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Digital Biota 2

The Second Annual Conference on Cyberbiology September 10-13, 1998


Last Autumn, high in the Canadian Rockies, "life as it used to be" met "life as it might become," as the Burgess Shale fossil organisms of the Middle Cambrian played host to a motley collection of palaeontologists, computer scientists, artificial lifers and organic artists. The event was Digital Biota 1, a conference to discuss nothing less than the past, present and future of life on Earth.

The talks were as eclectic as the speakers, and ranged from morphogenetic waves in nematode embryos to whether software can ever be considered genuinely alive; from the puzzle of Anomalocaris to the curious properties of the NetTierra digital ecosystem; from computational applications of evolution to the Xenobiology of conjectured alien species.

This year's follow-on event, "Digital Biota 2," is set in Cambridge, England on September 10-13, 1998, and shifts the focus more squarely onto the future. Mankind now has within its grasp the power to synthesise true artificial life, playing out Dr. Frankenstein's dream in both Cyberspace and Realspace. How far have we got, and where do we go from here? How do we go about generating complex, intelligent, perhaps even conscious living entities using software? What are the implications of success? This conference, co-titled "The Second Annual Conference on Cyberbiology," aims to find out.

In the mediaeval setting of Magdalene College, Cambridge, leading experts from the natural and computing sciences will gather to consider how best to go about fusing Biology with Machine to create the first radically new kind of life on this planet in nearly four billion years. Simple forms of these digital biota exist inside computers today, but they are little more than intellectual curiosities or amusing pets. Their successors of the near future will inhabit cyberspace and the real world, where they will carry out useful but mundane tasks that humans no longer wish to perform.

In the far distant future, our path and theirs might diverge, as they gain greater autonomy and intelligence; perhaps ultimately it will be they who keep us as pets! In the mean time, such artificial life forms are an inevitable and exciting part of the coming techno-biological revolution, in which the simple, stupid, steam-age technology of the present gives way to the more organic, adaptable and approachable technologies of the future.


Preliminary Call for Participation

Many of the more interesting properties of living systems are emergent phenomena, found only in complete organisms or communities of those organisms, not in their isolated components. Both Science and Technology therefore stand to benefit greatly from attempts to synthesise complete creatures and ecosystems of creatures. This conference focuses on the simulation of complete, multi-functional, non-trivial organisms, whose behaviour is an emergent consequence of the interactions of biologically plausible building blocks.

This conference invites participation from people who work on or are interested in such "grand syntheses." The intention is to gather specialists in relevant areas who also have a background in, or penchant for, holistic approaches. Some questions for discussion are:

How do we go about constructing complete, intelligent artificial life forms? What should their brains be like, or their physiological systems?

The first conference in this series was held in Banff, Canada in 1997, drawing participants from such diverse fields as Palaeontology, 3D Computer Graphics, Evolutionary Art and Artificial Intelligence. Last year's topics revolved around the following questions: 1) "What does the future hold for Earth's biota and will we survive our own "great experiment" with the biosphere?" 2) "In our efforts to model biological processes in software, some claim that we will initiate a 'digital Cambrian explosion' of information-based life forms inhabiting the Earth's collective compute spaces. If this occurs, what forms and direction will opportunistic digital biota take, and what will be the consequences for humanity?"

This year, the activity takes a more practical stance and looks to the near future. Rather than simply assume this process will occur spontaneously, we hope to lay out a road map for how to make it occur. Mankind is on the verge of being able to create systems worthy of description as "living things" - Digital Biota 2 is all about how to do it.

Relevant topics

Current Confirmed Speakers

Richard Dawkins,
Charles Simonyi Chair of Public Understanding of Science, and a Professorial Fellow of New College, Oxford

Douglas Adams,
Author and Chief Fantasist at The Digital Village

Demetri Terzopoulos,
Professor of Computer Science and Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Toronto

Larry Yaeger,
programmer-scientist, Apple Computer Corporation

Steve Grand,
Director of Technology at CyberLife Technology, Ltd.

