A latter-day Frankenstein
What a queer thing Life is! So unlike anything else, don’t you know, if you see what I mean.
P.G. Wodehouse, My Man Jeeves
As the words for this introduction start to form in my mind, I am lying in bed, curled around my wife’s sleeping body. As I hold her I enjoy the sensation of her presence – her touch, her scent, the ebb and flow of her breathing. Yet it is clearly not the sensations themselves that I savour. If someone were to replace her with a cunningly designed machine, warmed to 36 degrees Celsius, suffused with synthetic pheromones, programmed to wriggle engagingly and to emit a gentle rhythmic hissing noise, it would do nothing for me at all. It is not the sensations but their meaning that keeps me awake and captivated. To put it in a rather more macabre way: suppose Ann died right now, here in my arms. I imagine I would continue to hold her awhile, but it would no longer really be her that I’d be holding, just her memory. Her inner being, her élan vital, would have gone. This is a book about that vital essence – a scientific search for the soul. More than that, more adventurously, more arrogantly, more grandly than that, it’s a book that tries to answer the question, ‘How can we build a soul?’
The vital spark
One of the phenomena which had peculiarly attracted my attention was the structure of the human frame, and, indeed, any animal endued with life. Whence, I often asked myself, did the principle of life proceed? It was a bold question, and one which has ever been considered as a mystery; yet with how many things are we upon the brink of becoming acquainted, if cowardice or carelessness did not restrain our enquiries. I resolved these circumstances in my mind, and determined thenceforth to apply myself more particularly to those branches of natural philosophy which relate to physiology …
After days and nights of incredible labour and fatigue, I succeeded in discovering the cause of generation and life; nay, more, I became myself capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter …
It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.
Mary Shelly, Frankenstein
When Victor Frankenstein breathed life into his creation, it was with electricity. He, or rather his own creator, Mary Shelley, refused to allow us access to the exact recipe, but it seems that Frankenstein constructed his monster laboriously from ordinary, everyday chemicals and then finally animated him by means of a vital spark.
Electricity was the miracle of Mary Shelley’s time. A generation earlier, in 1780, Luigi Galvani had demonstrated the significance of electricity in the processes of life, by showing how amputated frogs’ legs would twitch when momentarily connected to a crude electric battery made from body fluids and two dissimilar metals. If the lifeless limb of a frog could be made to behave as if alive by the infusion of the electric fluid, then surely electricity itself must be the source and very essence of life?
The idea that living things possess some special substance that separates them from inanimate matter and gives them their astonishing properties goes back a long way. When they weren’t occupied with turning base metals into gold, the ancient alchemists were intent on discovering the elixir vitae, or water of life, which they hoped, would enable them to cheat death and live for ever. This was certainly their technological aim, as it were, but they also had what today we would call a pure-science motive for their work: they wished to understand life; they wanted to divine the nature of the soul.
We human beings are obsessed with our souls. Painters don’t paint portraits because they enjoy applying pigment to canvas. Poets don’t write for the joy of seeing squiggles on paper. Both want to capture some essence, some aspect of that which we call the human condition. What happens to us when we die is, of course, what strikes us as the most pertinent and sometimes the most pressing question when we dwell upon the topic of soul. One day, each of us will face death. Ideally, most of us would prefer to forego the experience altogether, but at the very least we would like some hints, if not assurances, as to what will befall us when our time comes. But before we die we are alive, and life itself is such a strange phenomenon, something so distinctive and inexplicable, that I think we are all deeply fascinated by what it means. What is life? How does it come about? What exactly is the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything?
The notion that life resides in some special substance, which is excused from compliance with the normal laws of physics, is called vitalism. In the late Middle Ages this vital essence was deemed to be chemical in nature. By the early nineteenth century it had become electrical. As our mastery over the chemical and electrical world increased, and we found ourselves still no nearer to discovering the essence of life, the concept was pushed into even more abstract realms. The vague notion of a ‘life force’ surfaces today in science fiction, with the implication that life is akin to magnetism or gravity. Vitalism is not yet dead by any means, but the vital essence continues to flee into whatever phenomenal realm currently lies just beyond our understanding. Roger Penrose, in his book The Emperor’s New Mind, deals with the nature of consciousness and concludes that the answer may lie in quantum physics. He argues that the nature of thought transcends the limits of a mechanical computer, and so may require a form of ‘hypercomputation’ that exploits quantum uncertainty. His is a very sophisticated argument, but to my mind it is filled with vitalist desperation. He rests his hope on yet another poorly understood physical phenomenon to explain and contain life or, in this case, consciousness.
