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Extreme Cyber Edge
Genetic Algorithms and the Evolution of Virtual Spaces
Figure 13.7.1: bi7a.jpg
Virtual Spaces Evolved from a Phenotypic Algorithm
As we saw in the previous section, organic artists using generative methods are able to create wonderfully interesting virtual worlds and creatures in them. Biota.org's project Nerve Garden illustrated how to populate a virtual world with simulated plants. Why then could you not generate a whole virtual world, making three dimensional structures "on the fly"? Well, you can! One great example of this is Eric Bucci's work at the University of Texas at Austin. Working with Professors Marcos Novak and Michael Benedikt, he has generated a large array of virtual architecture, one example of which is seen in the figure above. Michael Benedikt's seminal book Cyberspace, First Steps back in the early 1990s (and listed in our Bibliography) mentions generative architecture, notably Marcos Novak's "Liquid Architectures in Cyberspace". Eric was completing his masters degree and sent us this description of his work on the "embryology of virtual spaces":
This images is one generation in the evolution via genetic algorithm of a virtual space, starting at zero generations with a population of eight random members, through 60 generations of evolution. Both structure and texture of the model are produced by the genetic algorithm, but only structure is evaluated for fitness.
It is important to note that this algorithm is phenotypic rather than genotypic. That is, the characteristics which are passed from generation to generation are contained within each generation's physical structure rather than within a representative code structure, like a chromosome set. In effect, it is a genetic algorithm without genes. The algorithm which produced these structures was coded in Mathematica, a mathematical software package/programming language.
Eric then goes on to say something about the application of generative virtual architecture:
The recent emergence of virtual environments as a realm of architectural design and inquiry precipitates questions regarding design philosophies in virtual versus physical environments. The search for valid architectures of Cyberspace will become increasingly important as the technology which allows its existence becomes more pervasive.
Concurrently, the continuing development of computer technology has shed light on the use of algorithms, most recently genetic algorithms, as an avenue for addressing problems in a wide range of disciplines, including biology, economics, and reluctantly, architecture. The use of the genetic paradigm, with its mechanisms of mutation, fitness evaluation and selection offers a mode of design with distinct differences from traditional methods. My thesis proposes that genetic algorithms can provide an enhanced link between design and construction in architecture, a framework for generating and managing complexity in design, and an effective means of access to inhabitation of Cyberspace.
Visit Eric Bucci's home page at: http://mather.ar.utexas.edu/people/alumni/bucci/bucci.html
Digi's Diary Let Life Out (Or In)!
So, why would life want to squeeze through the cracks into digital space anyway? Well, for billions of years life has struggled to build up complex bodies and ecosystems only to have them destroyed by one mass extinction after another. Whether it is an asteroid, overheated volcanoes or a too-successful member of Earth's biota (i.e. us), mass extinctions erase the fruits of immeasurable evolutionary toil. Some argue that mass extinctions are a kind of spring cleaning that opens up new opportunities for evolution.
However one looks at it, the inevitable and final mass extinction is on its way. Far in the future when the sun's hydrogen fuel is spent and it enters its red giant stage, our puny Earth will be consumed as an afterthought. So ultimately all this experimentation, striving, living and dying is going to come to an end, without much of a trace left behind. This destiny is assured if Earth's life remains pinned down by gravity onto this one planet. Surprisingly, the digital realm gives life some properties it could use to escape this ultimate extinction. For one, life represented purely as information structures can recombine and reproduce much more rapidly than its molecule-based forebears. Another point is that digital life forms would not be tied to the supply of atoms or have to compete with the body plans and survival strategies that occupy all the current niches in the physical world.
Another potent property of life in the virtual is that it can travel through free space or conduits such as wires or optical fibers at the speed of light. Aim a laser at just the right spot on the moon and it will bounce off a corner reflector left by an Apollo crew back in the 1970s. If you packaged up your artificial life as a datastream you could laser it on a neat round little trip to and from the lunar surface. Well, you might say, that hardly counts as sending life to the moon, if there is nothing to receive and keep it there. Yes, I would agree, but I would counter that the manned Apollo lunar landings themselves did a similar kind of bio-reflection. They used enormously costly effort and large cumbersome vehicles to send men there only to return them back to the Earth.
