough difficulty just plugging in their PCs! Sadly, my suit-wearing colleagues lacked sufficient patience and technical understanding. To me, the Norns were just the beginning of a whole new breed of biologically inspired machines, but the moneymen are not so far-sighted. Just as I was beginning to get somewhere, the company has decided to focus solely on games and my advanced research division has been closed down.

So, I have formed a new company and gone off to play with my chemistry set once again. I owe it to Ron and Eve. With luck and a fair wind, a new breed of friendly, living technology will emerge as a result. If I get it wrong and unwittingly create a warlike master race, I only hope the men in grey suits end up first against the wall! First came Eve and Ron, but then the men in grey suits pulled the plug on the programme. But artificial life lives on... 'If I get it wrong and unwittingly

create a

warrior-like master race, I only hope the men in grey suits end up first against the wall!'

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