The ogre from which the vitalists have been running ever since the rise of rationalism in Galileo’s day is the doctrine of materialism. This is odd, because vitalism itself is largely a materialistic notion, since despite its best intentions it tries to embody a spiritual idea in an essentially physical form. Materialism holds that there is no separate division into material and spiritual worlds. So there is no magical soul, no life beyond death, no need or room for a god. Everything is subject to the laws of physics and everything that exists belongs in the physical domain. This is perhaps a bleak outlook as far as the soul is concerned, but its success over the past three hundred years cannot be denied. From the time the great scientists of the Renaissance banished the Hand of God by showing how the planets move according to clear, unvarying rules, the universe has been gradually reduced to clockwork. When Mary Shelley first dreamed up the story of Frankenstein she was in Switzerland, sharing a house with her husband and his friend, Lord Byron. Byron was the father of Ada, Countess Lovelace, and it was she who so clearly saw and explained the implications of her friend Charles Babbage’s inventions. Babbage used clockwork as the basis of his unfinished Difference Engine and, later, his even less complete Analytical Engine. These were the forerunners of the modern computer – a machine designed to ‘think’ – and it is perhaps this invention that has done more than anything to reduce the human spirit to a simple mechanical process.
I would like to assert that, although the materialist viewpoint is undoubtedly the truth, it is not the whole truth. I am a computer programmer by background, and as familiar as anyone with the means by which apparently abstract ideas can be reduced to simple mechanical steps. But I believe that the computer, if interpreted correctly, can be the saviour of the soul rather than its executioner. It can show us how to transcend mere mechanism, and reinstate a respect for the spiritual domain that materialism has so cruelly (if unintentionally) destroyed. The modern, fast, digital computer can give us a new understanding of the world of software, and this puts the world of hardware into a new perspective.
Save our souls
The beauty of materialist, mechanist, reductionist thinking is that it can explain so much about our world; its danger is that it can also explain things away. If you had just seen an impressive conjuring trick and I told you how the trick was done, I would be guilty of explaining it away. The beauty of the trick depends on it being inexplicable and magical, and reducing that magic to mere sleight of hand would trivialize it and spoil it for you. On the other hand, if you were enjoying a beautiful landscape painting and the artist began to explain to you how she had used light and shade, pigment and brush stroke, to fool the eye and suggest a feeling of depth or poignancy of mood, you would not find the painting any the less beautiful for this elucidation. Indeed, your increased understanding might considerably enhance your appreciation of it.
Science usually aims to achieve the latter effect, and scientific theories are advanced in the hope that they will enhance the beauty of the phenomena they seek to explain, rather than diminish it. Sadly, science also occasionally explains things away – perhaps inadvertently, sometimes deliberately. Often the difference comes down to a poor or malicious choice of words, especially the insertion of qualifiers such as ‘just’ or ‘simply’, as in ‘consciousness is simply a product of nerve impulses’. To a large extent, philosophical speculation about life and consciousness has been a sad, gradual process of ‘explaining away’ the soul. It has been turned into first a substance, then a force, and now a mechanism. Yet recognizing that life and consciousness are products of material processes need not ‘explain them away’ in the slightest. In fact, I think it calls into question the meaning of ‘material process’ itself.
Only a fool or a coward would want life to retain its mystery as if it were a magic trick. Nothing is lost and much is gained by understanding things, and life should be no different from anything else in this respect. Yet we cannot allow these explanations to diminish us, as living beings. The poetry of life must not be replaced with matter-of-fact prose.
We have good reasons to be protective of our souls. Quite apart from our fear of mortality, we rely on our veneration of life to guide our everyday choices. Our division of the world into the categories ‘living’ and ‘non-living’ seems to be one of the most fundamental judgements we make and, whether it is fair or not, we treat each category in very different ways. Perhaps the most profound distinction we make between living and non-living is in our application of morals. The concepts of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are applicable only to living things. We never accuse an avalanche of being a murderer, and we never campaign for the rights of hurricanes. We are sure that killing other human beings is wrong, and some people are so clear on this point that they are even willing to kill the killer, in pursuit of some concept called ‘justice’. We are less certain about whether it is wrong to kill a cow or an ant or a bacterium, but we generally assume that it is merely less wrong (or at least more defensible) as we move down some assumed hierarchy of soul-hood. On the other hand, we seem to believe that there is a sudden, qualitative change at the division between living and non-living, so we never trouble ourselves for a moment about the welfare of rivers or hills.
