The Darwin Machine: Artificial Life and Interactive Art

First presented: 5th Biennale of Art and Technology, Connecticut College, Feb1995,
First published: New Formations UK, 1996

This paper is a consideration of the emerging discipline of Artificial Life, viewed from two perspectives. On the one hand, Artificial Life is considered from the perspective of the history and philosophy of science. I will examine the historical relationship between the new discipline of Artificial Life and the traditions from which it arose, in order to point up continuities and discontinuites with those traditions. One the other, ALife is examined from the perspective of cultural practice, particularly from the perspective of an artist concerned with the implications of these ideas in the formation of an esthetic of interactivity. My goal is to establish a framework of cross-related artistic, scientific and philosophic ideas as a base for the discussion of the subject.

The paper then necessarily exists in two parts, these parts are entitled: `The Archaeology of Artificial Life' and `Artificial Life and Interactive Art: Putting the Darwin Machine to Work'. [1] The connection between the two parts is more coherent than it may at first appear. The premise of the enquiry is that since the rise of industrialism (if not before) artistic and scientific ideas have been presented as antithetical, rationalism being dominant in one and in question in the other. The corpus of the `scientific' has been waging a tireless war of conquest upon the tatters of the superstitious pre-scientific world. In this historical context, Artificial Life is if great interest as it is, on the one hand, a clear perpetuation of this colonialising rationalism, made possible by the machine which is the pinnacle of the rationalist `engineering world view', the digital computer. On the other hand, aspects of Artificial Life and related studies such as fractal geometry, non-linear dymanics and complexity theory which challenge basic premises of the scientific method and the enlightenment world view. [2]

The computer is by no means a neutral or `universal machine' when contextualized in culture. A very specific ideology inheres which is promulgated across culture as the computer encroaches into more and more diverse aspects of life. This ideology, the cultural baggage of the computer, forces debate on the precepts of the fields into which it moves.


The Archaeology of Artificial Life

The Darwin Machine

Just what do we mean by artificial life? The name has been claimed by a group of interdisciplinary scientists: biologists, roboticists and computer scientists who have held several conferences by that name at the Santa Fe Institute for Non-Linear Dynamics since 1988 [3]. Alifers are peripherally associated with the related, perhaps less deterministic fields of non-linear dynamics and complexity theory by virtue of their common interest in self-organising systems and emergent order. The applications of these techniques vary from the building of digital ecologies in which the dynamics of evolution might be studied, to the shaping and control of these systems to breed algorithms to do particular arithmetic, graphical or informational tasks.

The Alife community includes:

1. Computational Biologists. Until now, natural selection, the mechanism of evolution, has been limited to the organic. The realization of evolving, reproducing digital species in silicon using genetic algorithms prompts the question: "Is it alive?" This question divides Alifers into two groups:

1a. `Hard' Alifers hold that self replicating digital organisms are alive in every sense, and that biology must include the study of possible life, and must arrive at some universal laws concerning wet life and digital life.

1b. `Soft' Alifers claim only that genetic and evolutionary simulations are useful in understanding biological dynamics, but remain simply simulations.

Around this central group cluster several others:

2. Builders of procedural systems, like Craig Reynolds `Boids' and Jessica Hodgins robot flocks. More recently, these systems are self evolving, such as Karl Sims recent work on evolving 3D morphology and behavior by competition, and Jeff Ventralla's evolving animated characters. [4 ](see below, Emergent Behavior in Art)

3. Subsumption and `bottom up' roboticists who utilise ethological analogies to create bottom up emergent behavior in mobile machines.

4. Builders of autonomous digital agents to do work in the digital realm.

5.Wet Alifers. Wet Alifers are molecular biologists who are breeding or constructing replicating or behaving groupings of proteins, enzymes and nucleic acids. The instrumentalization of natural selection carries not only for the digital Alifers, but equally for the Wet-Alifers. [5]


Eliza's children, Frankenstein's grandchildren.

Tom Ray, a biologist and designer of the Tierra system, recently made a proposal to promote biodiversity in the net, a distributed digital wildlife preserve on the internet, in which digital organisms might evolve, circumnavigating diurnally to available CPUs. [6] These creatures would evolve good net navigation and cpu sensing abilities, among other things. Predators and parasites would emerge. Ray notes that "Evolution just naturally comes up with useful things" [7]. He argues for the proposal in the following way: "you couldn't imagine a silk worm, even if you could, you couldn't guide evolution to make it. But evolution did make it, we can take it, cross breed it, neuter it, delete its poisonous properties, domesticate it".

