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Jane ProphetMorten KvammeDan Mihaltianu

Mike King: "The Art of Artificial Life"

This essay is by request from the organiser of ‘Kunstig Liv,’ an exhibition and symposium held in Stavanger, Norway, in August 2003. Its theme is Artificial Life.

For many years I have worked as a polymath, researching across the fields of art, science and the spiritual. I like to preserve what is distinct about each field, yet at the same time try and allow each to inform the other. Some twenty years ago, while undertaking a Masters degree in software engineering at Oxford University, I became interested, if not to say obsessed with artificial life. For some years previous to that I had been listening to the music of Gary Numan. There were plenty of better popular singers around at the time, but both a certain quality of Numan’s musical aesthetic, and the lyrics themselves suggested that he was singing about artificial life – actually being a robot. One song in particular, called ‘I dream of wires’ seemed to hauntingly capture either the lives of humans who had become robots, or robots who were semi-human. Newly exposed to computer systems, writing software, and thinking about software and hardware night and day (intensive programming affects your dreaming) while on the course at Oxford, I underwent a strange experience: I imaginatively entered into the life of being an android. The experience was brief, but so intense, that I started to write a science-fiction novel about it. The most bizarre part was that a phrase kept coming into my mind: ‘the only way out is up,’ and, like the character in Spielberg’s ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind,’ who became obsessed with making mountains out of shaving foam, I kept returning to that little phrase. I found myself typing it in to keyboards when I should have been programming or writing essays. Writing the novel became my way of dealing with it, and, allowing the characters and scenario that formed in the novel to take on a life of their own, I eventually found a resolution to the little phrase. (The novel remains unpublished, but is online at http://web.ukonline.co.uk/mr.king/writings/scifi.)

Ever since that period, I have been reading about artificial life, artificial intelligence, artificial consciousness and so on. It seemed to me that these fields raise two issues: firstly that collectively we seem determined to build the artificial human, and secondly profound questions about identity. On the first question it is clear that no laboratory or research programme round the world admits to aiming to build the artificial human, but that collectively all the components are in place: robotics, cognitive systems, artificial intelligence, and many other elements, all researched separately and uncoordinated. On the second question – the nature of human identity – I have looked further afield, including philosophy, neuroscience, and Eastern philosophy including Buddhism and Hinduism. It has been an abiding belief that when we do pull all the strands together and build the artificial human, we will need to draw on all possible sources to answer the questions raised about our human identity. Is our human biological identity, our consciousness, our place in the universe, special? Or are we just a pack of neurons, a carbon-based, rule-based system that can be reverse engineered and implemented in any suitable substrate?

We will look at how Eastern thought and neuroscience seem to curiously agree on this question, but for now I want to look at how artists have responded to these ideas. Artists, according to Leonard Schlain in his excellent book Art and Physics, always anticipate the findings of the scientists. Whether this is true or not, the remarkable ability of artists is to sense what is in the air, culturally speaking, and to respond to it intuitively, seeming regardless of whether it is political, scientific, or cultural. It is as though artists are equipped with invisible antennae that pick up what is in the ether and allow it to work through into their creations, allowing them to work things out much faster than through the rational approaches of other disciplines. Perhaps both Gary Numan and myself were doing that, Numan in music, and myself in science fiction. Fine artists have done the same, and so has Hollywood, responding to the issues of the day, and in this case, the potential for artificial life. In fact what the general public ‘know’ about artificial life is almost invariably shaped by Hollywood productions: Tron or Terminator; or confused with virtual reality scenarios such as in Lawnmower Man or The Matrix. The truth is of course that the science, despite what I said earlier, is decades, possibly centuries away from building the artificial human.

