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Posts Tagged ‘A-Life’

I am late with my echo statement on this.

Over the past few days, the internet is abuzz with news of Craig Venter and his team for creating the first fully functional cell, controlled by synthetic DNA and discussions on what might be the ethical consequences of future work in this area.

The fact that this has happened is not surprising at all. Dr Venter has been very open about his work and has been promoting it for some years now.  For instance, a couple of years ago there was a wonderful TED talk in which Venter talks about his team being close to creating synthetic life. The latest news is ofcourse not of synthetic life, but a step closer to that grand aim.

Another Instance : Two years there was a brainstorming session whose transcript was converted by EDGE into a book available for free download too.

Dimitar Sasselov, Max Brockman, Seth Lloyd, George Church, J. Craig Venter, Freeman Dyson, Image Courtesy - EDGE

The BOOK can be downloaded from here.

So from such updates, it did not surprise me much when Venter made the announcement.

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Ethics : There have been frenzied debates on what this might lead us to on the internet, on television and elsewhere. These discussions on ethics appear to me to be inevitable and I find it most appropriate to quote the legendary Freeman Dyson on it.

“Two Hundred years ago, William Blake engraved The Gates of Paradise, a little book of drawings and verses. One of the drawings, with the title “Aged Ignorance”, shows an old man wearing professional eyeglasses and holding a large pair of scissors. In front of him, a winged child running naked in the light from a rising sun. The old man sits with his back to the sun. With a self satisfied smile he opens his scissors and chips the child’s wings. With the picture goes a little poem :

“In Time’s Ocean falled drown’d,
In aged ignorance profound,
Holy and cold, I clip’d the Wings
Of all Sublunary Things.”

This picture is an image of the human condition in the era that is now beginning. The rising sun is biological science, throwing light of every increasing intensity onto the processes by which we live and feel and think. The winged child is human life, becoming for the first time aware of itself and its potentialities in the light of science. The old man is our existing human society, shaped by ages of past ignorance. Our laws, our loyalities, our fears and hatreds, our economic and social injustices, all grew slowly and are deeply rooted in the past. Inevitably the advance of biological knowledge will bring clashes between the old institutions and new desires for human improvement. Old institutions will clip the wings of human desire. Up to a point, caution is justified and social constraints are necessary. The new technologies will be dangerous as well as liberating. But in the long run, social constraints must bend to new realities. Humanity can not live forever with clipped wings. The vision of self-improvement which William Blake and Samuel Gompers in their different ways proclaimed, will not vanish from the Earth.”

(The above is an excerpt from a lecture given by Freeman Dyson at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1995. The lecture was pulished by the New York Review of Books in 1997 and later as a chapter in Scientist as Rebel. )

Artificial Life Beyond the Wet Medium :

Life is a process which can be abstracted away from any particular mediumJohn Von Neumann

Wet Artificial-Life is what is basically synthetic life (in synthetic life you don’t really abstract the life process into another medium, but you digitize it and recreate it instead as per your requirement).

I do believe abstracting and digitizing life from a “wet chemical medium” to a computer is not very far off either i.e. a software that not only would imitate “life” but also synthesize it. And coupled with something like Koza’s Genetic Programming scheme embedded in it, develop something that possesses some intelligence other than producing more useful programs.

Coded Messages :

This is the fun part from the news about Venter and his team’s groundbreaking work. The synthetic DNA of the bacteria has a few messages coded into it.

1. “To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to create life out of life.” – from James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

James Joyce is one of my favourite writers*, so I was glad that this was encoded too. But I find it funny that what this quote says can also be the undoing of synthetic life or rather a difficult problem to solve. The biggest enemy of synthetic life is evolution (creating life out of life :), evolution would ensure that control of the synthetic bacteria is lost soon enough. I believe that countering this would be the single biggest challenge in synthetic biology.

*When I tried reading Ulysses, I kept giving up. But had this compulsive need to finish it anyway. I had to join an Orkut community called “Who is afraid of James Joyce” and after some motivation could read it! ;-)

2. What I can not build, I can not understand – Richard P. Feynman

This is what Dr Venter announced, isn’t “What I can not create, I do not understand” the correct version?

Feynman's Blackboard at the time of his death: Copyright - Caltech

3. “See things not as they are, but as they might be” – J. Robert Oppenheimer from American Prometheus

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Recommendations :

1. What is Life – Erwin Schrodinger (PDF)

2. Life – What A Concept! – EDGE (PDF)

3. A Life Decoded : My Genome, My Life – C. J. Venter (Google Books)

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Onionesque Reality Home >>

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General Background: Since childhood i have enjoyed sketching and painting, and very much at that! Sometimes i found myself copying an existing image or painting, making small changes here and there in it. Yes, the paintings came out beautiful (or so i think!), but one thing always made me unhappy, i thought that the creativity needed to make original stuff was missing at times (not always). It was not there all the time. It came in bursts and went away.

I agree with Leonel Moura (from his article) that creativity is basically produced due to different experiences and interactions. Absence or lack of which could make art lose novelty.