Aaron Sloman,
Professor of Artificial Intelligence and Cognitive Science, The University of Birmingham

Richard Harris,
Research Director and one of the founding partners of the Digital Village

Steven Rooke,
self-organised individual

Rudy Rucker,
professor of computer science at San Jose State University

Sue Wilcox,
Journalist and A-life evangelist

Chris Winter,
Development Director, CyberLife Technology, Ltd

Bruce Damer,
founding director of the Contact Consortium


This year's venue is Magdalene College (pronounced "maudlin"), Cambridge, England. On the banks of the River Cam, Magdalene is a mediaeval building, dating from 1428, and was the alma mater of Samuel Pepys, whose library is housed in the college. Pepys (who was a contemporary of Isaac Newton) looks down at us from the wall of the ancient dining hall, where electricity has never been installed and dinner is served by candlelight. A perfect location for intense round-table discussions and creative thought!

Conference accommodation is provided in the college itself, which also has secluded gardens just right for informal group conversations. Just across the river are CyberLife's offices, where the technology starved will find email, technology demonstration facilities and the other comforts of modern life.

The programme is currently being finalised, but includes an exciting international guest speaker list. We aim for a congenial, round-table feel to the event where provocative, far-sighted talks are the order of the day, rather than dry, technical papers. In between talks and discussions, we plan to organise a number of social events, including a "scientific treasure hunt" around historic Cambridge and punting on the River Cam.


The spirit of Digital Biota 2 is lively, provocative discussion, rather than an unending series of stagnant presentations. We are fortunate to have guest presenters stimulating each discussion drawn from a range of backgrounds, from the US and Europe, from academia and industry.

Evening dinner lectures are provided by eminent guest speakers, with a keynote on the first night delivered by the world-renowned scientist, lecturer and author Richard Dawkins, Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University.

The schedule for the conference is as follows:

Day Time Event Speaker Title

Thursday, 15:00 Registration and Official Conference Treasure Hunt
September 10th 18:45 Welcome Steve Grand
19:00 Keynote Richard Dawkins The view from real life
(Evening sponsored by Coopers and Lybrand)
20:00 Dinner
21:30 Discussion and Relaxation

9:00 Talk Steve Grand Where Newton went wrong
September 11th 9:45 Talk Bruce Damer How and why is life trying to get into digital space?
10:30 Coffee
11:00 Talk Richard Harris Uses and function of Artificial Life
11:45 Talk Sue Wilcox State of the art - a summary
12:30 Lunch
13:30 Talk Larry Yeagar The evolution of life and intelligence
14:15 Talk Tom Ray Digital biospheres
15:00 Reception, Demonstrations and Tea, sponsored by Scientific Generics
17:00 Relaxation
19:00 Dinner
20:30 Debate Douglas Adams

9:00 Talk Demetri Terzopoulos Artificial Animals
September 12th 9:45 Talk
10:30 Coffee
11:00 Talk Steven Rooke Symbiogenesis
11:45 Talk Aaron Sloman Brains and consciousness
12:30 Lunch
13:30 Talk Chris Winter Analogue: the 2nd coming
14:15 Talk Jane Prophet Technosphere
15:00 Tea
15:30 Social event - Punting on the River Cam
18:30 Keynote Maggie Boden The Social Implications of Artificial Life
19:30 Dinner

September 13th
9:00 Talk Rudy Rucker Artificial life and science fiction
9:45 Talk Stuart Gold Architecting Cyberspace
10:30 Coffee
11:00 Closing Keynote Chris Langton Summing up
12:00 Thanks Bruce Damer/
Steve Grand
12:30 Lunch



Digital Biota 2 will be held in beautiful Cambridge, England. Cambridge is a short 50 minute train journey from London's King's Cross Station and 2 hours from London Heathrow Airport. Stanstead Airport is only 20 minutes away. Detailed directions will be provided but a variety of information about Cambridge and surrounding areas is available at CamNet. Railtrack provides on-line timetables.

For those who have never experienced a British summer, suffice it to say that the weather can be unpredictable, however, previous Septembers have been warm and sunny.

Previous Conference
Information about the initiators of the series and last year's Digital Burgess conference is available at http://www.biota.org.

Conference and accomodation will be at Cambridge University's Magdelene College. Full email, fax, internet access and other trappings of modern life are available at CyberLife's modern offices directly across from the college.

Background Information
For more information about Cyberbiology and its applications, there is a selection of papers, information and links available on the CyberLife website.

Enquiries should be emailed to sarah.reardon@cyberlife.co.uk


Overview Location & Program Speakers Call for Participation Pre-registration Further Information