Artificial Life Is Real
In issue two of Artifice, articles by Rachel Armstrong and by Jian Fei Zhu raised issues that this article will try to bring together. Armstrong concludes: "A great mutation is in store for mankind .... in an alien, posthuman environment .... new Humans will be hybrids, in a mutational limbo." The body, it seems, is not immutable. Zhu sketches a difference between the contemporary architecture of European-American and Pacific Rim cultures. In the West, quotation and collage express posthuman bewilderment. In the East, however, while there is also eclecticism, Zhu detects a more grounded creative impulse. Confident and serene, it reflects the harmonisation of nature and culture found in Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism.
These issues are not, however, confined to evolution, architecture or East - West differences. Both Armstrong's recasting of evolution and Zhu's architectural contrasts are related to a broader cultural transition as the logocentric foundations laid by Plato and Descartes shift and nothing solid is discovered beneath them. This article sketches a related transition which, since it concerns the design of artefacts to function in a particular space, involves architectural values and practices. The space is cyberspace and the artefacts are Artificial Life (AL).
Artificial Life, as one of its founding figures has defined it, means "life made by humans rather than by nature". It is the creation of artefacts that can act, interact, maintain their integrity, reproduce and evolve. Such artefacts are now proliferating, both in cyberspace and in the real world. Artificial life is an interdisciplinary program to express the logical form of life in robots, computers and hybrid carbon-silicon systems in which organic tissues and machines are blended.
Some forms of AL are virtual, existing only inside computers, such as genetic algorithms which mutate, compete and evolve by selective death. Virtual forms can capture growth and reproduction, giving rise to dynamic depictions of flowers, trees and the structures made by animals, such as shells and the nests made by wasps and termites. Other virtual forms exhibit natural behaviours such as shoaling and flocking. What is to be seen when looking into the sky or the sea is now to be seen on screens, but not by imitation. The flocking and shoaling are real, the material vehicle for these collective actions just happen to be silicon rather than carbon.
Other forms of AL are real, embodied in mobile devices that occupy the same space as human beings. The robots of the past few decades were inhuman dangerous beings that carried out unnatural acts, such as those involved in the production line. The robots of AL are designed in conscious contrast to be safe enough to live with.Some AL is on this human scale, but some is not. These are the undersea or extraterrestrial robots that explore hostile environments or the nanotechnology machines that already colonise the body. But as AL disappears from human view by being either too remote or too small, its significance increases. Autonomous artefacts that do what humans cannot do signify the posthuman.
Artificial life is replacing artificial intelligence (AI) as the psychology of cybernetic culture. Artificial intelligence attempted to create mental life in the logical form of programming languages alone. This Cartesian project, being disembodied and logocentric, has failed, although the technology it has left behind has enormous economic and political significance. Artificial intelligence, so characteristic of Enlightenment rationality, was a strictly limited way of understanding natural intelligence. The Cartesian project of AI, has been transformed into post Cartesian AL. Now, intelligence is taken to arise from embodiment, that is, from a form of life, something that has a body, that has to act, that has values and, perhaps most importantly, something that has a history of action related to a particular environment. The project of AL is to create these conditions within cyberspace.
Cyberspace is sign and arena, a stage on which a melee of actors, texts and signs mingle in more than mere deconstructive confusion. It signifies constructive postmodernism which permits, as Vaclav Havel has it: " ... cultures distant in time and space to be discovered or rediscovered .... New meaning is born of the encounter, or the intersection, of many different elements." This productive miscegenation points away from rational universalism and towards a constructive multiplicity of views and practices. This multiplicity is clearly manifested in the chaotic sensitivity of cyberspace as structures mingle and transform. From modernist Being we have moved to postmodern Becoming. The attempt to create minds from timeless logical structures, AI, has been replaced by the attempt to create the historical processes from which minds emerge, AL. This transition traces the tension between form and fluidity, part of Zhu's contrast between Eastern naturalism and Western logocentrism.
