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Becoming Machines
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Virtual Life Computer Experiments Simulate Creation

By James Donahue

There are virtual computer games in cyberspace these days being played by thousands of people. They involve real life situations where people acquire property, build homes, create jobs and buy and sell property. Some are games of warfare. We wouldn't be surprised if some of them also delve into personal lives with family relationships, courtship and all of the other issues linked with the real world.

As the technology for these games gets more and more advanced, and as home computers get more and more powerful, the detailed realism of these types of games also improves. For example, it is getting harder to separate simulated characters seen in films and television imagery from the real thing.

Now scientists are using virtual reality “game” type programs to create virtual animals from artificial embryos in computer simulation.

Josh Bongard, an artificial intelligence researcher at the University of Zurich, Switzerland, has been running simulations of embryos growing into creatures up to 50 cells in size. Thus he is producing virtual multi-celled organisms with muscles, senses and primitive nervous systems within a computer.

Bongard sees his work as a first step toward using artificial evolution to create intelligent life from scratch.

As Bongard explains it, each of his creatures begins life as a single “embryo” cell. The cell contains a string of random numbers that represent its genome. Some genes tell the cell to split in two and continue splitting just as real living cells do. Other genes instruct the cells to develop in different ways with different abilities, thus becoming moving organisms within its virtual environment.

The games Bongard is playing are complex since genome cellular development of real life is complex. For example a particular genome will cause a cellular creature to develop in a predetermined way. Also in parallel with real cells, the virtual embryos contain simulated chemicals that switch its genes on or off, thus making the cells act in different ways. The creatures that form may develop cells that move joints, or become sensitive to light and touch.

As the experimentation continues, we can rest assured that science is rushing toward a simulated world that we may one day escape into from our own world. In the end, as our world dies around us, will this be our means of going on or is the concept of turning ourselves into intelligent machines an impossible dream?

That we now have virtual programs that teach airline pilots how to fly, military personnel how to operates jets, tanks and other complex war machines, and guide the hands of surgeons through sensitive operations on the human body, may mark only the beginning of our dependence upon the computerized machine.

There is little doubt that if we put our minds to it, we can, indeed, turn ourselves into machines that are capable of exploring space, living on distant airless and waterless planets, and surviving the death of our own planet. But in the end, is this what we really wish to do?

Imagine being alive outside the amazing human body. Imagine living virtually forever without the joy of touch, smell and perhaps even hearing the great music of the masters. While it may be comforting to think of living without pain, such an existence also would sentence us to living without the joy of enjoying a good meal, or sex, or just experiencing the pleasure of hugging another soul.

Indeed, we humans have the ingenuity to escape an overheating and dying earth, just as we had the capability of killing it. But we also have the capability of saving our planet. It is not too late.