Blowing my own trumpet

Okay, try not to cringe, but I really need your help. In the interests of full disclosure, that means money. Or if not money then influence. Please nicely.

I’ll just hit you with the funding pitch right off the bat. There’s a fancy widget I’m supposed to be able to embed in my blog but it doesn’t work in this theme, so here instead is a good old-fashioned hyperlink. Click on the image to take you to Kickstarter.

This is the first chance I’ve had to blog about it, because it’s taken off a lot more quickly than I expected and I’ve had a lot of people to thank and queries to field! It’s only the end of Day Two as I write this and the total is already over $11,000, much to my amazement and thanks especially to some extremely generous donors. I think there’s a real chance we can make this happen, with your help. Which is just as well, because I’ve almost completely used up my own resources after all these years of self-funded research and this is the only way I can continue with my work.

If you’ve already pledged then thank you SO MUCH! I really, really appreciate it. If you haven’t and you’d like to then that’s fantastic. My Creatures game inspired quite a lot of people to think differently about life, and even caused a number of them to take up scientific careers. I’m pretty sure this game will do the same, so it’s in a good cause as well as hopefully being fun. If you aren’t in a position to pledge then I quite understand – I’m not either! – but if you can help spread the word by tweeting, blogging, facebooking or pinning notices to telegraph poles then I really appreciate that too. The wider the news spreads, the more chance I have. Thank you.

Oh, and I see 600 people visited my blog today, which is a fair bit higher than usual, so if you came here via Kickstarter then I’m delighted to see you. I hope you’ll come back! 🙂

Incidentally, earlier posts about the design of the artificial brain for this project can be found here, here, here, here, here, here and here. After that I went a bit quiet because I got stuck on a problem that was too complex even to tell you about. But I think I have the answer to that now. After months of banging my head against the wall it just came to me – poof! – while I was driving through the desert thinking about something else. Don’t you just love it when that happens?

[Edit: I fixed the links – whoops.]

So how’s it going?

Just a short post to say that I’m going to tweet my programming journal in real-time, as I work on my new game, so if any of you are fellow Twits, feel free to follow @enchantedloom. I don’t really understand Twitter yet, and 140 characters is just not ‘me’ somehow, but it seems like a good way to keep my nose to the grindstone (or avoid any actual work, possibly) and at the same time let you guys know how things are going. I’d appreciate the company, so see you in Twit-land maybe!

101010

Today is 10/10/10, which is not only one of the relatively rare occasions on which one can write the date without fear of ambiguity in today’s cosmopolitan world, but also the binary expression of the number 42, and hence the Answer to Life, the Universe and Everything.

How can I let that pass without a short memorial to Douglas Adams? After all, it won’t come around again for another century and by then I’ll be getting on a bit and might not remember.

But what memorial? I’ll start with one of my favorite quotes. It’s of no import whatsoever but it still makes me laugh every time I think of it, and what’s bad about that? It’s Douglas in his best P.G.Wodehouse mode. The man was a genius at saying things in a way that catches us short:

‘Dirk, please, if you would,’ said Dirk, grasping his hand warmly, ‘I prefer it. It has more of a sort of Scottish dagger feel to it, I think. Dirk Gently is the name under which I now trade. There are certain events in the past, I’m afraid, from which I would wish to disassociate myself.’

‘Absolutely, I know how you feel. Most of the fourteenth century, for instance, was pretty grim,’ agreed Reg earnestly.

Dirk was about to correct the misapprehension, but thought that it might be somewhat of a long trek and left it.

But here’s something more relevant to both the date and the theme of this blog. Back in the late 90’s my colleagues and I organised a really enjoyable conference on Artificial Life, to which Douglas came. I’d asked him to chair a debate but he balked at this and decided to give an impromptu talk instead (well, fairly impromptu – he tried it out on Richard Dawkins and me the night before in the bar). It was a triumph. Ann transcribed it for us and it now rests for the sake of posterity in Douglas’s official biography. The whole transcript is pretty long (and anyway it’s available on the web in various places), so I’ll just quote a short section for auld lang syne:

I want to pick up on a few other things that came around today. I was fascinated by Larry [Yaeger] (again), talking about tautology, because there’s an argument that I remember being stumped by once, to which I couldn’t come up with a reply, because I was so puzzled by the challenge and couldn’t quite figure it out. A guy said to me, ‘yes, but the whole theory of evolution is based on a tautology: that which survives, survives’ This is tautological, therefore it doesn’t mean anything. I thought about that for a while and it finally occurred to me that a tautology is something that, if it means nothing, not only has no information gone into it but no consequence has come out of it. So, we may have accidentally stumbled upon the ultimate answer; it’s the only thing, the only force, arguably the most powerful of which we are aware, which requires no other input, no other support from any other place, is self evident, hence tautological, but nevertheless astonishingly powerful in its effects. It’s hard to find anything that corresponds to that and I therefore put it at the beginning of one of my books. I reduced it to what I thought were the bare essentials, which are very similar to the ones you came up with earlier, which were “anything that happens happens, anything that in happening causes something else to happen causes something else to happen and anything that in happening causes itself to happen again, happens again”. In fact you don’t even need the second two because they flow from the first one, which is self-evident and there’s nothing else you need to say; everything else flows from that. So, I think we have in our grasp here a fundamental, ultimate truth, against which there is no gain-saying. It was spotted by the guy who said this is a tautology. Yes, it is, but it’s a unique tautology in that it requires no information to go in but an infinite amount of information comes out of it. So I think that it is arguably therefore the prime cause of everything in the Universe. Big claim, but I feel I’m talking to a sympathetic audience.

