Bruce sterling. artificial life
The new scientific field of study called "Artificial Life" can be
defined as "the attempt to abstract the logical form of life from its
So far, so good. But what is life?
The basic thesis of "Artificial Life" is that "life" is best
understood as a complex systematic process. "Life" consists of
relationships and rules and interactions. "Life" as a property is
potentially separate from actual living creatures.
Living creatures (as we know them today, that is) are basically
made of wet organic substances: blood and bone, sap and cellulose,
chitin and ichor. A living creature — a kitten, for instance — is a
physical object that is made of molecules and occupies space and has
A kitten is indisputably "alive" — but not because it has the
"breath of life" or the "vital impulse" somehow lodged inside its body.
We may think and talk and act as if the kitten "lives" because it has a
mysterious "cat spirit" animating its physical cat flesh. If we were
superstitious, we might even imagine that a healthy young cat had
*nine* lives. People have talked and acted just this way for millennia.
But from the point-of-view of Artificial Life studies, this is a
very halting and primitive way of conceptualizing what's actually
going on with a living cat. A kitten's "life" is a *process, * with
properties like reproduction, genetic variation, heredity, behavior,
learning, the possession of a genetic program, the expression of that
program through a physical body. "Life" is a thing that *does,* not a
thing that *is* — life extracts energy from the environment, grows,
repairs damage, reproduces.
And this network of processes called "Life" can be picked apart,
and studied, and mathematically modelled, and simulated with
computers, and experimented upon — outside of any creature's living
"Artificial Life" is a very young field of study. The use of this
term dates back only to 1987, when it was used to describe a
conference in Los Alamos New Mexico on "the synthesis and
simulation of living systems." Artificial Life as a discipline is
saturated by computer-modelling, computer-science, and cybernetics.
It's conceptually similar to the earlier field of study called "Artificial
Intelligence." Artificial Intelligence hoped to extract the basic logical
structure of intelligence, to make computers "think." Artificial Life, by
contrast, hopes to make computers only about as "smart" as an ant —
but as "alive" as a swarming anthill.
Artificial Life as a discipline uses the computer as its primary
scientific instrument. Like telescopes and microscopes before them,
computers are making previously invisible aspects of the world
apparent to the human eye. Computers today are shedding light on
the activity of complex systems, on new physical principles such as
"emergent behavior," "chaos," and "self-organization."
For millennia, "Life" has been one of the greatest of
metaphysical and scientific mysteries, but now a few novel and
tentative computerized probes have been stuck into the fog. The
results have already proved highly intriguing.
Can a computer or a robot be alive? Can an entity which only
exists as a digital simulation be "alive"? If it looks like a duck, quacks
like a duck, waddles like a duck, but it in fact takes the form of pixels
on a supercomputer screen — is it a duck? And if it's not a duck, then
what on earth is it? What exactly does a thing have to do and be
before we say it's "alive"?