Ok, so this is where I get to tell you how wonderful I am.
Let’s start with the basics: I’m over half a century old and I live in beautiful Flagstaff, Arizona, although I’m a Limey by birth.
For what the tax authorities laughingly describe as a job I’m an independent scientist. Basically, this means I sit on my butt and come up with interesting new ideas about artificial intelligence and artificial life, then try desperately to find ways to earn a living from them.
My first Big Idea, or rather my first Actually Paying The Mortgage Idea, since it was the product of twenty years of unpaid thoughts and experiments, was an artificial life computer game called Creatures, which was published in 1996 but still has an enthusiastic following today. I never made money out of Creatures itself but I do owe it a huge debt of gratitude for propelling me into the public eye. Thanks to Creatures I shot from total obscurity to being written about in newspapers, magazines and books all over the world, which was kinda nice. But most importantly it gave me the chance to meet and befriend some of my greatest intellectual heroes.
Creatures also drew my work to the attention of some very big companies, and so my former employers set up a new company with the aim of exploiting these ideas for more serious applications. I became the CTO, with a seat on the Board, and it was exciting to think that my vision for “putting the life back into technology” might finally take off. But in many respects it was a deeply traumatic and frustrating time, and in 1999 I decided to leave and go back to working on my own. Luckily for my flagging self-esteem, this was also the moment that my country decided to honor me with an OBE.
Around the same time I wrote up most of my philosophy and ideas about artificial life in a Popular Science book – Creation: Life and how to make it – which received a fair amount of critical acclaim and missed winning the Aventis Prize by a whisker.
Although I’m proud of some of the science inside Creatures, I was very aware that my design for their brains bore little resemblance to reality. It could be argued that my creatures were, in some sense, actually alive, but I would never dream of claiming that they were conscious. This is because they had no imagination – no mental life. I got very interested in how the brain gives rise to imagination and this led me to start building a robot called Lucy, who in turn caused something of a stir and even became the subject of a TV documentary.
At this point I was awarded a NESTA Fellowship – some real money to build a second version of the robot. Unfortunately the money only lasted a year and technical problems meant I didn’t achieve nearly as much as I’d hoped in the time available. However, I learned an awful lot and developed some useful new skills. I wrote up my experiences in a book called Growing up with Lucy: how to build an android in twenty easy steps.
And now (June 2009) I’m about to start coding a successor to Creatures (but not called that). My aim is the same as it was for Creatures – to make the closest thing to real virtual life so far (not something that looks like it’s alive and intelligent but something that really is). Hopefully this time I’ll make a bit of money out of it.
One of the best things that ever happened to me was that I managed to avoid being educated. Education is a sure way to make sure that everyone ends up thinking in the same way, and although the lack of paper qualifications was a major handicap for most of my life, I wouldn’t swap my independent-mindedness for all the degrees in Oxford. Nevertheless, it was lovely to receive an honorary doctorate from the Open University recently, making me into an official egghead at last. I’ve also been fortunate enough to be offered several honorary research fellowships – in artificial life, psychology and biomimetics, and I even had a paid research fellowship for a while with the nice people at the Institute of Creative Technologies in Leicester.
Outside of my interests in AI, A-life, robotics, cognitive neuroscience and complex adaptive systems, I like aviation (although I haven’t flown for some years) and landscape photography, and I also like to run. In my spare time I sleep.