Artificial Life (AL) as a science bears no relation in fact to the popular view. It is in fact a branch of the biological sciences that uses computer simulations to explore theories about life, based on a bottom-up approach. Whereas the Artificial Intelligence (AI) community is starting at the end of evolution, trying to build computer systems that mimic the function of a human brain, the AL community takes the cell as the starting point and allow it to evolve towards complexity. This difference, between the megabucks glamorous Hollywood top-down approach of AI, and the small-scale bottom-up approach of AL is instructive: the first can be seen as autocratic and modernist, while the second distributive and postmodern. The former runs on hype, while the latter runs on humility.

So what is the problem with the megabucks artificial intelligence project, the project that secretly wants to build the artificial human, the project that could be described as suffering ‘Frankenstein Syndrome’? My answer to this is summed up in the phrase ‘real-soon-nowism.’ Real-soon-nowism is the mistaking of science fiction for science fact, an optimism about the scientific project itself, a kind of ‘Tomorrow’s World’ approach to today’s world. I first came across its manifestation in a book on robots, which must have been published 20 or 30 years ago. It had in it an essay by a prominent professor of robotics who said: ‘real soon now we will have robots that will do the housework.’ He (it was a he of course) has probably long since retired and collected his pension, leaving a new generation of robotics professors to say: ‘real soon now we will have robots that will do the housework.’ A typical example was a recent televised Royal Society lecture led by Professor Kevin Warwick from Reading University, who assembled the world’s most sophisticated robots to impress us. Only Professor Warwick seemed unphased by the complete shambles that followed, a performance that reminded me of pet owners whose dogs won’t perform their trick in front of the camera. The fact is that you could bring a robot worth tens of millions of dollars to my small first floor flat, and it wouldn’t even get from the kitchen to my living room, let alone do any useful cleaning. I could leave it in the morning, and I would bet any money you care for that by the time I returned it would have tumbled down the stairs, greeting me at the front door with pitiful twitchings.

The strange thing is, that during the period at Oxford, one of the qualities of the android mind as I imaginatively and obsessively allowed it to grip my psyche, was of service. Artificial Life, as practised by megacorporations, will be produced – though not real soon now at all – to do the stuff we don’t want to do, like housework. Effectively these entities will be slaves, confronting us with a moral dilemma only resolvable eventually, and after enormous political upheaval, by giving them equal rights: this was the theme of my novel. But this future-gazing is all very well; more interesting is what it tells us about our human psyches right now. At a simple level it tells us that Mr Robotics Professor doesn’t want to do anything as demeaning as housework, a distaste for the menial work that is at the core of Western exploitation of other cultures. As an educated person he has a sense of identity that is related to his ‘intelligence,’ never having examined the idea that the haptic intelligence of manual work, the ability to negotiate and clean my little flat for example, is an intelligence the miracle of which would ‘stagger sextillions of infidels’ as Walt Whitman would say. Archaeological evidence now suggests that the human brain evolved after, and as a response to, the development of our hands. We got smart because we had hands, not the other way round. Haptic intelligence is also at the core of the artists’ remarkable range of abilities. It doesn’t matter if the art is minimalist or even conceptual, artists engage with the intransigent stuff of materiality.

All the artists in the ‘Kunstig Liv’ show so far, regardless of the concept, its relation to artificial life, and its realisation, have had to struggle with the unforgiving materiality of creating an art exhibition. Morten Kvamme’s 37 Degrees can be thought of as rule-based art with a single rule: keep a space as close to 37 degrees Celcius (body temperature) as possible. Dan Mihaltianu’s installation in a huge unused brewing cylinder represents an encounter between a concept, its initial realisation, and then the preparation for the exhibition as a site-specific artwork: how do the pieces fit? Jane Prophet’s work, 3D digital interventions in photographic landscape, involve the use of custom-written software systems. One might ask: where is the haptic challenge in that? My answer is that not only does the question of exhibition arise as usual (shall I black out the window with tape or black emulsion paint, did I bring a change of workclothes?) but also the unforgiving nature of computer programming. Having written hundreds of thousands of lines of code myself, I know just what kind of discipline is involved: the ‘soft’ in software makes it harder than non-programmers can imagine.

