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Let's talk a little about Artificial Life - what is it? Well, Alife (as it is known in some circles) is the application of biological systems in artificially created worlds. For instance - you might consider cellular metabolism in a world made of ethanol - all of this occurring inside a computer simulation. Artificial life may be a new idea for some, but there are few who are unaware of one of its offshoots, Artificial Intelligence.
There are three categories of artificial life - software, hardware, and wet. First, let's take a look at software Alife.
In software Alife, sophisticated computer simulations attempt to recreate biological systems in an artificial environment inside a computer. The most notable example of software-based Alife can be found in the neural net simulations being currently performed. A neural net simulation attempts to create a computer program that can mimic the functions of the brain - so far, for all their sophistication, the neural net projects are still in their infancy. While some brain functions have been getting close to perfection, as usual, our understanding of what creates consciousness always seems to elude us.
Hardware Alife is a different subject all together. In the hardware world of artificial life, pieces of actual matter go into creating artificial life forms and having them try to interact with the real world. For instance, Leslie Smith and Alister Hamilton have been working on an appropriately advanced model of neurobiological systems. They are attempting to recreate the sensors and the neural net using silicon technology currently available. Such technology could one day make the Geordi LaForge "glasses" of Star Trek become a reality - as soon as we understand fully the ramifications of what goes into processing the sensory information.
Finally, there is Wet Alife - perhaps the most interesting (and controversial) of all the Alife projects. Wet Alife skips the semantics and attempts to artificially create life without silicon-based means - rather, like the old Miller-Urey experiment, these biochemical experiments attempt to create life out of elementary particles. The greatest advance in wet Alife work would be to create an autocatalytic system - one that can self-perpetuate and grow. However, such ideas seem like pipe dreams when the sophistication of the work is considered. Moreover, while significant advances have been made in recent years, we are still somewhere between 50-100 years from actually creating a life form from Carbon, Nitrogen and Oxygen.
Alife is teeming with good intentions and interesting scientific merit. In addition, while ideas like the Wet Alife work may be controversial, scientists continue to push the frontiers of current technology - looking ahead to a future where the idea of creating life from nothing in vitro doesn't seem like such a wild idea.