Galileo's new brain
The only examples of working off-planet receivers are unmanned planetary probes like Galileo. Galileo is a large robot spacecraft now orbiting the Jupiter system. Just after its launch from Earth, Galileo had an unfortunate accident with its main antenna, which failed to open. Mission controllers had to decide whether to scrap the mission or work out a fix. Galileo had one remaining functional antenna, known as a low gain antenna, through which all communications with Earth now had to pass at an excruciatingly low bit rate (far slower than your modem). Mission planners decided to rewrite a great deal of the software that controlled Galileo's primitive vision, communications, and other sensing systems. Uploading this software took days but after it was completed, Galileo had a new brain. As you read this, Galileo is now carrying out its mission to peer down at the moons of Jupiter, and study the giant planet and its electromagnetic field and rings. Galileo sees in a series of 'jailbars' which allows mission controllers to quickly scan a scene and tightly focus the camera on features they find interesting. Galileo also compresses its data much more than its original programs were designed to do, as this technology improved so much in the few years since Galileo was launched. In a strange way, a little piece of the mechanism of Earth's life forms was transmitted out the Jovian system and stuck.
Of course, the software running inside Galileo will itself be turned off when the spacecraft reaches its end of life. This software and its host, Galileo, both lack the ability to reproduce and carry on. One could imagine some far future date when such vehicles and the protoplasm of software and data within them have the ability to use local resources and add on to the vehicle. This type of craft, which would undoubtedly look radically different that anything we might conceive of today, might employ nanotechnology to stream in molecules and weave or extrude new structures.
What would a nano-biota craft make? I think that a kind of artificial lichens may be a good bet. On Earth, lichens colonize the barest rock and live by virtue of colonies of sunlight absorbing bacteria which give them their basic energy source. The lichens also use acids to break down the rock and prepare the ground for other life forms to follow. A sort of nano-lichen engineered to live on the surface of asteroids or comets or any small particle floating in the Solar System would absorb unending solar radiation and grow its own RAM. These lichens would bud spores with multi million year lifespans which can colonize other asteroids or drift into other star systems.
A little help from our friends
So why is he so down on humans, you might be asking? I think the human race might find their destiny in space but I don't think that human beings will sail forth on Star Trek-like ships any time soon. These ships, with their nineteenth century pipes and valves will be prone to failure. As can be seen by Apollo 13, the space shuttle Challenger, space station Mir and any number of space systems, conditions beyond the biosphere are harsh and system failures over time are highly likely and often fatal to a crew of biologics like us. So what do we need to settle the Solar System? Perhaps a little help from our friends.
Some argue that Earth's atmosphere and oceans were processed by early single celled life forms which made them habitable by later more complex life. Could not digital/nano-life forms prepare the infrastructure that would allow humans to safely and cost effectively settle other parts of the Solar System? Could these life forms crack oxygen and other gasses from the lunar regolith, could they grow energy generation matrices? Perhaps this type of life form would serve needs inside the Earth's biosphere, helping to clean up pollution and generate food to allow us to free up agricultural land. Of course nano-biologics, as you might call them, could also colonize the our own world to the detriment of us and our brethren here. Don't panic, though, I think we might have a few decades to use our computer spaces to evolve some forms in simulation before we can fabricate them in atoms.
So where is this 'digital life' now?
All of this seems so far off in the future, so what is happening today? We have all heard of computer software viruses and the debates over whether or not they constitute 'real life' or not. Experiments like Tom Ray's Tierra (see: http://www.hip.atr.co.jp/~ray/tierra/tierra.html) seems like a very convincing life-like ecosystem. A million ten year olds with genetic hacking tools may ignite a 'digital Cambrian explosion'. One of the goals of the Biota Nerve Garden project described earlier in this chapter is allow ten year olds to hack L-systems and grow their own plants in virtual worlds.
Of course the digital primordial soup is a fragile and ephemeral space and relatively tiny compared with the Earth's ancient oceans. But as far as the properties afforded life by digital representation, human beings, acting as surrogates, may be providing life its one best chance to break the bonds of Earthly limitations. Perhaps as we perpetrate our own mass extinction, we can open this new niche, and let life in (or out, depending on how you look at it)?