And he was.

So what did Douglas think about 42? I have a small personal insight into that, because Ann asked him to sign a copy of my all-time favorite book, for my 42nd birthday present. I’ll post that too, because the Web perhaps doesn’t fade as badly as paper. That was over ten years ago. Poor Douglas didn’t make it to my age.

Brainstorm #1

Ok, here goes…

Life has been rather complicated and exhausting lately. Not all of it bad by any means; some of it really good, but still rather all-consuming. Nevertheless, it really is time that I devoted some effort to my work again. So I’ve started work on a new game (hooray! I hear you say ;-)). I have no idea what the game will consist of yet – just as with Creatures I’m going to create life and then let the life-forms tell me what their story is.

I wasted a lot of time writing Sim-biosis and then abandoning it, but I did learn a lot about 3D in the process. This time I’ve decided to swallow my pride and use a commercial 3D engine – Unity. (By the way, I’m writing for desktop environments – I need too much computer power for iPhone, etc.) Unity is the first 3D engine I’ve come across that supports C#.NET (well, Mono) scripting AND is actually finished and working, not to mention has documentation that gives developers some actual clue about the contents of the API. I have to jury-rig it a bit because most games have only trivial scripts and I need to write very complex neural networks and biochemistries, for which a simple script editor is a bit limiting, but the next version has debug support and hopefully will integrate even better with Visual Studio, allowing me to develop complex algorithms without regressing to the technology of the late 1970’s in order to debug them. So far I’m very impressed with Unity and it seems to be capable of at least most of the weird things that a complex Alife sim needs, as compared to running around shooting things, which is what game engines are designed for.

So, I need a new brain. Not me, you understand – I’ll have to muddle along with the one I was born with. I mean I need to invent a new artificial brain architecture (and eventually a biochemistry and genetics). Nothing else out there even begins to do what I want, and anyway, what’s the point of me going to all this effort if I don’t get to invent new things and do some science? It’s bad enough that I’m leaving the 3D front end to someone else.

I’ve decided to stick my neck out and blog about the process of inventing this new architecture. I’ve barely even thought about it yet – I have many useful observations and hypotheses from my work on the Lucy robots but nothing concrete that would guide me to a complete, practical, intelligent brain for a virtual creature. Mostly I just have a lot more understanding of what not to do, and what is wrong with AI in general. So I’m going to start my thoughts almost from scratch and I’m going to do it in public so that you can all laugh at my silly errors, lack of knowledge and embarrassing back-tracking. On the other hand, maybe you’ll enjoy coming along for the ride and I’m sure many of you will have thoughts, observations and arguments to contribute. I’ll try to blog every few days. None of it will be beautifully thought through and edited – I’m going to try to record my stream of consciousness, although obviously I’m talking to you, not to myself, so it will come out a bit more didactic than it is in my head.

So, where do I start? Maybe a good starting point is to ask what a brain is FOR and what it DOES. Surprisingly few researchers ever bother with those questions and it’s a real handicap, even though skipping it is often a convenient way to avoid staring at a blank sheet of paper in rapidly spiraling anguish.

The first thing to say, perhaps, is that brains are for flexing muscles. They also exude chemicals but predominantly they cause muscles to contract. It may seem silly to mention this but it’s surprisingly easy to forget. Muscles are analog, dynamical devices whose properties depend on the physics of the body. In a simulation, practicality overrules authenticity, so if I want my creatures to speak, for example, they’ll have to do so by sending ASCII strings to a speech synthesizer, not by flexing their vocal chords, adjusting their tongue and compressing their lungs. But it’s still important to keep in mind that the currency of brains, as far as their output is concerned, is muscle contraction. It’s the language that brains speak. Any hints I can derive from nature need to be seen in this light.

One consequence of this is that most “decisions” a creature makes are analog; questions of how much to do something, rather than what to do. Even high-level decisions of the kind, “today I will conscientiously avoid doing my laundry”, are more fuzzy and fluid than, say, the literature on action selection networks would have us believe. Where the brain does select actions it seems to do so according to mutual exclusion: I can rub my stomach and pat my head at the same time but I can’t walk in two different directions at once. This doesn’t mean that the rest of my brain is of one mind about things, just that my basal ganglia know not to permit all permutations of desire. An artificial lifeform will have to support multiple goals, simultaneous actions and contingent changes of mind, and my model needs to allow for that. Winner-takes-all networks won’t really cut it.

