Steve Grand got only two A levels but enjoyed crystallising DNA and "running amok with radioactivity" in the school science labs. The self-taught biologist decided to create a real ecosystem within a computer, in the guise of a game. He asked Dave Cliff, an expert in artificial life at the University of Sussex, to evaluate his product. Cliff, who is now at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, found that behind the game's cute-looking creatures was one of the most complex artificial life environments ever created. He was so impressed that he joined the project as a consultant.
The game, Creatures, has sold 600,000 copies since 1996. It has a website which gets about 500,000 hits a week, and an Internet newsgroup, alt.games.creatures. Steve Grand's company, Cyberlife, has now produced Creatures 2, with even more complex biology. "By the year 2020 we want to have human-level intelligence in a machine," says the game's producer Toby Simpson.
Creatures does not have its own conference yet, but last month's Digital Biota 2 conference was sponsored by Cyberlife and held at Magdalen College, Cambridge just across the river from the company's headquarters. Speakers included Chris Langton, organiser of the first artificial life conference; Richard Dawkins whose book The Blind Watchmaker featured breeding experiments with computer "biomorphs"; Rudy Rucker, computer scientist at San Jose University and author of the novels Software and Wetware; from the Digital Village company, author Douglas Adams and colleague Richard Harris; from the Sussex University artificial intelligentsia Margaret Boden, also Aaron Sloman, now at the University of Birmingham; Gordon Selley and Jane Prophet whose Technosphere environment began its (artificial) life at the University of Westminster; and Demetri Terzopoulos, chief breeder of the University of Toronto's artificial animals.