Hi honey, I’m home…

Well, sort of. I’m back in the land of the living, anyway, and I’ll try to get back to blogging here again now. The recent sad storms in my life have washed me up, more or less at random, on the metaphorical beaches of Flagstaff, Arizona, where I now have an apartment, furniture, food, a bank account and a bicycle. And broadband, lovely broadband. For the past five weeks I’ve been relying on motel wi-fi, frequently stolen from the parking lot of a motel better than the one I was staying in, so most of my normal connections to the world have been a bit fractured.

But now I can get back to work. I don’t have anything better to do, although having said that I like Flagstaff so far and look forward to getting out and meeting a few people once I have a car. The scenery round here is wonderful and I love being up in the crystal-clear air of the mountains. It’s a great outdoor sports area and Flag has a nice network of urban trails that I can run on, one of which starts right outside my apartment and meanders through parkland, meadow and forest to the airport. Not that I have the energy for running at the moment because I’m having to cycle everywhere, which is quite demanding at 7,000 feet. But it’ll be nice to get back to running once I can rely on a car to carry the groceries.

Anyway, work. What work? That’s a tricky one. Sadly I can’t do any more on Grace, our humanoid robot, because although I still have my machine tools I don’t have a workshop to use them in. It’s a pity after all those months of hard work, but humanoids aren’t really my thing from an AI perspective and Grace was designed for a specific project that doesn’t have a point any more, so I’ll just sit her on a stool in my bedroom and chat to her occasionally.

Grace

I’ve spent years, off and on, working on Sim-biosis, which is a simulator for building aquatic artificial life-forms by plugging together “cells”, such as sensors, actuators and simple computational units. It’s close to Alpha now, but to be quite honest I’ve lost my faith in it, for one reason or another. Because of my change in circumstances I need to do something that will bring in a real income, starting in 18 months, and I think Sim-biosis is perhaps a little too “techie” to be commercial and grab people’s attention. And it doesn’t tap into some of the things I’m good at and became known for with Creatures. I haven’t looked back at it yet (it’s many months since I did any work on it, what with Grace and other disasters), so I may change my mind, but at present I think I’d prefer to start a new project to go with my new life.

Sim-biosis

In the 17 years since I first started to program Creatures I’ve learned an awful lot and started to develop a bunch of interesting ideas about the brain (and hence biologically inspired AI), so I think perhaps it’s time to write a successor to Creatures. I can’t call it that, of course. Maybe I’ll repurpose “Sim-biosis” because I like the pun, or perhaps I should make use of the Grandroids name that was intended for Grace and her successors – yes, that sounds better. Anyway, my plan is to open a pet shop on the internet and sell a variety of species of interesting artificial life-forms – each being a product of my developing research.

And before you offer, thank you very much but no, I don’t want help. I appreciate the many offers I’ve had over the years but I simply can’t do teamwork. I never have been able to. The way I work relies on being able to hold the whole of a concept in my head and produce something that’s very tightly integrated, and as soon as I try to break it up into sections and other people start adding their own ideas it invariably all falls apart. I’ve learned this through bitter experience. So I have to do this on my own. It’s a tall order in 18 months but like I say, I have nothing better to do, so as long as my RSI doesn’t flare up too badly I have a shot at it. And if it doesn’t work out it won’t hurt anyone else.

But I will blog about it. I think best in print, and even if no-one ever reads it, it’ll still help me sort out my ideas. So expect the coming months to bring posts about artificial biochemistries, morphogenesis, kinematics and neuroscience. Creatures was a reasonably brave attempt at artificial life, but computers and my own ideas have come an awful long way since then and it’s about time I put my money where my mouth is and attempted another grand synthesis.

Probably.

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About stevegrand
I'm an independent AI and artificial life researcher, interested in oodles and oodles of things but especially the brain. And chocolate. I like chocolate too.

22 Responses to Hi honey, I’m home…

  1. Graham Glass says:

    Good luck Steve, I’ll be eagerly following your progress!

    Cheers,
    Graham

  2. Terren says:

    “Grand” synthesis indeed! I was sorry to hear about your recent tribulations, and here’s to landing on your feet. Whatever you write here will not go unread. Best of luck and looking forward to whatever you come up with.

    Terren

  3. Neil Durant says:

    I wait in anticipation for whatever you produce. After reading your books, I’m convinced you’re one of the few people who are on the right tracks with intelligent systems. Good luck, and I hope you find plenty of momentum and success in your new location!

