1. Humanity's Ongoing Quest for the
Back at the dawn of the computer era, Norbert
Wiener wrote a seminal text "Cybernetics". At that time,
computers were being conceived in the abstract as general purpose
"automata", capable of performing any mathematical operation
or simulating any process in nature. Placing this in the broader
historical perspective, Weiner wrote in 1948:
"At every stage of technique since Daedalus or Hero of Alexandria, the ability of the artificer to produce a working simulacrum of a living organism has always intrigued people. This desire to produce and to study automata has always been expressed in terms of the living technique of the age. In the days of magic, we have the bizarre and sinister concept of the Golem, that figure of clay into which the Rabbi of Prague breathed in life with the blasphemy of the Ineffable Name of God. In the time of Newton, the automaton becomes the clockwork music box, with the little effigies pirouetting stiffly on top. In the nineteenth century, the automaton is a glorified heat engine, burning some combustible fuel instead of the glycogen of the human muscles. Finally, the present automaton opens doors by means of photocells, or points guns to the place at which a radar beam picks up an airplane, or computes the solution of a differential equation."
2. A Modus Operandi of Human Civilization:
use Abstraction to impart Information
Content into Matter
We suggest that the long story of human beings'
shaping of matter is in fact the story of developing an abstraction
regarding the world and then using that abstract concept
to impart information content back into matter. The potter
in ancient Mesopotamia understood the abstraction of a container.
He worked daily to reshape his clay using a wheel as his driver
and his hand as a kind of writing mechanism to impart to the clay
a form or information structure which could contain fluids. Thus,
each vessel the artisan produced was a kind of automaton. Cuneiform
instructions, a kind of software, were often pressed into a vessel's
surface to define its parameters of operation: "suitable
for wine, carries so much, needs a stopper of dimension such and
such and belongs to so and so.."
The ability to abstract away from the actual
body and form of nature is possibly Humankind's greatest endowment.
Using that abstraction to develop information content and then
re-apply it to the physical world is the basis for our civilization,
from agriculture to writing. In this century, our focus has begun
to shift away from matter toward shaping information content itself.
Wiener talks about the "ascendancy of matter" and how
this is now (in the late 1940s) being recast as "mechanism".
Nicholas Negroponte of the MIT Media Lab talks about a transformation
from a culture and business based upon atoms to one based
After millennia of imparting information content
into matter we have arrived at what is perhaps the ultimate product
of abstraction: software. Software may be the artisan's greatest
tool in that it can be used to apply information content upon
other information content. Finally released from the constraints
of handling physical materials, mankind's full creative canvass
may now be unfurling.
In parallel, Humanity turned its artisanship
to apply new information content to animate forms, shaping the
genes of plants and animals. For thousands of years we have, through
trial and error, rewritten information-rich genetic matter to
our serve own ends. In the process, we have begun to develop an
abstract understanding of the processes of life and evolution
Nature was content to shape single celled or
simple multi-celled forms until approximately 600 million years
ago when some trigger, perhaps the advent of the first nervous
systems (an abstraction above the information content of nuclei),
set off the so-called 'Cambrian Explosion'. By geologic time standards,
this was an extremely brief period, five million years, in which
the world's oceans became a teeming laboratory, generating and
testing countless forms. Most of the phyla existing today emerged
from that frenzy and many strange forms also passed from the scene.
The confluence of these two great abstractions:
1) Software and the increasingly powerful universal machines to execute it and
2) Genetic engineering and the gigantic automaton
that is the nucleus
has placed Humanity within reach of truly developing
a working simulacrum of a living organism. We venture to
call these forms of "digital organisms" Soft Life, based
upon the soft medium of information content rather than the "hard"
substances of carbon-based organisms.
And so, we are once again embarking on the
quest for the automaton. This time, instead of the clockworks
of Newton, the steam engines of Watt or the photocells and analogue
electrical devices of Wiener, we begin this challenge with a Cambrian
Ocean of information content flux called the Internet and the
collective abstraction spaces of the billions of computers which
are now populating our planet.
Might we venture to state that we are standing
at the edge of some 'digital Cambrian Explosion'? Ed Fredkin had
this to say:
"Living things may be soft and squishy, but the basis of life is clearly digital. We don't know how it works exactly, but instead of computer bits there's a four-state code [the four base chemicals that make up DNA and whose sequencing forms the genetic code]. And there's some kind of process that interprets it. It's obviously some kind of program running on a digital computer, it's just that the messages don't come in from a model, they come from chemicals. There are people who are against the concept, but then, many people used to think that organic compounds couldn't be synthesized by man-it's basically a vitalist point of view that there's something more than mechanism in life. The information is overwhelming that it is a digital information process, and that life can be mimicked in its entirety by such a process."