This transition can be better understood by placing it within the framework of cultural evolution. For human beings, cultural evolution has outpaced biological evolution for over a million years. The environment in which people develop is now largely artefactual. The vistas, objects and opportunities for action encountered by people, especially those living in technocracies, are almost totally shaped by the actions of other people. Yet attempts by philosophers, scientists and theologians to define what it is that makes humans different from animals emphasise what may exist 'inside' the brain or the genes. Such internal differences clearly exist, but far more important is the fact that unlike animals, human development occurs within an environment that is itself a cultural product. The cultural production of the human environment is the evolution of technology, places of power and value. The table below shows the acceleration of cultural evolution:
Period Years Ago Techne Place Text
Prehistoric 50000 Tools Ayer's Rock Myth
Ancient 5000 Structures Babylon Word
Modern 500 Energy Paris Law
Postmodern 50 Information New York Code
Technology changes what is of human value and how it is expressed. At its most extreme, it defines the sacred. Technology has made mobile the values that were originally grounded in the living particularity of sacred places. These values have successively passed through the worlds of mythic imagination, textual faith and logocentric rationality, at each stage becoming more detached from the particular and more interconnected. In Teilhard de Chardin's potent image, this process is the growing of a global web in which appear nodes of power. The nodes are now corporate towers that glitter with the symbols of cybernetic consumer culture. The towers themselves projections of mobile, virtual systems that the information revolution has made possible. Information technocracy is dominated by a cognitariat whose powers lie in access to codes. These codes are manifested in symbolic displays of well-being, glamour and political accountability. In Baudrillard's strange loop of symbolic exchange, the signified, that is, what may be simulated, is becoming what is real.
But the loop is stranger yet, since the real has been assimilated by the means of simulation, the real/simulated boundary has dissolved. With the collapse of AI, simulation has in any case failed, and now what taken its place is the creation of the real artefact. Artificial life is no longer about the simulation of carbon based life forms. It is, as AL researchers are wont to say: " ... the science of life that might be, not just the life that is." Now, as both a part of and as an icon for Baudrillard's strange loop, AL is taking the form of real life and, by interacting with real life, is beginning to participate in cultural evolution.
Cultural evolution is Lamarkian. That is, the variation on which selection acts is produced by the actions of the evolving organisms themselves. Darwinian evolution, by contrast, holds that selection acts on essentially random variation. In fact, recent developments in the Darwinian theory of human evolution, also give a far more significant role to action than hitherto, recognising that humans are a form of life that more than any other creates the environment which it inhabits. Rather than being naturally selected by environmental forces beyond their control, human technology has increasingly created the environment which, in turn, creates the human condition. As a recent evolutionary theorist has put it, human beings are 'artefacts of their own artefacts'.
This biological reflection of cultural reflexivity blurs the Cartesian boundary between organism and environment. This duality is weakened further by Edelman's theory of brain development. His selectional accounts suggests that rather than a genetic blueprint, the brain's structure is due to the assimilation of the environment . However the human environment is human artefact. Thus, as the environment that creates the mind is created by the mind, a semiotic cycle is established.
Edelman's theory and Lamarkian cultural evolution combine to yield a simple conclusion: the human condition arises within a self-composing semiotic cycle. Human meaning reflects signs in the environment. These signs, to close the cycle, have been created by the human capacity to make meaning. The impulse of technology accelerates the semiotic cycle of cultural evolution and, snowball like, creates a dual accumulation. Within the environment has appeared a technological envelop of tools, buildings and machines. Within human consciousness have appeared the skills, practices and concepts that are their psychological complement. These internal resources allow people to inhabit the external envelop and to learn what it affords as a field for human action.
Now AL brings into the field of human action artefacts which have genuine social presence. If AL is the expression of the logical form of life in artefacts then, since logical form of human life is highly social, the affordances of these artefacts will be social too. Many of the AI systems are already proto-social. Software agents now carry out simple commands given in natural language. Devices respond to a particular voice, giving the owner of that voice a sense of being known. Some word processors automatically correct the mistakes to which a particular individual is prone ... and so on. This proto sociability is seen in software names. Early programming languages were given acronyms for specialist actions: FORTRAN (FORmula TRANslation), ALGOL (ALGOrithmic Language). As personal computers arrived, application names were plain language statements of what they were for: WRITE NOW, QUICKDRAW. Presently, as software becomes agent-like, the names are those of colleagues rather than tools: ARCHIE, VERONICA ..... Artefacts are becoming people.
Some artefacts are toys like electronic vehicles that find their own way about, animals that speak and move, game machines that not only permit play but also participate. Although AL is in the adult world, these playthings and the early encounter with social artefacts should not be underestimated. Indeed, the language of children reveals that they are beginning to regard machines as responsible and participatory. For instance, children are now used to calculators that switch themselves off when not in use. Ones that cannot do this are "dumb" and it is the machine itself, not it's designer that is meant here. This is the naturalisation of cybernetic technology as it approaches, surrounds and enters the body. The young treat machines as social participants. Technophobic adults, resisting, treat them as tools with illicit powers.
