Under Control


I was one of the best dressed at the Artificial Life IV workshop held at MIT in July. I try to have a science learning experience at least once a year. Even if I don't learn something, I learn something.

But because it was an academic gathering - with only a sprinkling of press and industry types - there were very few suits. AS I glanced around me, I felt real pride in knowing that the heels of my socks were on the bottom and that I knew what to do with my tongue when I wasn't talking.

The weather was hot, but it was good to be back at the old alma mater for the first time since my 40th reunion in the spring. Alumni visiting campuses have always been the bane of the students: we tend to grin idiotically.

Anyway, if you are wondering about artificial life is, the workshop proceedings say it's a term that covers "a range of computational ideas concerned with attempts to synthesize phenomena normally associated with natural living organisms. The media for these synthesize phenomena normally associated with natural living organisms. The media for these synthesis experiments include computers, robots and (bio)chemical soups."

Life is the continuous adjustment of internal systems to the external environment. Artificial life involves self-evolving objects based on silicon platforms.

Humans are carbon-based. Since artificial life would be an extention of ourselves, it might be misleading to label it "artificial."

Whatever is alive is bent on survival. But the rule isn't so much survival of the fittest, as rejection of the nonfit. The mechanisms of change include mutation, crossover (sex) and natural selection. At the workshop, these principles were demonstrated by means of graphic simulations, video presentations and robot demons.

Speakers stressed the difference between species learning and individual learning. Artificial life systems can be made to express either, or both. It also seems that "evolutionary" change occur in spurts, rather than along a continuum. Much occurs in ten generations, and then nothing for a thousand generations.

Another characteristic noted was groups of simple life forms can coalesce to form other, more complex forms. In some sense, humans are a bunch of spare parts flying in close formation. Every type of cell has the same basic "programming." Or, to take another example, cells that make up termites, and is the hive formed by termites.

Why was I interested in artificial life? After all, I'm a manufacturing and computer nerd. But if we can reduce software complexity and improve manufacturing process via artificial life, then I'm for it. Industry-related topics discussed at the conference included:

Although actual applications are so far limited, I foresee widespread use of artificial intelligence technology in the next decade or two. Think about where the use of robotics was ten years ago. at one time it was considered "far out." Today we take factory robotics for granted.

Enabling technologies needed to fulfill the technology's promise include a "Darwin chip," i.e., one capable of "evolving." "Swarming" architectures for dealing with large systemic problems are being worked on by the Santa Fe Institute, Flavors Technology and the Japanese, among others. The next "ALIFE" conference will be in 1996 in or near Kyoto, Japan.

Some of the bullet items I carried home:

But the best lesson of all --

As appeared in Manufacturing Systems Magazine September 1994 Page 12

Manufacturing Systems Magazine Articles
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