This proposal is emblematic of paradigm shifts which characterize Alife. According to the traditional christian outlook which functions as a foundation for the ideology of industrial capitalism, we humans, (and particularly westerners) could harvest the products of biodiversity and harness them as components of the industrial machine. In the post-industrial, Alifers are harnessing the mechanism of biodiversity itself. A somewhat insidious example of this tendency is a Japanese project to build Artificial Brains for the internet. This conception sees the internet as a nervous system, and draws upon evolutionary and anatomical narratives to validate its claims that, as nervous systems developed prior to brains, so it is only logical that the internet will grow a brain. The central technique in this research is referred to as the Darwin Machine and has more than passing resemblance to the Frankenstein theme. Like Dr Frankenstein, the developers of the Darwin Machine are seeking to cobble together a quasi-human machine.[8] Like most cutting edge `techno-science' research projects, including the exercise of Alife in general, the researchers conveniently and almost unnoticeably omit any mention of just what this technology might be used for.

Anthropologist Stefan Helmreich has noted that the Alife community is statistically 30-40 years old, straight white males who are agnostic or atheist of judeo-christian backgrounds. Within this community, subjective and value laden assumptions of the researchers themselves are disguised as axioms. As an example of these assumptions, Helmreich quotes Tom Ray as saying "I'm omniscient to the physics of the world I create" and notes the similarity of this position to that of the judeo-christian notion of the omniscient creator.

A greater cause for concern is the particular `flavor' of Darwinism which is enlisted. The very simplistic, individualistic and mechanisitic evolutionary narrative chosen has a decidely nineteenth century ring to it, and implicitly supports social darwinism.[9]

Central to the ideology of Alife is the conception of the feasible separation of the `informational' from its material substrate. Alife avoids the aspects of cell dynamics and evolution in which the informational and the material are "deeply entangled"[10] thereby endorsing the simplistic DNA = algorithm generalisation which was the keystone around which Watson and Crick's conceptualization of DNA was originally based.[11 ]Thus Alifers maintain that there is no reason why `life' cannot exist with silicon as a substrate, rather than carbon. It must again be emphasised that this is a rhetorical device, a narrative construction which takes as its basis the nature of the digital computer, in which hardware and software are separate. This separation is the defining quality of the computer, a machine which is the quintessential reified form of Cartesian Dualism.

This separation is then `naturalised' by the nomenclature Artificial Life, and the nature of the computer is applied to organic life. This induces the (quite wrong) assumption that modern computational techniques are structurally similar to the deep structure of biological life. This phenomenon is similar to the trend FranciscoVarella (et al) calls `cognitivism' in cognitive science.[12] Proposing a division between matter and information in biological systems is yet another instance of a narrative construction rooted in Enlightenment precepts. It serves to reinforce other such contrived dualistic structures as mind and body, form and content.[13]

Elsewhere I have discussed the similarity between the attitudes of St Augustine and Descartes to the body, and those of cyberpunks, epitomized by Gibson's words "the body is meat"[14] It is through examples such as these that we can see just how clearly so called `objective science' can be heavily value laden, perpetuating dualistic and colonialising ideologies[15] . High tech enterprises, such as Artificial Intelligence and Top-down robotics validate and reinforce these dichotomies with the rhetorical power they derive from being scientific, high tech and futuristic.


Paradigm Busters

Scientific ideas have been a powerful influence in shaping western culture. The power of influence of the hard sciences has encouraged social sciences and humanistic disciplines to become more `scientific' (and therefore, by definition, more rigorous, more respectable) by the adoption of scientific tropes.[16] As I noted at the beginning of this paper, ideas arising in complexity and Alife challenge some traditional scientific ideas and the Enlightenment frame in general while simultaneously reinforcing traditional attitudes. What follows is a partial list of such ideas.

Sensitive Dependance. The ideas that Chaos theory brought: strange and chaotic attractors, bifurcation and fractality, and particularly `sensitive dependance on initial conditions' revealed vast jungles of unpredictability in the heart of newtonian physics.[17] The adage that a butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazon will cause a typhoon in India has achieved the status of a cliché, but it underlines the oft-elided fact that classical physics is capable of dealing with only a small subset of physical phenomena and ignores the rest.[18]

Fractality. The significance of fractals will not be found in any number of computer renderings of the Mandelbrot set, nor in their application to computer graphic simulations of fictitious valleys, islands and planets. Fractals show us a geometry which approximates the logic of natural growth: recursive, multi-scaled, infinitely detailed, with symmetry across scale[19]. This idea not only replicates the generative (and recursive) geometries of biology, but exposes the roots of Euclidian geometry in Platonic abstraction. The geometry of Euclid, premised on lines infinitely thin and points infinitely small, is steeped in intellectual abstraction predicated on the notion of an 'ideal'. Newtons mechanics is itself predicated on this style of abstraction.

