Artificial life: an interdisciplinary field of research


Artificial life is devoted to the study and creation of life-like structures in various media (computational, biochemical, mechanical or combinations thereof). A central goal is to model and even realize emergent properties of life, such as self-reproduction, growth, development, evolution, learning and adaptive behavior. Artificial life researchers also hope to gain general knowledge about self-organizing systems and use the approaches and principles of technological development.

Research evolution

The historical and theoretical roots of the field are multiple. These roots include:

(1) The first attempts to imitate the behavior of humans and animals through the invention of mechanical automatons in the 16th century.

(2) Cybernetics as a study of the general principles of informational control in machines and animals.

(3) Computer science as a theory and the idea of ​​abstract equivalence between various ways of expressing the notion of computation, including physical instantiations of systems performing computations.

(4) Computer science as a set of technical practices and computational architectures.

(5) Artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics.

Despite the long history of the field, the first international conference on artificial life did not take place until 1987. Computer scientist CG Langton, who sketched a future synthesis of the various roots of the field and formulated important elements of a research program, organized the conference. As in artificial intelligence research, some areas of artificial life research are primarily motivated by the attempt to develop more efficient technological applications using principles inspired by biology. Examples of such applications include modeling architectures to simulate complex adaptive systems, such as in traffic planning, and biologically inspired immune systems for computers. Other areas of research are motivated by theoretical questions about the nature of emergence, the origin of life, and forms of self-organization, growth and complexity.

Artificial life media

Artificial life can be characterized as software, hardware, or wet software, depending on the type of media the researchers are working with. Software artificial life is rooted in computing and represents the idea of ​​that form, or forms of organization, rather than characterizing life by its constituent material. Thus, “life” can be realized in a form (or medium) other than carbon chemistry, as in the central processing unit of a computer, or in a network of computers, or in the form of viruses. computers spread over the Internet. You can build a virtual ecosystem and let small component programs represent prey species and predatory organisms competing or cooperating for resources like food.

The difference between this type of artificial life and the ordinary scientific use of computer simulations is that, with the latter, the researcher attempts to create a model of a real biological system (for example, the fish populations of the Atlantic Ocean ) and base the description on real data and established biological principles. The researcher tries to validate the model to ensure that it represents aspects of the real world. Conversely, an artificial life model represents biology in a more abstract sense; it is not a real system, but a virtual system, built for a specific purpose, such as the study of the efficiency of an evolutionary process of the Lamarckian type (based on the inheritance of acquired characters) as opposed to the Darwinian evolution (based on natural selection among variants produced at random). Such a biological system may not exist anywhere in the real universe. Artificial Life studies “the biology of the possible” to remedy one of the shortcomings of traditional biology, which is required to study how life actually evolved on Earth, but cannot describe the boundaries between possible and impossible forms biological processes. For example, an artificial life system could be used to determine whether it is only by historical accident that organisms on Earth possess the universal genetic code that they possess, or if the code could have been different.

Much has been said about whether virtual life in computers is nothing more than a model at a higher level of abstraction, or whether it is an authentic life form, like the support some researchers on artificial life. In its computerized version, this claim involves a form of Platonism in which life is seen as a radically medium independent form of existence, similar to futuristic scenarios of disembodied forms of cognition and AI that can be uploaded to robots. In this debate, classic philosophical questions about dualism, monism, materialism, and the nature of information are at stake, and there is no sharp line between science, metaphysics, and questions of religion and of ethics. While it is truly possible to create authentic life “from scratch” in other media, the ethical concerns associated with this research are heightened: In what sense can it be said that the human community is in charge of creating the life de novo by unnatural means?

Material artificial life refers to small, animal-like robots, commonly referred to as animates, that researchers build and use to study the design principles of autonomous systems or agents. The functionality of an agent (a set of modules, each with its own domain of interaction or competence) is an emerging property of the intensive interaction of the system with its dynamic environment. The modules operate almost autonomously and are solely responsible for the detection, modeling, calculation or reasoning and motor control necessary to achieve their specific competence. The direct coupling of perception to action is facilitated by the use of reasoning methods, which operate on representations close to the information of the sensors.

This approach asserts that in order to build an intelligent system, it is necessary that its representations be anchored in the physical world. Representations do not need to be explicit and stable, but must be situated and “embodied”. The robots are thus situated in a world; they do not deal with abstract descriptions, but with the environment which directly influences the behavior of the system. In addition, robots have “bodies” and experience the world directly, so that their actions have immediate feedback on the robot’s own sensations. Computer-simulated robots, on the other hand, can be “located” in a virtual environment, but they are not embodied. Material artificial life has many industrial and military technological applications.

Artificial life Wetware comes closest to real biology. The scientific approach consists in experimenting with populations of real organic macromolecules (associated in a liquid medium) in order to study their emerging properties of self-organization. One example is the artificial evolution of ribonucleic acid (RNA) molecules with specific catalytic properties. (This research may be useful in a medical context or may help shed light on the origin of life on Earth.) However, RNA research and similar scientific programs often take place in the fields of biology. molecular, biochemistry and combinatorial chemistry, and other carbon-based chemicals. Such wetware research does not necessarily have a commitment to the idea, often assumed by researchers in the field of software-based artificial life, that life is composed of media-independent forms of existence.

Thus, the artificial life wetware is interested in the study of the principles of self-organization in “real chemistries”. In theoretical biology, “autopoiesis” is a term for the specific type of self-maintenance produced by networks of components producing their own components and the boundaries of the network in processes that resemble closed organizational loops. Such systems have been created artificially by chemical components unknown to living organisms.


Questions of theology are seldom addressed in research on artificial life, but the very idea of ​​a human researcher “playing God” by creating a virtual universe for experiments (in the computer or the test tube) with the laws of growth, development and evolution shows that a certain motivation for scientific research can still be implicitly linked to religious metaphors and ways of thinking.

(From: Stephen Young “The World of Artificial Life”)

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