The tools and practices of cybernetic culture are moving us, especially the young, away from regarding agency and responsibility as resting with humans. As people and artefacts mingle, the boundary between machines and organisms comes into question. As layer upon layer of responsive and socially interactive machines enter the cultural arena, it will become more and more difficult to apportion responsibility between human and non-human agencies. By blurring the human non-human distinction, AL moves cultural evolution into a new phase. Human social life now unfolds in an arena shared with autonomous, participatory machines. Psychology is no longer just about what may be within the head, but also about the system within which people and intelligent artefacts jointly create meaning. Intelligence does not depend upon what is in the head alone, but also upon the structure of the environment. To complete the semiotic cycle, what is in the head also depends on interaction with that environment.
All interaction is social. Even when we interact with artefacts we know to be merely machines we bring to it much of we do when interacting with other human beings (recall Basil Fawlty's attack on his car). Most artefacts, whether machines in the conventional sense or not, are social. A chair, a house, a ship or a computer are objects created by human beings with actions of another human being in mind. They are to that extent participants in, rather than mere adjuncts to, social interactions. But now, cybernetic technology has begun to create artefacts with psychological powers. Action, memory, perception, learning and thought are no longer a human monopoly. The social skills of artefacts have passed beyond mimicry.
The development of sociable artefacts reflects the transformation of AI into AL. Cartesian notions that consciousness is merely in the head are being replaced by a more ecologically sensitive view. The duality of organism and environment is no longer plausible. Mental life arises from an evolutionary history and is not created by Fiat, as founders of modernism such as Descartes and Hobbes believed. Minds cannot be properly understood through Platonic formalism or Cartesian logocentrism. They are parts of forms of life, whether natural or artificial.
This reformulation of psychology has much to do with the contrast drawn by Zhu. It is no coincidence that the last decade has seen a major upsurge in the interaction between Western psychology and Eastern traditions, especially Buddhism. This is the same transition as that which has seen AL replace AI. Both are part of a postmodern shift beyond essentialism towards the productive plurality of methods and theory. Biology, psychology and phenomenology all point to the same idea: mind and world are complementary, not dual. Mental powers are part of a life form and emerge from mutual evolution between that form and the environment within which it acts. The environment is in turn created through those actions. This semiotic loop now runs through cyberspace, the environment of AL. Cyberspace is an important part of the environment of posthuman culture. The architectural practices and values of cyberspace are continuous with those of the rest of the built environment. While architecture produces machines for living in, AL produces machines for living with.
With AL comes a shift in view of world and mind. It is a shift away from Western humanism towards Eastern post-humanism, echoing the harmonisation and environmental sensitivity sensed by Zhu. A new and more fluid balance between the conventional and the natural is being found. The shift is towards a view of mind and world as more process-like and less thing-like. This view having much in common with Buddhism and Taoism, where mind and world are mutually self producing. The 'ten thousand things' of Taoism arise from the dynamics of nature rather than being prefigured in any formalist sense. Likewise the Hua-Yen school of Buddhism offers as the metaphor for the world an infinite net, at each intersection of which lies a jewel in which exists every other jewel and where every part of the net depends for its existence on dynamic awareness of every other part. In these images of interconnectedness and emergence the natural order is chaotic but productive, intrinsically empty but aware. Here are no Cartesian boundaries between mind and world, nor any Platonic forms.
Ukiyo-e, the Japanese tradition of woodblock pictures, literally means "the floating world". These pictures, whether they are of earthy or refined sensuality or of mountains and waves, treat the world as fleeting, ephemeral, without essence. They are informed by Buddhist doctrines such as no-self and impermanence. The first holds that the human condition has no abiding self-identical essence in which it is grounded. The second holds that all things arise and all things pass away. But rather than leaving the human, and posthuman, conditions lost in dimensionless space, this metaphysic, properly understood, grounds it in impermanence. The ground of being is empty, without essence, and marvelous.
As AL displaces AI the way is open to a more informed understanding of this condition. The search for rational essentials of mental life was bound to fail, since they were never there to be found. Floating between the artificial and the natural, AL is a cybernetic Ukiyo-e. Minds are not holders or beholders of Platonic forms nor does experience flow according to Cartesian necessity. Minds, whether natural, artificial or a hybid, participate in the life of self-organising forms. Nothing has enduring self-identity. Everything flows. Minds, forms and actions, lacking any persistent essence, are malleable, not immutable. Just as Rachel Armstrong depicts the naturalisation of the mutant, so psychology now depicts minds as they might become, not as they are. The artificial hybridises with the real as the euphenic program of posthuman evolution expands to include the mind as well as the body.