Entropy and Self-Organisation. Since the mid C19th, the second law of thermodynamics has held western culture in its nihilism-inducing grip due to the understanding that the dissipation of heat could be generalised to predict the eventual `heat death of the universe'(the moment at which energy is evenly and smoothly distributed throughout the universe, at which point all atomic movement stops). This in itself indicates just how powerful the grip of science and particularly physics has been in the last century. Experientially we know that life is anti-entropic. New science, in the form of the ideas of self-organisation and emergent order has validated this intuition and liberated us from the defeatism of the 2nd law. That is not to say that the 2nd law is no longer, but that extrapolation of its implications into the life sciences and humanities has been shown to be misplaced. As Beckers, Holland and Deneubourg have persuasively demonstrated, random behavior amongst simple animals or machines can result in an order producing, anti-entropic outcome. [20]

Emergence and Reductivism. Perhaps the most far reaching implication of self organisation and emergent order in complex dynamics is the demise of the entire method of reductivism. Reductivism is a keystone of the scientific method.[21] It is premised on the assumption that to understand a complex object, one breaks it into component parts and examines those parts in controlled settings, then adds the results of those examinations together. The basic principle of emergence is that organisation (behavior/order/meaning) can arise from the agglomeration of small component units which do not individually exhibit those characteristics. Emergent order implies that the whole is indeed greater than the sum of its parts, that higher level behaviors cannot be disassembled into their component lower level building blocks. Examples include the generation of mind from individual neurons and the complex behaviors of colonial insects and organisms. Inherent in this phenomenon is a critique of reductionism, the major tool of science, which is premised on the assumption that to examine a complex object, one breaks it into component parts and examines those parts in controlled settings. Complete understanding arises when those parts are added together. Emergence throws that method in the trash. As Manuel De Landa puts it: "The road to reductionism has been permanently blocked. If the properties of matter and energy at any given level of organisation cannot be explained by the properties of the underlying levels, it follows that biology cannot be reduced to physics or anthropology to biology" [22] Or, one might add, psychology to physiology, or knowledge to information.

The Top-Down Artificial Intelligence paradigm has come in for its fair share of bashing in recent years, one of the earliest and loudest whistle blowers being Hubert Dreyfus[23] who refers to the paradigm as GOFAI : `Good Old Fashioned Artificial Intelligence'. The Top-Down paradigm, exactly replicates the dualistic structures outlined above, like the hardware/software pair, the Top Down method centralises `intelligence' in a central processor, into which data is fed from (unintelligent) sensors, and which in turn instructs actuators, having meantime prepared a master plan. The problem with this method is that it is computationally intensive and causes processing bottlenecks in with real world problems without formally bounded domains. [24]

The observation that a cockroach is better at crossing a road than the best Top Down robot, (the cockroach can eat and reproduce into the bargain) led to a variety of research projects which searched for alternatives to the Top Down paradigm. These include parallel processing and connectionist computer architectures, the development of Brooksian Subsumption Architecture, a revivial of study of neural nets and the exploration of emergent order. Parallel processing and connectionist computer architectures propose alternatives to the production-line-for-data model of standard serial processing. Subsumption, emergent order and other approaches share a `Bottom-Up'strategy. The distinction between Top-down and Bottom-up is not consistent, but can be characterised in terms of dualism. Top down embraces the notion of a panoptical mind-proxy in control, bottom up stategies (in different ways) make a less clear distinction between `mind' and `body'. Subsumption architecture does not centralize processing, often the behavior of a robot is organised by several unconnected processors! Similarly in the exploration of emergent order is based on the notion that a group or multitude of simple units can generate complex phenomena `accidentally'. There is substantial political force in this trend, as bottom-up theories implicitly oppose authoritarian power structures which dualistic structures reinforce.

Another techno-scientific paradigm which has caused havoc when ported into the humanities and particularly into telematic arts is is Claude Shannon's Communication Theory. This entirely technological theory assesses communication in terms of a match between bits sent and bits recieved [25] In human communication, `interpretation' is everything.[26] Horst Hendriks Jansen offers an example from Piaget which suggests that Shannon's communications theory is not particularly relevant to the study of human communication. One such example concerns the behavior of a suckling infant which trigger responses in the mother by appearing to be intentional. This `bootstraps' the child into meaning.[27] The significance of such `exchange' is that the message received was never sent!