But what of the broader response from artists to artificial life? We have to understand this in the broader context of artistic intuition about a range of related issues: virtual reality, cyberspace, cybernetic organisms (cyborgs), robotics, AI, AL, emergence, chaos theory, complexity, and so on. These all deal with our relationship with technology, and in particular with what the computer offers us, either viewed through ‘real-soon-nowism’ (also referred to as techno-optimism) – or techno-pessimism: apocalyptic visions of a distopic future. One of the greatest explorers of the human-machine interface in recent years is Australian artist Stelarc. His robotic performances, where he dances semi-naked but enveloped in electrodes and electro-mechanical prostheses, has left his audiences with a deep impression. The vulnerability of the flesh, many of its functions handed over to electrical signals that override the human will, is deliberately contrasted with the visual overkill of machinery and deafening amplification of its servo-motors. Stelarc asks the specific question for us: what does it mean to surrender our will to a machine?

Artificial Life, practices as an artform, follows a different route, but asks related questions of our identity. AL as art is historically traceable to rule-based musical composition and painting. All early computer art, starting with the pioneers in the field, Herbert Franke in Germany and Ben Laposky in the US, was created on an algorithmic basis, i.e. using rule-based systems. (We can date the origins of these early experiments to around 1956.) One extraordinary pioneer, who pushed the rule-based idea away from the conventionally algorithmic, and into artificial intelligence, was British painter Harold Cohen. His system, called AARON (capital letters from the days when we felt we had to ‘shout’ at computers) embodies his own creative rule-set as a painter. It is fashionable for today’s art students to be required to articulate the rules of their creative practice, but Cohen pushed this further than anyone by actually surrendering his creativity to the machine. Yet, it represents, according to this discussion, the top-down approach of artificial intelligence. In contrast, the computer artists who have been working with the bottom-up technologies of artificial life, including Stephen Bell, Karl Sims, William Latham, John McCormack, Richard Brown, Kenneth E. Rinaldo, and others, have all ultimately derived their ideas from Conway’s ‘Game of Life,’ a programme based on cellular automota. This is the simplest visual instantiation of an artificial life scenario comprising cells that live, breed, and die, producing as a result higher-order behaviours from lower-order rules. This phenomenon is called emergence, and is at the heart of the fascination with AL.

The Artificial Life artist must build a system, and then stand back as it cycles through ‘generations,’ each loop allowing for complexity to emerge. This is the basis of evolutionary art, and has posed difficult technical questions of the ‘fitness function’ – what is the criteria by which the artificial entities should survive and pass on their characteristics to the next generation? For William Latham and others this might be purely aesthetic, the artist acting as a kind of gardener, condemning the varieties that displease him or her to the scrapheap. Others attempt to automate this process, thus allowing for a world to evolve in which no ‘God’ intervenes with externally imposed teleologies. Igor Aleksander, one of the contributors to Richard Brown’s book Biotica on his AL project, comments that artists drive their artistic expression ‘by mastering the bridge between the cellular and the emergent.’ Aleksander is Professor of Neural Engineering Systems at Imperial College. He explains how ‘emergence’ is not a phenomenon originally welcomed by the computer science community, indeed we might say that it counters the hierarchical top-down monolithic science of old. The challenge of emergence, as Aleksander points out, is how to relate the low-level workings of the cellular automota, i.e. how to construct their internal organisation and rules of interaction, with the emergent behaviour that is going to be ‘interesting.’