What does this have to do with avatars?
After all this you might be asking: so grass will grow in virtual worlds and force all of us avatars to mow the lawn every week., so what's the big deal? Well, life interesting not only because we are surrounded by people and buildings but by the other living things. In modern day life it is sometimes easy to forget that the Earth is inhabited by a rich biota. We will only really miss it when it is gone, it seems. So digital life in virtual worlds will make them richer and more interesting places. Maybe face to face with a strange and evolving biota on our computer screens will remind us how fascinating and precious life in the real Earth really is.
So what about the virtual E.T. ?
Some people claim that we won't have to wait for UFOs to land to meet aliens, we will meet them as a form of digital biota on our computer screens! Do I think we will soon see the virtual E.T.? Well, years ago scientists thought that we could create artificial intelligence through software. It turned out to be a lot harder than anyone thought, as we had no good working definition for intelligence or even for thought processes. My own humble opinion is that we will see some simple undeniably alive in digital form some time early in the next century. I suspect that it will look a lot like a virtual slime mold. A slime mold is a fascinating form of life in that individual cells come together to form a single colonial organism for a while before reverting back to individual cells. Slime molds could be a great model for net-based life forms as the layout of servers and the pipes between them maps well into an organism made of distributed parts that come together at points. Search agents traversing the Internet today and creating central indeces seem to suggest that this form is possible.
Digital biota should provide us all a great deal of entertainment and a chance to learn about the rules guiding living things. It will be a long time before some fully evolved form walks out of the net and onto the surface of some distant world. If nothing else, this vision might provide us at least one answer to the question: why are we doing this?
From the mission statement of Biota.org: Life Crossing a New Barrier
By Bruce Damer, November 29-30, 1996
In its 3.8 billion year existence, the great collective of Earth's life forms has pushed through barriers to express itself into new realms. It may have begun with the barrier of cold water around hot, chemical rich oceanic vents. Another likely barrier was the radiation-exposed top layers of ocean. The water-air barrier, the water-land barrier and then the land-air barrier were all breached in turn, allowing life to flow through. Living things were carried across each barrier by other living things. Those surrogate barrier breachers may have been nature's greatest opportunists or just forced into that role by accident. The first waves of simple living forms sweeping through each barrier transformed the new territories and set down the infrastructure for more complex life to follow.
Few would disagree that the Earth-space barrier is the gateway to another great territory. Some argue that thoughts themselves are a viable form of life, expressed across the mind-meme barrier through language. We posit that another significant barrier is now being breached. It might be called the DNA-digital barrier or the atomic-bitomic barrier. It is the expression of life into the pools and channels of Earth's collective compute spaces. Some may argue that software viruses, evolving genetic algorithms and other forms of what we call 'digital biota' are merely simplistic emulators of real life processes. Others claim that all software is a bona fide form of life, competing ferociously for system resources and human attention.
Regardless of whether we are in the digital pre-biotic era or not, we believe that the crossing of the atomic-bitomic barrier is inevitable and is a valid expression of life into a new and viable ecological realm. As human beings perpetrate a mass extinction on the Earth, so may the collective force of life be pressing against the bitomic barrier, using us as an unwitting surrogate to access a rich new realm for biodiversity. The bitomic expression of life may also be closely linked to the Earth-space and mind-meme expressions.
Freed from the constraints of chemistry and able to travel literally at the speed of light, bitomic life could transit the solar system in hours, but would only take hold if some storage and expressor mechanism was out there to receive it. The digital realm may itself be a kind of surrogate, for if molecular nanofabricators one day permit the re-crossing of the bitomic-atomic barrier, like the ancestors of whales returning to the ocean, digital biota will evolve and emerge well adapted to the vast ocean of space. Thus, life finds a way through the keyhole of human technology escaping both the bounds of Earth and the mortal coils of the double helix.
If digital biota begin as pure creations of our reason and our art, then they are close cousins to memes, those virulent thoughts which step from mind to mind. Perhaps digital biota will be ideal carriers of thoughts, capturing whole ecologies of memes and allowing us witness and better understand the seething agent societies of our own minds. Our survival depends primarily upon improving this understanding.