Artificial Life and Interactive Art:

Putting the Darwin Machine to work.

The Esthetics of Interactivity.

Artists are confronting unexplored territory: the esthetics of machine mediated interactivity. Contrary to the industry-driven rhetoric of freedom and liberation, freedom in machine interaction is an entirely constrained affair. As Sarah Roberts succinctly puts it: "Interactive is not a bad word, but the illusion that goes along with it is of a kind of democracy, ... that the artist is sharing the power of choice with the viewer, when actually the artist has planned every option that can happen...its a great deal more complex than if you [the user] hadn't had a sort of choice, but its all planned"[28] Indeed, it is a great deal more complex. Designing the interactive experience adds an entire dimension to the esthetic endevour, one without precedent in the visual and plastic arts. In the west, the visual arts have no tradition of an esthetics of interactivity. Six hundred years of painting has resulted in a rich esthetics of the still image, of color and line, shape and area, of representational geometry and perspective. One hundred year of moving image has given us an esthetics of time-based image, of camera angle and movement, wipe and cut. But we do not have an esthetic language of real time interaction. Interactive media artists do not create instances of representation, they create a virtual machine which itself produces instances of representation based on real time inputs.

The machine, of course, has no idea that its interacting with anyone. It has no idea of anything. So how are we to concieve of this machine mediated interactivity, with respect to the artist, and with respect to the user? Winnograd and Flores argue that computers simply facilitates human interaction.[29] So can we say that the machine is a proxy for the artist? This seems just a little simplistic. The interactive artwork is not conversation precisely, it is an encapsulated cultural act. Interaction may occur with that cultural capsule even after the maker is deceased.The approach of Winnograd and Flores veils a subtle anthropomorphism: the machine `represents' the artist. But does a user (say of a video game) imagine s/he is in conversation with the artist through the narrative and the characters? In the early days of AI and interactivity, the goal was the emulation of the human. Certainly the famous historical examples: `Eliza' and the Turing Test before it, were unselfconsciously anthropomorphic.[30 ]It seems no longer necessary to require that the interactive work is anything more than a machinic system which simulates responsiveness. A reflexive idea of emulation arises here: in order to function, the work must sucessfully trigger associations in the user which make the experience of the work meaningful. For a user to recognise a machine event as a response, s/he must `re-cognise' it, by comparison with previous experience.[31] But this experience is not necessarily of the organic world, we are already attuned to a plethora of machinic responses, from traffic lights to ringing telephones to the dos prompt.

When we posit a synthetic agent doing work in cyberspace, such as locating references on a certain subject at various sites, the environment of the agent is alien to us. It and its environment are digital, with little equivalence of the geography and physics which we inhabit. We could not emulate it because it is entirely unfamiliar. Yet it must be represented in some way that allows for information to be exchanged, for work to be done The interface becomes the glass of the aquarium in a dramatic way: we are looking at an alien species in its environment. The interface is the zone of translation.. We understand only our image of it, which is to say, we extrapolate from our cultural experience examples which carry some traits which seem to have an analogous relationship with what it is we think we're seeing. [32]

As Erkki Huhtamo has noted: "One might argue that the proliferation of forms of computer mediated interactivity in our everyday lives has already given rise to a new subject position in relation to modes of audio-visual experience."[33]


Emergent Behavior in Art

What bearing do ideas of emergent order and techniques of Artificial Life have on interactive art practice, as ideas or tools? The most profound, as I see it, is that it offers an alternative to the current all too deterministic paradigm of interactivity as pre-set responses to user navigation through an ossified database. This paradigm is firmly within the Top-Down camp. Emergent interactive behavior would not be derived from a set of pre-determined alternatives. Rather, behaviors might arise through a contingent and unconnected chain of triggers. In the behaviors of termites (described by Grassé) highly complex building behavior arises when a simple behavior produces an action or a product which then triggers a higher level behavior. [34] This is a new paradigm of interactivity, radically different from the notion of a pre-linked database. Simply regarding this method as a possibility points up the presence of deterministic top-down strategies in current interactive art practice. This must lead us to consider just how much of interactive art theory (such as it is) is predicated upon Shannonesque and Top-Down approaches which are quite questionable in our context. An interactive work, like any work, consciously or unconsciously embodies a value system. Particularly in the realm of computer art, we are always subject to the insinuation of the very C19th value system of engineering. Considering an emergent approach to interactivity is a way of bringing those value laden basic assumptions into visibility.

