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The History of Artificial Life, Part One

written by: Emma Lloyd • edited by: Leigh A. Zaykoski • updated: 2/5/2010

Artificial life is an interesting and complex subject. Learning about the history of this fascinating field can make modern day research a little easier to understand. Part One of this series covers artificial life before computers, self-replicating machines, and cellular automata.

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    The concept of giving inanimate or artificial objects some semblance of life is a subject which has long fascinated mankind. While the idea of creating artificial life has only come into its own with the advent of the computer, the quest to produce it is much older.

    Part One

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    Artificial Life before the Computer Age

    The development of inexpensive computing power revolutionized the field of artificial life, but before the computer came along there existed some fascinating and surprisingly sophisticated examples.

    Perhaps one of the most well-known examples of artificial life in the pre-computer era is the artificial duck created by French inventor and artist Jacques de Vaucanson in 1739. The so-called “digesting duck” is considered to be de Vaucanson’s masterpiece. With more than four hundred moving parts, the artificial animal could flap its wings, and eat, drink, and defecate.

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    The 1950s – 1970s: Automata and Self-Replicating Machines

    One of the earliest thinkers to see the potential of artificial life was John Von Neumann, a math and computer genius who in the late 1940s lectured on “The General and Logical Theory of Automata.” Von Neumann defined an automaton as a machine whose behavior would proceed logically using a combination of its own programming, and information it obtained from its own environment.

    During that same lecture Von Neumann spoke of self-replicating machines which could follow the ‘instructions’ obtained from its own body’s architecture to create new machines identical to itself.

    Over the next two decades, a number of scientists theorized about the creation of such machines, envisioning self-replicating devices which could be used in a diverse range of ways, from carrying out mundane industrial tasks to exploring space.

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    Cellular Automata and the Game of Life

    The first cellular automaton was developed by John Von Neumann in collaboration with Stanislaw Ulam, a Polish mathematician who had previously participated in the Manhattan Project. The concept of the cellular automaton was based upon a grid of infinite size (think of a sheet of graph paper with sides of infinite length), with each square of the grid representing a cell which could be in a certain state depending upon the conditions of the automaton in question.

    Professor John Horton Conway, a professor at the University of Cambridge, invented what is perhaps the most famous cellular automaton, which he termed the Game of Life. Conway’s game is known as a ‘zero-player game’ because once it is set up, it needs no players to continue.

    At the start of the game, each cell could be in one of two states— alive or dead—and would change its state throughout the game depending on its interactions with the cells around it, according to the rules of the game.

    In Conway’s original game, the rules were as follows:

    1. Any live cell with fewer than two live neighbors dies.
    2. Any live cell with more than three live neighbors dies.
    3. Any live cell with two or three live neighbors lives.
    4. Any dead cell with three live neighbors comes to life.

    The game, then, was able to simulate certain life conditions—under rule one, for example, a cell could be said to have died as a result of ‘loneliness’ (simulating natural processes such as extinction), while under rule two, the cell could be thought of as having died as a result of overcrowding.

    Conway’s Game of Life has consistently attracted interest because it demonstrates some very fundamental concepts about life: that it can evolve in very strange and unexpected ways, and that highly complex and organized systems can evolve, over time, from very simple beginnings.

    Part Two of this series will cover artificial life in the advent of the computer age.