Let us return to the theme of just what it is that AL and related technologies do for us in terms of challenging our sense of identity. Stelarc surrenders muscle control to a machine (or to another human being a thousand miles away via the Internet), Cohen surrenders his artistic painterly creativity. Rule-based AL systems demonstrate emergent behaviours that share qualities of ‘life’ with us, humans. Could we ourselves be understood solely in terms of rule-based systems? The materialist neuroscientists of today certainly think so. It is hard sometimes to grasp how seriously scientists take their materialism, how determined they are to have only half the Cartesian divide: the extended stuff. But Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of DNA, is a good example. He tells us that he was always so convinced an atheist that he sought out the two scientific questions that would do the most damage to religious belief: DNA as the fundamental ‘rule-base’ of life, and, since that triumph, consciousness as a neuronal activity. His work on the neuronal basis of consciousness is driven by the realisation that some neuronal activity is more related to conscious experience than others, so ultimately it must be possible to find the neural correlate of consciousness itself. He is not alone: brain science as a whole, while getting closer and closer to the workings of the biological substance, find less and less reason to credit us with a non-material ‘mind.’ There is no ‘self’ to be found in the brain; there is no one in there.

Strangely, the Buddha came to the same conclusion 2,500 years ago, formulating it in his famous doctrine of ‘Anatman’ – meaning literally no self or no soul. This is where I find the investigations of the great spiritual geniuses just as interesting and as challenging as the practitioners of science or art. What all three have in common is a practice, one that pits human longings and imagination against the unforgiving pre-existing structures of the world. The scientist operates at the totally objective level, denying anything but matter, while the religionist operates at the totally subjective level, denying anything that cannot be directly known. Artists operate inbetween, in a fluid undogmatic space, sometimes a hall of mirrors that cloud and befog us, at other times with brilliant lucidity and penetrating insight. The ultimately objective science is physics, and as such is remote, abstract and inhuman. The ultimately subjective inquiry is mysticism, and as such is remote, abstract, and – we cannot say inhuman, but perhaps unhuman. Most artists encountering physics will have no problem with the first assertion, even finding scientists themselves alarmingly constrained by their materialist paradigm. Few in today’s society would agree with my assertion about the mystics, but then it all depends on whether they have a spiritual practice or not. For now I want to put forward this model of art, science and the spiritual as a spectrum, with physics at one end, mysticism at the other end, and art inbetween, acting as a bridge between the ultimately objective and the ultimately subjective. Postmodernism of course denies that there are ultimate truths, only the relative, but I am going to stick my neck out and say, okay for the bulk of the middle bit, but not at the two ends. (This is despite the theories of Thomas Kuhn for physics, and Derrida for religion). I am going to suggest that at the two extremes, physics and mysticism, we hear a similar message about personal identity: it is a mirage.

This is the key issue that artificial life presents us, and for my money it is artists who are best equipped to probe it, using their chaotic and intuitive – and ultimately so human – mix of objective and subjective methods. But isn’t this really a question for philosophy, you may ask? Is it not, after all, the domain of all domains, the one discipline that can ask questions across the whole range of human experience? And here is the crux of my own approach: I prefer to be grounded in a practice, or range of practices. Philosophy, as practised in the West is ungrounded, that is it has become a system of speculative investigation. There was of course no divergence between art, science and philosophy in the time of the Scholastics: all three served the purpose of religion. But since the 17th century they have all gone their separate ways. Alarmingly, not a single philosopher of the Enlightenment seems to have understood the very catalyst of Rationalism: the physics given birth to by Newton’s Optiks and Principia. Hume and Kant showed their disdain for the new science, and the pattern was set: philosophers did not engage in scientific practice. Likewise philosophy disengaged itself from spiritual practice, the closest it getting was in Husserl’s and Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology. Artists on the other have a practice; what is more, as suggested above, it brings into play not just intellectual ability, but haptic intelligence and the full spectrum of creative human forces (even including the destructive). What’s more, like the philosopher, they are given licence by the wider community to roam over all domains of human experience. Hence we find them in this context exploring artificial life.

