Life: The Quest For A New Creation
By Steven Levy
1992, Pantheon Books, New York.
It is with great enthusiasm that I write this review of Steven Levy's excellent book, Artificial Life. I remember stumbling across it in the science section of a bookstore when it was still in hardcover. I was 13 years old and at the time it made for a challenging read. Few books have had the impact on me that this one has. It opened my eyes to an entirely new universe of possibilities and was a large factor in my eventual decision to study computer science.
Steven Levy is a master of journalistic writing. Artificial Life reads much like his older book Hackers. It is a glamorous, exciting history of the people and events which gave birth to the new-wave science of Artificial Life (often abbreviated as A-Life). Levy's crisp, clear style makes reading a breeze (when you're not 13 years old, that is). Apart from merely being a history of the science of A-Life, the book serves to make the reader understand the ideas (many of them controversial) of A-Life workers. These ideas are both illuminating and often frightening. Some discussion is given to the ethics and consequences of A-Life research, but not a large amount. If that is what the reader is looking for, they are better off to look elsewhere. It is a very approachable book that requires little knowledge of computers or biology, yet manages to convey some enticingly complex and deep ideas.
Artificial Life is the study
of life. Unlike Biology, it is not limited to the study of
naturally produced life on Earth. Weak A-Life attempts
merely to model organic life with artificial systems.
Of the two, Strong A-Life is the more interesting and controversial.
The whole premise behind Strong A-Life is that life can be
described, and that it has a logical form. By studying
different kinds of life other than the one example of life
we have on this planet, we may learn more about what life
actually is. Organic Life is a just a subset of all the
possible types of Life. An A-Lifer sees life as a
substrate-neutral process. It is the process of
self-organization, and information retention in an entropic
universe. Life is not bound to organic chemistry. Life could
even exist within a computer.
For many, this is a difficult thing to swallow, but Levy presents it in such an elegant way that it becomes only a small hurdle. Once leaped, it has enormous consequences. Levy, echoing the voices of several brilliant thinkers, goes on to build an even larger hurdle out of the first: Perhaps information is the basis for reality. After all, any life existing within a computer would experience a perfectly legitimate reality. This reality would be embedded physically within ours, but would be independent of it.
This view is pushed strongly by one subject of the the book, the prodigious Steven Wolfram. Wolfram sees computers as being unique in the ability to operate in a realm somewhere between the theoretical and the physical. While simulations inside a computer are in a logical and abstract realm, they are still physical things. If information is the basis for a reality, than a computer can create an internal reality of its very own.
"Our uniqueness will lie in the ability to create our own successors."
--Steven Levy (Artificial Life, pg 9)
The last fifth of the book is
dedicated to analyzing the strong claim of A-Life, and the
ethical issues of its creation. Levy discusses the origins
and behavior of computer viruses, and portrays them as the
first artificial construction which may make the strong
claim of actually being a form of life. Computer viruses
are uncontrollable information replicators. Some computer
viruses even have the capability to evolve. They exhibit
nearly every characteristic that biological viruses do, but
they are implemented in silico rather than in
Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was possibly the first in depth commentary on the dangers of A-Life. Should scientists be allowed to play God and create new forms of life? Life, once established is impossible to control. Artificial Life, especially in a physical form, presents clear dangers to humans. Self-replicating nanites could devour us all in a wave of grey-goo if we are not careful.
Levy includes an interesting section about efforts at NASA during the 1980's to design self-replicating factories for mining and exploring other planets. A seed package would land on a planet or moon and construct a factory which could mine the raw materials present. The factory could then manufacture a few new seed factories and then spend the rest of its operational life mining resources for its human owners. The design team was so troubled with the possibility that such a system could eventually become self-serving, that they spent a great deal of time examining the ethical implications and consequences of self-replicating factories. Evolution encourages behavior that benefits the machines and not the creators. Would such artificial creatures view us as gods, or merely as evolutionary precursors? Humans, they concluded, would have to evolve to cooperate and merge symbiotically with our creations. It seems, most artificial life researchers are concerned about the responsibility such work incurs, but for them, quitting is not an option. The future dream of many A-Life visionaries is the merging of Man and their Machines. Evolution and life will be "taken over" by more sophisticated and powerful artificial mechanisms.
I can find little to argue with from Levy's book, not only because I agree with the material, but also because his writing style is more that of an objective reporter. Regardless of his style, the book will challenge you to think. Few books have managed to fascinate, motivate, inspire, enthrall, enlighten, and frighten me as much as this one. I can count them on the fingers of one hand, and I have read a lot of books to date. I eagerly recommend it to anyone with an interest in life and I think most of us are interested.
By Aaron Davidson