DigitalSpace Commons Presentation
CONTACT XII (1995) Conference Presentation
Our Contact with Soft Life, the first "Exo-Terrestrials"
presented by: Bruce Damer of: Autolab Research, Santa Cruz, California March 10, 1995

1. Humanity's Ongoing Quest for the Automaton

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 upon bits.
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 itself.
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 Audience:

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? It 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?
For Example:

"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 Human Species
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 'wild forebears'?

© 1995 Bruce Damer
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