  4. Alon says:

    Wooh, finally a “real” post! 🙂

    Anyway, I applaud your aversion to teamwork, I too have learned that two overactive brains are incapable of prolific symbiosis. 😉

    Good luck with your new “Grandroids” ideas. My friends and I would totally become consumers of your new project(s) once completed. Never give up! You’ll finish something very successful this time, I can feel it.

    Steve, make posts as often as possible… (even when not possible!) they don’t have to be long. Just let us be your motivation. We shall cheer you on to a happier future! 😀

  5. Pius Agius says:

    Hi Steve,

    I am ever so glad to see you are ok and letting us know what you are up to in your work. I will look forward to see what you come up with, thankyou for posting.

    Take care,

    Pius

    • stevegrand says:

      Thanks Pius! No more robots from me for a while, I’m afraid, but I hope to do some good work on AI and I’ll do my best to make sure what I develop can be used in the real world even though I’m using it in a virtual one. Hope all’s well with you. I keep in touch with your conversations on Sara’s site.

  6. Daniel Mewes says:

    Hi Steve,

    good to read that you’ve found a new home.
    Whatever way you decide to go, I will follow your research and possible products with big excitement.
    I hope you will find a solution regarding the financial thing…

    Daniel

  7. Come on Steve, can I help, huh, can I… can I give you some help?. I couldn’t resist… it’s just my nature. 🙂

    I’m glad to hear you’re OK and found a place to call home. I’ll look forward to reading about your explorations no matter what direction they take.

    The night skies must be fantastic in Flagstaff. Too bad we don’t live closer… it would be a good excuse to drag my scope out more often.

    Richard

    • stevegrand says:

      🙂 Oh go on then, you can alpha test it…

      You’re right – the air is fantastically clear. Where else would you find a working observatory right on the edge of downtown? Since I’ve been here the moon’s been out so I haven’t had the full effect yet. I may have to work hard to talk myself out of buying a telescope for my balcony.

  8. Stark says:

    I’m very excited about the coming blog entries from you Steve! I’ll be reading regularly, and hopefully with discussion on the possibilities of your project. I’m glad things have slowed down, and I hope things will go well for you.

    I know exactly what you mean when it comes to teamwork. I’m the same way. Just like you, the second people start adding their own ideas — you lose focus of your original purpose. I don’t know how open-source communities get anything done! 😉

    Anyway, looking forward to whatever you come up with, and I would love to be able to test it.

    Have a good day!

    • Vegard says:

      Open source is very nice. As to how things get done, it’s really quite simple; as the author of the software, it’s entirely up to you whether you want to incorporate others’ changes or not. As a contributor to an existing project, you should be prepared for rejection; unless your new feature has a clear advantage and you can argue that the code is correct and for the better of the project, the change simply won’t get “in”. Of course, anyone can fork your open source project and then they’ll maintain a completely separate version of the software — if it’s more successful than the original version, that’s what _others_ will contribute to in the future (sounds an awful lot like evolution, doesn’t it!?).

      That said, in the event that this (or any) project should fail commercially, please, please consider releasing any source code, however incomplete, as free software. There is absolutely no downside. To the contrary: You never know who will come across your project, maybe start using it, maybe even start changing it, and there’s a chance that somebody will actually benefit from it. How much better than everything to be wasted!

      As a side note, for Steve, if you are making a game, it absolutely must be an on-line, multi-player game! Now I don’t really know what you are working on, but I imagine something like constructing your own creature and making them compete (in whatever task), something like what I found in Graham’s blog (above), http://grahamglass.blogs.com/main/2008/10/cyberbiology.html (the second video shows some virtual creatures evolved to fight for possession of a green cube) would be fun. Hm, am I now doing that which we were supposed not to do? Oops… Well, good luck! 🙂

      • stevegrand says:

        Thanks for that. I think Open Source works great for something where the science is already established, like Blender or OpenOffice, but not so well when the core of the task is the invention of brand new computer science (not to mention computational neuroscience and computational biology). Here I have to invent new ways to define genetics, morphogenetics, biochemistry and neurology, and the thing is, all of those need to be conceptually tightly integrated. In fact they’re hardly separable. I could of course do the science bit myself and let other people code the housekeeping – shaders, file management, sensory systems, etc. But even a lot of that needs to be done in an unconventional way. Creating genuine artificial life turns a lot of normal game practices on their head. So Open Source is not my thing, I’m afraid. But I appreciate it can work well under other circumstances.

