Excerpts from “Imitators of Life”

Omni: “So then, aren’t you artificial life guys playing God?”
Chris Langton: “Well, yeah, in a way I have to admit it.”1

   The dream of creating life is hard to resist. For many years, artificial intelligence seemed a sure way to this goal. Researchers at universities like MIT would regularly claim that within ten years computers would surpass humans in intelligence. But decades passed, and by the 1980s researchers widely conceded that these claims were a bit premature.
   Then came artificial life. In 1987 a young scientist named Chris Langton, from Los Alamos National Laboratories, put together in Santa Fe, New Mexico, the first conference on artificial life. The essence of life, he said, is organization transforming by rules, so we can study life effectively through computer simulations. Conference speakers offered studies of computer-simulated “organisms” and “ecosystems.” By the widely publicized second conference, in 1990, this new field of scientific study had lots of players.
   Their idea was to aim for realistic goals and not have to backpedal like their colleagues in artificial intelligence. As artificial life advocate John Nagle put it, “We need to start low. Where do we get off trying for human-level capabilities when we can’t even build an ant?”2 Of course, ants are formidably complicated. As Nagle admitted, “We just don’t know how ants work.”3
   Yet despite the humble start, artificial lifers seem confident that life will one day be embodied in silicon and freed from the constraints of carbon-based wetware. Then evolution will speed along, and human beings will have to confront their evolutionary successors.
   At the second artificial life conference some speakers gleefully projected that this might occur within a hundred years. We should accept the inevitable, they said, and give up pride in our ephemeral human body. Others expressed reluctance, or even fear. The reasons for celebrating the replacement of human beings by machines, said conferee Michael Rosenberg, “need to be examined.”4
   The idea that humans may be replaced by superintelligent machines is an old one. So instead of trying to analyze the prospects for artificial life, let me relate some stories from past history. For this I turn to a treatise on machines in ancient India written by a Sanskritist named V. Raghavan.5 In Sanskrit a machine is called a yantra. As defined by the Samarangana Sutradhara of King Bhoja in the twelfth century, a yantra is a device that “controls and directs, according to a plan, the motions of things that act each according to its own nature.”6 This is close to Langton’s definition of life. And in ancient and medieval India mechanical imitations of life were something craftsmen actually built.
   Some of their automata were used for divertissements in royal pleasure palaces. These included birds that sang and danced, a dancing elephant, elaborate chronometers with moving ivory figures, and the gola, an astronomical instrument with moving planets. The machines were built from common materials in a readily understandable way: “Male and female figures are designed for various kinds of automatic service. Each part of these figures is made and fitted separately, with holes and pins, so that thighs, eyes, neck, hand, wrist, forearm, and fingers can act according to need. The material used is mainly wood, but a leather cover is given to complete the impression of a human being. The movements are managed by a system of poles, pins, and strings attached to rods controlling each limb. Looking into a mirror, playing a lute, and stretching out the hand to touch, give pan, sprinkle water, and make obeisance are the acts done by these figures.”7
   This all sounds quite believable, but other machines described may seem less so. These include robots capable of complex independent action. . . .

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References

1. Langton, Christopher, 1991, “Interview,” Omni, October, p. 134.
2. Nagle, John, 1990, “Animation, Artificial Life, and Artificial Intelligence from the Bottom, or Some Things to Do with 100 to 1000 MIPS,” submitted to the Second Conference on Artificial Life, February, p. 4.
3. Nagle.
4. Rosenberg, Michael, 1990, “Future Imbalance between Man and Machine,” submitted to the Second Conference on Artificial Life, February, abstract.
5. Raghavan, V., 1956, “Yantras or Mechanical Contrivances in Ancient India,” Transaction No. 10, Bangalore: The Indian Institute of Culture.
6. Raghavan, p. 21.
7. Raghavan, p. 25.

Copyright © 2004 by Richard L. Thompson