Week 7: A-life

This week I chose to focus on the topic of artificial life. Artificial life can be defined as “a field of study and an associated art form which examines systems related to life, its processes, and its evolution, through the use of simulations with computer models, robotics, and biochemistry.”(1) Before talking about what can be considered artificial life and what social and ethical issues arise from this topic, I think an important distinction must be made between the terms “artificial life” and “artificial intelligence.” While these two fields often over lap and at times rely on one another, they are very different in their approach and history. Artificial life is more biology based and is concerned with specific life oriented algorithms and how these algorithms and their laws can be understood and replicated to stimulate life. Artificial intelligence on the other hand is more rooted in psychology and is concerned with how human intelligence can be replicated. This is an important distinction to make when considering the questions posed by Wilson. “What is life? Must it always be carbon based? Is it possible for humans to create life?” (Wilson, 302) I think an important question to add to these is: Can there be life without intelligence? And furthermore what constitutes intelligence? Computer soft wares are programmed to “learn,” or change behavior as a result of experience. For example YouTube suggests new pages based on videos that you have already watched. Therefore because a computer program can “learn,” can we call it “living”? I think that most people would answer no, however the work of many artists including Yves Klein complicates this question and its answer, as well as bringing up new ones regarding how one can determine life.

Yves Klein is a French artist that blends the fields of art and science to produce what he calls “living sculptures.” The piece discussed in the textbook was his eight-sided polyurethrane interactive sculpture that exhibits simple reflexive autonomous behavior. Octofungi is able to learn from its environment and can perceive light and movement. The most interesting thing about the work however is its ability to “evaluate the magnitude and impetuousness” of the change in environment. The robot does this by emulating the electrical noise associated with neuronal structures of the brain. Klein’s goal in this work is to create living sculptures that have the “ability to change their behavior and form as the generations past.” (Wilson, 350) His work contemplates the definition of life and what differentiates between animate an inanimate objects. Octofungi is an example of artificial life that incorporates some aspects of artificial intelligence. This differentiates it from other A-life projects such as Michael Grey’s A-life jellyfish. Grey’s jellyfish without going into to much detail is basically a robotic jellyfish that can mimic the movements of real jellyfish and can be used in ocean monitoring or even cleaning up oil spills. In this case we have an artificial “life”-form that does not incorporate artificial intelligence as Octofungi does, but rather merely emulates a biological system.

octofungi3 octofungi4

So my question is, how can these two forms of A-life be categorized? Although Octofungi does not function completely autonomously, is its small capacity for intelligence enough to render it living? Or are the two robots the same and should be considered non-living? Again this brings up the question, what determines intelligence? Or digging even deeper, is pure intelligence enough? How do things like emotion and morality come into play when determining life? We can even consider questions pertaining to the biology. For example, must one be able to reproduce and evolve in order to be considered life? Even more issues arise if you were to consider the fact that if or when an A-life being is considered as equivalent (perhaps not entirely) to natural life, what are the ethical and social implications of this? Should these beings have rights? The declaration of independence protects the rights that “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle [us].” But what about the rights of those that are not “natural?”




Information Arts, Stephen Wilson

-Lauren Simons


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