Wherever we go, life finds a way.
When humans evolved, scientists believe, it was also nature finding a way to organize living matter into life as we know it. But what if life found a different way, not from nature alone, but human ingenuity?
A nascent field of artificial life (ALife) investigates how life might form in other trajectories, specifically when humans have a hand in its creation. Instead of evolving through the dim memory of forgotten eons, ALife might be nothing like us, not only because of varying chemical composition, but also via computer programs’ capacity to exhibit life-like behaviors, according to a recent study shared on a preprint server.
A new scientific field imagines how humans might create artificial life
The field of artificial life, or ALife, was first established at the inaugural “Interdisciplinary Workshop on the Synthesis and Simulation of Living Systems” in Los Alamos, way back in 1987, by Christopher G. Langton. The very young field includes old hands in computer science, chemistry, physics, biology, engineering, robotics, artists, philosophers, and many other intellectual and scientific specializations. It’s not surprising, then, that many approaches have been made to define ALife research.
One possible division of its sub-fields splits the range of possible life created by intelligence into soft, hard, and wet. Soft ALife aims to generate simulations or similar purely digital constructions where life-like behavior is observed. Hard ALife involves robotics, and employs life-like systems in hardware composed primarily of silicon, steel, and plastic. Lastly, Wet ALife uses a wide array of chemicals to synthesize life-like systems in a laboratory. We can easily think of examples for each sub-category: Soft ALife could be any form of artificial intelligence, like Hal 9000 from “2001: A Space Odyssey”. Hard ALife could involve something more tangible, like the Replicants in “Blade Runner.” It’s somewhat more difficult to think of a sci-fi example of “Wet” ALife. Perhaps the water controlling “non-terrestrial intelligence” from James Cameron’s “The Abyss”.
‘ALife’ could help build a philosophical map of adjacent solutions to artificial life
However, new scientific fields aren’t formed in a vacuum: They come into being when there are too many novel questions to be easily answered by other, older fields. M. Bedau and others of the study proposed 14 open problems in ALife in the year 2000, but no one has solved a single one as of writing, according to the study. The themes of research interest surround thirteen points of interest: “origins of life, autonomy, self-organization, adaptation (evolution, development, and learning), ecology, artificial societies, behavior, computational biology, artificial chemistries, information, living technology, art, and philosophy,” read the preprint study.
Soft ALife is naturally more abstract than chemical or robotic systems, which also makes them easier to build (this is partially why NFTs are constantly popping into existence). But there are still more abstract kinds of Soft ALife, which hone in on information and organization — which differ from grounded Soft ALife, which deals more with the underlying material of living systems.
There’s much to investigate in this nascent field of artificial life. It could serve as a philosophical map, to help us anticipate moments of accelerated advancement in our human desire to create new forms of life, and seize adjacent solutions to ALife, like a waypoint to innovation. On the other hand, it could help us to identify artificially created life in the universe, perhaps on exoplanets where alien forebearers have long faded into extinction after creating a new form of life that hardly resembles them (or us, for that matter). This is simply speculation, but the possibilities for life are much greater than what we’ve found in organisms created via natural evolution on Earth.