Talking of novelty, how about looking at art in nature? Richard Dawkins states that the difference between human art or design and the amazingly “ingenious” forms that we encounter in nature, is due tho the fact that Human art originates in the mind , while the natural designs result from natural selection. Which is very true. However it is another matter that natural selection and cultural selection, that will ultimately decide on the “popularity” of an art don’t function in the same way. Anyhow How can we remove the cultural bias or the human bias that we have in our art forms?
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Answers in Artificial Life: Artificial life may be defined as “A field of study devoted to understanding life by attempting to derive general theories underlying biological phenomena, and recreating these dynamics in other physical media – such as computers – making them accessible to new kinds of experimental manipulation and testing. This scientific research links biology and computer science.”
Most of the A-Life simulations today can not be considered truly alive, as they still can not show some properties of truly alive systems and also that they have considerable human bias in design. However there are two views that have existed on the whole idea of Artificial Life and the extent it can go.
Weak A-Life is the idea that the “living process” can not be achieved beyond a chemical domain. Weak A-life researchers concentrate on simulating life processes with an underlying aim to understand the biological processes.
Strong A-Life is exactly the reverse. John Von Neumann once remarked life is a process which can be abstracted away from any particular medium. In recent times Ecologist Tom Ray declared that his computer simulation Tierra was not a simulation of life but a synthesis of life. In Tierra, computer programmes compete for CPU time and access to the main memory. These programs are also evolvable, can replicate, mutate and recombine.
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Relating A-Life to Art: While researching on these ideas and the fact that these could be used to generate the art forms that i talked about in the first paragraph i came across a few papers by Swarm Intelligence Guru Vitorino Ramos and a couple of articles by Leonel Moura who had worked in collaboration with Dr Ramos on precisly this theme.
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Swarm Paintings: Thus the idea as i had mentioned in my very first paragraph is to create an organism ideally with minimum pre-commitment to any representational art scheme or human style or taste. Sounds simple but is not so simple to implement!
There are a number of projects that have dealt with creating art, but these mostly have been evolutionary algorithms that learn from human behavior, and learn about human mannerisms and try to create art according to that. The idea here is to create art with a minimum of human intervention.
I came across a project by Dr Vitorino Ramos to which i had pointed out implicitly in the last paragraph. This project called ARTSBOT (ARTistic Swarm roBOTs) project. This project tries to address this issue of minimizing the human intervention in aesthetics , ethnicity, taste,style etc. In short their idea was to remove or to minimize the anthropocentric bias that pervades all our art forms. Obviously all this can have massive implications in our understanding of the biological processes also, however here we’ll talk of only art.
Two of the first paintings that emerged were:
(Source: Here)
(Source: Here)
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These paintings were among the first swarm paintings by Leonel Moura and Vitorino Ramos. Now we see that these seem detached from a functional human pre-commitment. They don’t seem to represent any emotion or style or taste. However they still look very pleasant!
However the point to be understood and to be noted is that these are NOT random pictures created either by a programme or by a swarm of robots moving “randomly”. These pictures were generated by a horde of artificial ants and also by robots. They are not random, but they EMERGE from a process of pheromone deposition and evaporation as was simulated in this system from ants. Thus the result that we have above is a Colony Cognitive Map. The colony cognitive map is analogous to a cognitive map in the brain. I will cover the idea of a colony cognitive map in the next post.
A couple of more beautiful paintings can be seen below!
(Source for both images : Here>>)
Though i have already mentioned how these art forms emerge, i would still like to quote a paragraph from here:

The painting robots are artificial ‘organisms’ able to create their own art forms. They are equipped with environmental awareness and a small brain that runs algorithms based on simple rules. The resulting paintings are not predetermined, emerging rather from the combined effects of randomness and stigmergy, that is, indirect communication trough the environment.
Although the robots are autonomous they depend on a symbiotic relationship with human partners Not only in terms of starting and ending the procedure, but also and more deeply in the fact that the final configuration of each painting is the result of a certain gestalt fired in the brain of the human viewer. Therefore what we can consider ‘art’ here, is the result of multiple agents, some human, some artificial, immerged in a chaotic process where no one is in control and whose output is impossible to determine.
Hence, a ‘new kind of art’ represents the introduction of the complexity paradigm in the cultural and artistic realm.’

A Painting bot is something like in the picture shown below:

A swarm of robots at work:

The final art generated by the swarm of these robots is beautiful!

(Photo Credit for the three pictures above: Here>>

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Conclusions:

The work of Dr Ramos and Leonel Maura can be summed up as:
1. The human is only the “art-architect”, the “swarm” is the artist.
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2. The “life” of Artificial Life shows characteristics like natural life itself namely Morphogenesis, ability to adapt to changing environments, evolution etc.
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Leonel Moura’s wonderful article states that the final aim is to create an “Artificial Autopoietic System”, intriguing indeed and eagerly awaited!!
Such simulations could change the way we understand the biological processes and life.
Also i am now thinking how could music be produced based on the same or similar ideas. I wonder if Swarm music could be available. It would be most interesting and i can’t wait to listen to it already!
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Have a look at this video by Leonel Moura, having some time lapse footage of robots painting.
References:
1. Ant- Swarm Morphogenese By Leonel Moura
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2. On the Implicit and on the Artificial – Morphogenesis and Emergent Aesthetics in Autonomous Collective Systems, in ARCHITOPIA Book, Art, Architecture and Science, INSTITUT D’ART CONTEMPORAIN, J.L. Maubant et al. (Eds.), pp. 25-57, Chapter 2, Vitorino Ramos.
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3. A Strange Metamorphosis [From Kafka to Red Ant], Vitorino Ramos
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Links:
Follow the following links to follow on more exciting papers and paintings.

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