        > I imagine something like constructing your own creature and making them compete

        God no! Making them do anything is the antithesis of what I want. I try to create autonomy, so the little ****ers will do what the hell they like! If I had direct control over them they wouldn’t be intelligent.

        I’ll certainly make it partially online (although it still needs a thick client – all that biology needs a LOT of local processing). It’ll have some multiuser aspects too, but again we’re not talking about a multiplayer first person shooter – there aren’t enough clock cycles for that and there are other issues (games are a doddle to synch up, because the programmer is in charge. With real artificial life it’s the creatures who are in charge). But I don’t really know yet – I’ve barely started thinking about it. I guess I’d better start!

  9. James Brooks says:

    Glad your back.

    I’m sure you have come across them before but are you planning on making something like Polyworld or Karl Sims virtual creatures? I think they are both excellent projects and would love to see them taken further.

    In particular I would like to see a type of Karl Sims virtual creatures where you can use like SETI or Folding@Home. Some creatures are created, you either leave them alone or treat them as if you are pets (i.e. no direct control), give them food, make them fight, force them to forage etc. At any time you can introduce other creatures from other computers over the Internet.

    When this is all up and running it would be very cool to add new sensors or affectors and watch how they spread through the population.

    http://www.karlsims.com/evolved-virtual-creatures.html
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karl_Sims
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polyworld
    http://sourceforge.net/projects/polyworld/

    • stevegrand says:

      Thanks!

      I certainly have come across them before! In fact I was talking to Larry Yaeger only yesterday. The short answer is “yes and no”. I don’t tend to emphasise evolution, like Karl’s work, because my main interest is in artificial intelligence, which I “merely” take an artificial life approach to. Intelligence took a long time to evolve and the sort I’m interested in isn’t going to show up in the time available, even with a SETI@home approach. It took nearly four billion years and hundreds of trillions of attempts to get from the first living things to something as intellectually advanced as, say, sheep. So a few thousand PCs working for a few years just isn’t going to cut it.

      My work has slightly more in common with Larry’s Polyworld, and indeed the two times we’ve spoken at the same conference together we’ve talked about very much the same thing. But again I’m interested in designing things with medium-level intelligence, rather than evolving things with low-level intelligence. I take an Alife approach to AI in terms of my ontology and a general insistence on emergence through bottom-up processes, but although my creations are genetically coded and capable of evolution that’s not how they came to be that way – I just don’t have four billion years to play with. The bottom-up processes I’m interested in are neurological rather than genetic. It’s complicated – I’ll try to talk more about my stance in this blog, soon. Thanks for bringing it up.

      • James Brooks says:

        I think I understand, what I have linked to is about the very low level intelligence with little pre-programmed ability. You are trying to make something that skips through eons of evolution to get a creature that can learn to be intelligent.

        Just in case you are interested I have just posted my thoughts on Karl Sims Virtual Creatures on my blog http://kerspoon.blogspot.com/.

        A quick note on Open Source, I agree that it will be difficult to change your workflow but it would be nice if your finished program stood as a platform for creating artificial intelligence. One where other developers can use your program to make their own AI.

      • stevegrand says:

        Yep, that’s about it. There are many layers to intelligence and most evolutionary work concerns itself with a stimulus-response kind that’s characteristic of invertebrates. It underlies human intelligence too, but I’m particularly interested in cognitive intelligence – the ability to THINK, as opposed to the ability to learn how to react. They aren’t the same thing at all, despite what some researchers insist. Cognition evolved too, but only comparatively recently, and to evolve it you’d need to take a very different approach to anything currently in the literature. But evolving it isn’t really practical in any case, so I design things.

        Sure, I won’t make my code open source (for one thing I have to make a living out of this eventually – I can’t go on being a charity much longer) but I will produce an open SDK so that sufficiently knowledgeable people can create their own creatures, etc. Sim-biosis was all about making your own creatures but I decided the concepts are too involved for all but a small band of enthusiasts and I need to reach more people to earn a living.

  10. Jo Morrison says:

    Hi Steve

    I was recommending your work to two computer scientists from UCL this morning and thought I would get in touch. However, I had no idea that you had moved to Arizona! Makes my Bristol to London commute seem a tad less adventurous.

    I hope that everything is going well for you, and when you are next in the West Country let me know.

    Jo
    x

    I’m

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