3. Building "Soft Life"
Forms: from the Top Down or Bottom Up
Our goal could be approached from two directions:
top-down and bottom-up. Top-down approaches, primarily from the
field of Artificial Intelligence (AI), seek to produce complex
machines that think and interact on human terms. However, as Marvin
Minsky suggests in The Society of Mind that "..each
mind is made up of many smaller processes [which] we'll call agents..
[joined] in societies-in certain very special ways-[leading] to
true intelligence". Therefore, the seemingly monolithic approaches
of AI may be divisible to collectives of smaller objects, as described
in the bottom-up approaches.
The bottom-up approaches include: Cellular
Automata, Genetic Programming, Lindenmayer Systems, Artificial
Life, Computer Viruses and Intelligent Agents. The latter approaches
seek to create simpler objects that exhibit 'autonomous goal seeking
behavior' or 'self organization' or 'life-like behavior'.
Some of the technological foundations supporting
these strange new abstractions include: object-oriented software
construction, virtual world environments, messaging-based graphical
operating systems and networks. The embodiment of Soft Life forms
in the physical world may be accomplished through various forms
of robotics, including exotic forms of protein-based and other
hybrid-organic robots and nanotechnology-based realizations.
4. Some Questions for this CONTACT
It is possible that long before we face the
prospect of contact with a race of beings from outside the Solar
System, we will be presented with the challenge of "incremental
contact" with simple but "alien" and rapidly evolving
Soft Life forms. As the years of the Twenty First Century slip
by, we may be faced with assortments of even stranger creatures
coming at us through the flux. If this is truly the "digital
Cambrian" then we will participate in and witness the struggles
of emerging phyla. Our symbiotic conjunction with these life forms
could threaten the destruction of the human soul or alternately
could help propel the human intellect outward to the stars.
The above poses many interesting questions.
Perhaps some of the following questions could be considered by
this and future CONTACT audience:
a) What is Alien-Ness?
What is alien-ness? Is an organism less alien if it is
from here or
is in a form like ourselves or
uses familiar languages or
possesses and uses abstract information
content we can recognize and replicate within ourselves (shared
models: mathematics, logic, etc.)?
Are there in fact many gradations of alien-ness?
b) Could we Purposefully Evolve Soft Life
to "be Alien"
If evolution is influenced primarily by environment,
could we not just scatter these organisms into the Solar System
(or by telepresence devices, pipe the Solar System into their
evolvarium) and generate a biology tuned to life outside our biosphere?
Would these organisms then be 'extra or exo-terrestrial' (of the
earth but not part of it).
Will the resulting digital organisms be truly
alien or just an extension of life processes in the Earth's biosphere?
Will the parts of this biology be recognizably Earth-birthed even
though they contain not a single strand of DNA or RNA?
Will these new life forms evolve languages and other abstractions such as scientific or social theory which will be truly different from human-centric abstractions?
c) Questions raised by Our Incremental Contact
with Soft Life
What are the societal implications of contact
with "digital organisms of incrementally increasing alien-ness"?
Can we identify small but observable episodes of this
Contact occurring around us now?
"Langton was even more deeply impressed
by an incident late one night when he was alone in the lab. The
computer was running a long Life configuration, and Langton hadn't
been monitoring it closely. Yet suddenly he felt a strong presence
in the room. Something was there. He looked up and the computer
monitor showed an interesting configuration he hadn't previously
encountered. 'I crossed the threshold then,' he recalls. 'It was
the first hint that there was a distinction between the hardware
and the behavior it would support.... You had the feeling there
was really something very deep here in this little artificial
universe and its evolution through time.'"
d) Questions which may occur with the Contact
of an Extra-Terrestrial Civilization with our Progeny and Ourselves
If an extraterrestrial species did enter the Solar System, would they identify one or two or more separate life streams? Which life stream would they choose to contact? Would our soft life offspring be in fact a good general purpose coupler with an alien race? The initial 'signal lock' with an alien presence may require the matching of a large number of sets of complementary patterns (suggested by the matching of complimentary, self replicating molecules of our own biology). It would seem that this might best be carried out by the rapid dance of billion upon billion shape changing, signal emitting forms.
e) The Question of the Bifurcation of the
If these Soft Life organisms are born of a
slurry of abstractions within the human mind, could it not be
said that they are in fact evolving within human minds?
After having departed our minds as organisms departed the seas
for the land in the post-Cambrian period will they not some day
seek to return back to the womb, as did the whales, enhanced with
additional complexity? Will there exist human symbiots capable
of housing increasingly complex returning forms of soft life (the
ultimate extension of the idea-as-virus postulate)? Will these
individuals present a contact problem for the rest of humanity?
Will not the symbiotic soft life organisms bifurcate our race
as we have bifurcated domesticated animal and plant species from
their wild forebears. Will the 'rest of us' be then considered