However the philosopher has of course an important role, I just want it to be seen a little more in proportion. We can take an example related to artificial life / artificial intelligence to conclude with. The American philosopher John Searle has made a famous contribution to the debate with his ‘Chinese Room’ scenario (demonstrating what philosophers are good at in my opinion). Searle’s argument is as follows: imagine a room with only one window through which messages are passed in and out. Searle is sitting inside receiving the messages, which happen to be written in Chinese, as a series of symbols. He knows nothing of Chinese, but is able to look up each symbol in an instruction manual, written in English, and as a result he selects another symbol to pass out of the room. The entire scenario is a metaphor for a computer programme, and Searle’s point is that the programme, or the computer as a whole, has no sense of meaning in its symbol manipulation, any more than Searle would have in the Chinese Room. The computer takes input, processes it according to a set of rules, and produces an output. The process is devoid of all that which makes human experience unique and special: meaning, cognition, awareness, consciousness itself. No, argues Margaret Boden, Professor of Philosophy and Psychology at the University of Sussex. Technically, Searle’s argument hinges on a lack of semantics in the computer programme, and this is where he gets it wrong says Boden: if the programme effects change in the external world then ‘it has a toehold in semantics.’

I find this debate fascinating, because Searle assumes that humans don’t do exactly what the programme does: process symbols that in themselves have no a priori meaning. The Buddha, basing his conclusion on exhaustive meditation practice, effectively concluded that we are just like the computer. He did not have this metaphor at his disposal of course, neither would he have realised that this symbol processing is done at such speed and complexity that emergent properties would arise. But his language of ‘co-conditioned origination’, is not that dissimilar. More recent Indian proponents of Enlightenment in the Advaita (non-dual) tradition, have availed themselves of the metaphor of the computer to illustrate what the Buddha referred to as ‘Anatman’. These include spiritual teachers like Nisargadatta Maharaj and Ramesh Balsekar (who incidentally was President of the Bank of India for many years). They were not the first to use Western technology as metaphors in this way: over a hundred years previously the famous mystic Ramakrishna compared the self to a railway engine, with God as the driver. Is this not the surrender that Stelarc and Cohen are exploring, but theirs in a different, artistic, and secular fashion? Doesn’t it show that we are fascinated by the whole issue of who is in charge? Maybe no one at all?

Would my house-cleaning robot, when it is finally delivered to me (several lifetimes away I am inclined to think) just be a glorified processor of symbols? This is where Boden’s idea, so simple in its utterance, takes on meaning for me. The robot will have a ‘toehold in semantics’ if it can actually do anything as mundane as clean my flat. Yes of course it will be a rule-based artificial lifeform, processing symbols at an unimaginable rate, symbols that in themselves don’t mean anything. But taken as a whole the entity will possess that extraordinary haptic intelligence needed to negotiate and make effective change in the world, in this case a cleaner flat. If I come home pleased with the android’s work, that is semantics; if I come home and find a broken vase, I’ll get angry: that is semantics. Its internal rule-set will demand a response to my response; my internal rule-set (I like a clean flat and dislike broken property) provides the response in the first place. The world has meaning because we interact: this is the fundamental lesson of artificial life.

And yet. The brain scientist may be happy to prove that there is ‘no-one in there,’ and the mystics may have come to the same conclusion through direct meditational experience. But in the world that lies between these two extremes we find that personality abounds. In this middle world, where the artist reigns supreme, we don't concern ourselves with the ultimate, but with the messy, contingent, quotidian stuff of daily life, a stuff that is inevitably anthropomorphic. It may be delightfully so, or horribly so, it does not matter. In this anthropomorphism lies our fascination with Rinaldo’s flocking machines, or New Mexican-born Chico MacMurtrie’s ‘Tumbling Man.’ This anthropomorphism also inevitably dictates that my flat-cleaning robot, with its rule-based non-biological substrate, will not merely have a ‘toe-hold’ in semantics, it will be a person. And somehow, this perception, undoubtedly unconscious in its source, led Gary Numan to ask ‘Are Friends Electric?’

Dr. Mike King
Department of Art, Media and Design London Metropolitan University

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