With new game, you can explore the fun side of artificial life


October 19, 1992|By PETER H. LEWIS

The idea of artificial life probably goes back further than the golem or Frankenstein's monster, but only recently has it gained wide attention in the computer and biological sciences. Basically, artificial life concerns "creatures" -- computer instructions, or pure information -- that are created, replicate, evolve and die as if they were living organisms.

"Within 50 to 100 years a new class of organisms is likely to emerge," wrote James Doyne Farmer, a physicist who worked at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. "These organisms will be artificial in the sense that they will originally be designed by humans. However, they will reproduce, and will evolve into something other than their original form; they will be alive under any reasonable definition of the word."

Well, maybe not any definition. They do not have a carbon base and are not "wet," two qualities we commonly ascribe to living things. But within a growing number of computer circuits, they are born, grow, roam an environment looking for food and sex, fight for territory, practice parasitism and cannibalism and learn from experience.

If they do not learn, or if they cannot adapt, they perish. Evolution and mutation occur in generations measured in nanoseconds.

By mimicking the behavior of life, they let scientists study, the processes of life, sex and evolution.

Some scientists say the day may come when these synthetic creatures build tiny self-replicating factories, fight human disease, write better software programs and even take a physical form outside the computer.

For those who want to explore the science of artificial life (known by researchers as A-life, but sure to be called desktop evolution) there are two excellent starting points.

One is the book "Artificial Life: The Quest for a New Creation," by Steven Levy, at $24 from Pantheon Books, a division of Random House Inc.

Levy wrote "Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution." As with that book, Levy delves into the personalities of the A-life pioneers, and in doing so adds a rich texture to the technical details of the subject.

The main strength of the book is its willingness to explore the philosophy of life, artificial and otherwise, and how it meshes with science. Typical is the following passage, quoting Christopher G. Langton, another Los Alamos A-life researcher:

"By the middle of this century, mankind has acquired the power to extinguish life on earth. By the middle of the next century, he will be able to create it. Of the two it is hard to say which places the larger burden of responsibility on our shoulders."

While the moral implications of artificial life are profound, it is a disservice to ignore the fun side. And that's where Sim Life comes in.

Sim Life -- the Genetic Playground is the latest and most ambitious simulation game in a series that started with the popular Sim City and continued with Sim Earth and Sim Ant. Sim Life costs $69.95 and is available for Apple Macintosh computers from Maxis, of Orinda, Calif., telephone (510) 254-9700. Maxis officials say a version for Microsoft Windows computers is expected by early 1993. Those frustrated by the wait should remember that, in terms of evolution, several months is nothing at all.

Sim Life is easily accessible to casual computer users, and certainly to students in junior high school and beyond. Its emphasis is on genetic engineering, which is not the same as artificial life but is a part of it.

Using a simple control panel, the player creates exotic plant and animal creatures by selecting parts and characteristics from existing life forms. How about a flying carnivore with high intelligence and a short gestation period? Sounds dangerous. Let's do it.

Using a three-panel flip-card system that works like a digital Potato Head, the player selects features from a library of real creatures: the head of a tiger, the wings of an eagle, the tail of a lizard and so forth.

More buttons allow the player to determine how subsequent generations of the creatures will pass along their genes and characteristics.

The creatures are introduced into an artificial environment that includes random mutagens and natural disasters, including human civilization. The players then test their world-building skills and make the necessary changes to make the ecosystem viable.

The goal is to create successful plants and animals, to avoid extinction and to learn about genetics, ecology and the theory of evolution in the process.

(Peter Lewis works out of the New York Times' Austin, Texas, bureau: [512] 328-8258.)

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