Does complexity and Alife offer us as tools for an esthetics of behavior? A celebrated and early appllication of self-organising behavior is the now well established field of procedural modeling. Craig Reynold's Boids are perhaps the best known example, in which, rather than draw a flock of birdlike images and animate them, he equipped a virtual space with a terrestrial physics and equipped individual `boids' with some basic flocking behavior and voila! a virtual flock flew through the space and around obstacles. More recently Jessica Hodgins has used similar techniques to generate a `herd' of cyclists. Jeffrey Ventrella, Karl Sims and others have combined the notion of procedural modeling with simulated evolution, `breeding' new characters according to the strictures of their enviroment.

Of course, you can breed anything, a physics, a joke, if you establish the payoffs and taxes, the right `rugged fitness landscape' and manipulate your mutation rate to avoid becoming stranded on local fitness peaks. [35] You could have a self evolving user interface, in which the environment it adapted to was the habits and interests of the individual user. Such an interface might hide little used functions in sub-menus or mutate a new floating palette. Use of the palette would reward that mutation, allowing its progeny a better rate of survival in the next generation. This could be fun, you'd never know quite what your interface would look like, though I guess the mutation would be fairly conservative, given the trained and habit bound nature of user activity. Radically novel mutations would be nipped in the bud because the user wouldn't understand them.

If procedural modeling will replace figure animation, perhaps genetic algorithms will breed not only creatures, but storylines as well! And indeed, this is possible now, not simply in screen-based simulation, but in the more difficult case of mobile robotic platforms where power and computation are limited, as Luc Steels has recently demonstrated [36] This presents a curious prospect that art practice might become a kind of virtual horticulture as evolutionary models are adopted. The role of designer then becomes one step further removed from the surface of the work. The artist is not making the work as it appears, nor is she making a rule base which generates the work. She is building an ecology-like model with environmental constraints within which variation can occur.


Behavior and mimesis

I've previously observed that mimesis has been the focus of western art since the Greeks, and historically, has advanced by utilising the most advanced technologies and techniques available. [37] The abstraction of modernism is an aberration in that historical flow. Certainly the history of popular media followed the mimetic path. From automata of the seventeenth century, such as Vaucanson's famous Duck, a mechanical automaton which could flap its wings, eat and excrete foul smelling waste matter, mimesis has been the guiding principle. This trajectory continues through photography, C19th visual novelties such as Wheatstones stereograms and Daguerre's Diorama, to cinema, TV, computer animation and theme park attractions.[38]

Now interactive media and artificial life offer a quite new type of mimesis, one which combines the trajectory of technological mimesis with ideas influenced by the `systems art' of the 70s. The representationalism here tends to be not so much optical as systematic. It is the dynamics of biological systems which are modeled. This change of order is akin to the move from harnessing the products of biodiversity to harnessing the mechanism of biodiversity which I discussed earlier. Numerous works employ `nature' not as a representation but in the structure of the systems: biological growth algorithms, simulated ecosystems or communities, genetic algorithms, neural networks. [39]

The parallelism inherent in Paul Cezzane's early modernist dictum that `Art is harmony parallel to nature' is very like the goals of Alife research. This makes Alife researchers `artists' in Cezzanes terms. The discussion of mimesis is complexified by the intrusion of this goal of a parallel order. If the Alife researcher seeks a condition parallel to nature, then this is in a sense, very like the goals of the modernist artists following on from Cezzane, whose goals (in the words of Paul Klee) were not to represent the world, but to `render visible'. One of the active issues in an esthetics of interactivity, then, is a question of mimesis and modernism: Is the artist concerned with simulating or interactively representing an existing being, or with inventing another possible being.[40]



The new ideas in Complexity and Alife seem to have great potential in art, both as techniques and as food for philosophical thought. But several cautions must be noted. I've tried to show that while the disciplines I've discussed do take radical positions with respect to traditional ideas, in other ways they perpetuate a view of the world which is deterministic and instrumentalizing, and are thus themselves, ripe for critical examination. Foremost among these, in the case of Artificial Life, is the instrumentalization of a very particular notion of `evolution'.

New scientific ideas powerfully inform the value systems and world view of our culture. New technologies are almost always clad in utopian rhetoric. Any technology which is trumpeted as a `liberation' should be examined extra-carefully. Historically, those technologies have transpired to be the most oppressive. Artists must be careful not to unconsciously and unquestioningly endorse the value systems and narratives hidden in scientific discourses, where they often lie hidden, disguised as axioms.

Simon Penny 1995