If life is reduced to mere clockwork, where does that leave our sense of morality? In fact, as life has indeed begun to be reduced to clockwork, and especially as we have gained mastery over that clockwork, so has our moral certainty declined. Today we face difficult moral judgements about abortion, euthanasia, genetic manipulation and mind control, which arise because our ability to understand has failed to keep pace with our ability to act.
But moral and ethical quandaries aside, I believe there is a sense in which our understanding of the universe has become a little inside-out. The primitive, dualistic distinction between mind and matter, spirit and substance, has been replaced by a more modern one which in effect claims that there is only substance. I would prefer to claim that there is only spirit. One of the points of view this book seeks to explore can be stated as follows:
Life is not made of atoms, it is merely built out of them. What life is actually ‘made of’ is cycles of cause and effect, loops of causal flow. These phenomena are just as real as atoms – perhaps even more real. If anything, the entire universe is actually made from events, of which atoms are merely some of the consequences.
Some of these ideas will, I hope, emerge as you read the following chapters. In any case, I want to try to show that life is more than just clockwork, even though it is nothing but clockwork.
Applying the ghost in the machine
Life has always been an ineffable mystery, and many people understandably prefer to keep it that way. Science has steadily been eroding this mystery, and sometimes it seems that the poetry of our souls is about to dissipate in a haze of prosaic logic. This book sets out to do two apparently incompatible things: to retain and reassert life’s majesty while explaining how we can create it for ourselves. Part of my purpose is to show that life is more than the sum of its parts, yet at the same time I want to show that it is possible to understand these parts and assemble them afresh to create new life. This fact has more than mere curiosity value, and there are better reasons to play at being god than simply self-aggrandizement. Living, thinking, caring, motivated beings are very different from other classes of machine, and there are strong technological as well as social reasons why an understanding of life and mind is important.
Once upon a time, all machines were integrated with living things. Every plough was pulled by oxen and guided by a man; every lathe was turned by hand and controlled by the eye. The Industrial Revolution removed the need for muscle power, and to some extent the progress of automation has reduced our reliance on human supervision for the control of machines. Yet many jobs can’t be done, or are done badly, without an intelligent living organism at the helm. A tractor can pull a larger plough than a team of oxen can, but unlike the oxen it cannot refuel itself or navigate rough terrain without an external brain to guide it. Since oxen are notoriously bad at driving tractors, this dull and relatively mindless duty fell to the far more adaptable but rather overqualified brains of human beings. Research into artificial life[*] is inspiring a new engineering discipline whose aim is to put the life back into technology. Using A-life as an approach to artificial intelligence, we are beginning to put souls into previously lifeless machines – not the souls of slaves, but of willing spirits who enjoy the tasks they are set. The first great age of technology can be thought of as the Inanimate Age, during which hammers and ploughs needed separate biological controllers and power sources. After that came the Animate Age, in which steam replaced muscle and rudimentary automation took animals (if not people) out of the loop. The third great age of technology is about to start. This is the Biological Age, in which machine and synthetic organism merge. Taking our technological inspiration from biological systems promises to deliver a more adaptable, intelligent, robust and, above all, personable class of machines. Whether removing the need to employ profoundly intelligent human beings on mind-numbing and tedious jobs will alleviate the suffering in the world or exacerbate it is perhaps a moot point. Nevertheless, it will be good to have the choice, and undoubtedly there are many situations in which biologically inspired machines could improve or protect people’s lives.
Seeing how the trick is done
After years of idle experimentation with the ideas to be described in this book, my first real opportunity to create artificial life came in 1992, under the cunning disguise of writing a computer game. This game was called Creatures, and it turned out to be more successful than I could ever have imagined. Roughly a million people across the world now look after the artificial organisms I created, and the global population of the creatures themselves even outnumbers that of many natural species.
One of the big surprises for me was the large following of devoted enthusiasts the product attracted. Many of them (quite rightly) regarded Creatures not as a computer game but as a scientific hobby, and some of their activities are astounding in their own right – so much so that some of the most experienced artificial life experts in the world today are probably non-academics who bought this game and took it and its creatures apart, piece by piece. I hope many of these enthusiasts will read this book. Perhaps you are one of them.
A game it may have been but, if you’ll forgive the staggering lack of modesty this implies, Creatures was probably the closest thing there has been to a new form of life on this planet in four billion years. At the time of writing (and ignoring my present research work), these creatures probably still represent the state of the art in synthetic life forms.
Understandably, many people have since asked me to ‘reveal the secret’ of how to create artificial life, either out of scientific curiosity or even because they wanted to produce something like it for themselves. Trade secrets aside, I’ve generally been happy to explain how the trick is done, and have described many of the details in lectures, papers and articles for both scientific and lay audiences. But the facts alone are not really enough. I can and will tell you how it was done, and I’m sure you will follow what I am saying without any difficulty at all. If the facts were all you wanted, you could simply skip to Chapter 11 now and avoid all the philosophical stuff completely. But if you did, would you really understand it?
Maybe; maybe not. In my job as senior programmer and later as technical director of the company that made Creatures, I frequently tried to explain how the trick was done to some very bright programmers, many of whom are trained in A-life and far better qualified than I am. Yet I met with only limited success. This is not because the ideas are inherently difficult, or because the system I developed is especially complex (although it’s not exactly simple!). No, for many people the reason is that to understand life, both natural and artificial, they have to change the way they look at the world.
I certainly had to think about a lot of interesting things in order to be able to write Creatures. But perhaps more important is the stuff I learned while I was writing it – the insights I gained from the experience. The problem with insights is that they are like skills: you can’t use language to transfer them from person to person. I can tell you how to operate a video recorder, because that is knowledge. But even if I knew how to do it myself, I couldn’t tell you how to be a better gymnast because that is a skill. Skills can be learned only through personal experience, and insights are much the same. Where new knowledge is simply added to one’s existing mental store, insights bring understanding, and understanding changes one’s whole being.
The act of writing Creatures – of trying to solve for myself many of the problems that Nature has had to solve through evolution – taught me many nameless things about life. It was by direct personal experience that I saw how Nature’s trick is done, and it changed my understanding of the world profoundly. Unless you plan to shut yourself away for five years like I did, you may never discover these things for yourself. So I want to try to give you some of these insights vicariously instead. As you read, please remember that insights cannot be coded in prose. They are not things that you can simply take in; they have to be felt. What I’m trying to get across in this book is not so much a series of facts or opinions but a way of looking at things. You may have to read between the lines.
In a nutshell, the view I want to convey in this book is largely an anti-reductionist, anti-materialist and (to a degree) anti-mechanist one. The argument I want to put forward is that the natural world is composed of a hierarchy of ‘persistent phenomena’, in which matter, life, mind and society are simply different levels or aspects of the same thing. I also propose that this natural hierarchy can be mirrored by an equivalent one that exists inside a parallel universe called cyberspace. I then want to sketch an outline for a common descriptive language which can be used at all levels of the hierarchy. In this language we shall find the basic operators of which life and mind are constructed. To create artificial life we have to understand the nature of this hierarchy, implement simulations of these basic operators using a computer (or other device) and build upon that foundation the higher levels of persistent phenomena that we seek. A computer cannot be intelligent, but it can create a parallel universe in which natural forms of intelligence can be replicated.
In summary, I am an aspiring, latter-day Baron Frankenstein. Like him, I believe that life can be created where there was none before. Like him, I think that it is possible to make thinking, caring, feeling beings and that, when these beings exist, it may be reasonable to ascribe to them a soul. Like him, this is what I have set out to do. Frankenstein’s terrible and ultimately fatal mistake was to carry out the act of creation first, and to think about the consequences afterwards. Mary Shelley made him suffer for his impudence and his arrogance. Perhaps she was right, maybe it is arrogant to attempt to ‘play god’ in that way. To do so with the aim of debunking and debasing life would certainly be arrogant. But I think that there is a kind of understanding that can be achieved only by building things for oneself, and that this kind of understanding generates a respect for the subject that may be lacking in one who merely ‘sees how the trick is done’. So far, my faltering attempts to create life have only increased my admiration for it. If we succeed in grasping the mechanism of life, as we have grasped electricity and chemistry, then, rather than familiarity breeding contempt, I suspect we shall find a new, harmonious understanding of everything, and life will be elevated once more to its proper place.