Muscles tend to be servo-driven. That is, something inputs a desired state of tension or length and then a small reflex arc or more complex circuit tries to minimize the difference between the muscle’s current state and this desired state. This is a two-way process – if the desire changes, the system will adapt to bring the muscle into line; if the world changes (e.g. the cat jumps out of your hands unexpectedly) then the system will still respond to bring things back into line with the unchanged goal. Many of our muscles control posture, and movement is caused by making adjustments to these already dynamic, homeostatic, feedback loops. Since I want my creatures to look and behave realistically, I think I should try to incorporate this dynamism into their own musculature, where possible, as opposed to simply moving joints to a given angle.

But this notion of servoing extends further into the brain, as I tried to explain in my Lucy book. Just about ALL behavior can be thought of as servo action – trying to minimize the differential between a desired state and a present state. “I’m hungry, therefore I’ll phone out for pizza, which will bring my hunger back down to its desired state of zero” is just the topmost level in a consequent flurry of feedback, as phoning out for pizza itself demands controlled arm movements to bring the phone to a desired position, or lift one’s body off the couch, or move a tip towards the delivery man. It’s not only motor actions that can be viewed in this light, either. Where the motor system tries to minimize the difference between an intended state and the present state by causing actions in the world, the sensory system tries to minimize the difference between the present state and the anticipated state, by causing actions in the brain. The brain seems to run a simulation of reality that enables it to predict future states (in a fuzzy and fluid way), and this simulation needs to be kept in train with reality at several contextual levels. It, too, is reminiscent of a battery of linked servomotors, and there’s that bidirectionality again. With my Lucy project I kept seeing parallels here, and I’d like to incorporate some of these ideas into my new creatures.

This brings up the subject of thinking. When I created my Norns I used a stimulus-response approach: they sensed a change in their environment and reacted to it. The vast bulk of connectionist AI takes this approach, but it’s not really very satisfying as a description of animal behavior beyond the sea-slug level. Brains are there to PREDICT THE FUTURE. It takes too long for a heavy animal with long nerve pathways to respond to what’s just happened (“Ooh, maybe I shouldn’t have walked off this cliff”), so we seem to run a simulation of what’s likely to happen next (where “next” implies several timescales at different levels of abstraction). At primitive levels this seems pretty hard-wired and inflexible, but at more abstract levels we seem to predict further into the future when we have the luxury, and make earlier but riskier decisions when time is of the essence, so that means the system is capable of iterating. This is interesting and challenging.

Thinking often (if not always) implies running a simulation of the world forwards in time to see what will happen if… When we make plans we’re extrapolating from some known future towards a more distant and uncertain one in pursuit of a goal. When we’re being inventive we’re simulating potential futures, sometimes involving analogies rather than literal facts, to see what will happen. When we reflect on our past, we run a simulation of what happened, and how it might have been different if we’d made other choices. We have an internal narrative that tracks our present context and tries to stay a little ahead of the game. In the absence of demands, this narrative can flow unhindered and we daydream or become creative. As far as I can see, this ability to construct a narrative and to let it freewheel in the absence of sensory input is a crucial element of consciousness. Without the ability to think, we are not conscious. Whether this ability is enough to constitute conscious awareness all by itself is a sticky problem that I may come back to, but I’d like my new creatures actively to think, not just react.

And talking about analogies brings up categorization and generalization. We classify our world, and we do it in quite sophisticated ways. As a baby we start out with very few categories – perhaps things to cry about and things to grab/suck. And then we learn to divide this space up into finer and finer, more and more conditional categories, each of which provokes finer and finer responses. That metaphor of “dividing up” may be very apposite, because spatial maps of categories would be one way to permit generalization. If we cluster our neural representation of patterns, such that similar patterns lie close to each other, then once we know how to react to (or what to make of) one of those patterns, we can make a statistically reasonable hunch about how to react to a novel but similar pattern, simply by stimulating its neighbors. There are hints that such a process occurs in the brain at several levels, and generalization, along with the ability to predict future consequences, are hallmarks of intelligence.

So there we go. It’s a start. I want to build a creature that can think, by forming a simulation of the world in its head, which it can iterate as far as the current situation permits, and disengage from reality when nothing urgent is going on. I’d like this predictive power to emerge from shorter chains of association, which themselves are mapped upon self-organized categories. I’d like this system to be fuzzy, so that it can generalize from similar experiences and perhaps even form analogies and metaphors that allow it to be inventive, and so that it can see into the future in a statistical way – the most likely future state being the most active, but less likely scenarios being represented too, so that contingencies can be catered for and the Frame Problem goes away (see my discussion of this in the comments section of an article by Peter Hankins). And I’d like to incorporate the notion of multi-level servomechanisms into this, such that the ultimate goals of the creature are fixed (zero hunger, zero fear, perfect temperature, etc.) and the brain is constantly responding homeostatically (and yet predictively and ballistically) in order to reduce the difference between the present state and this desired state (through sequences of actions and other adjustments that are themselves servoing).

Oh, and then there’s a bunch of questions about perception. In my Lucy project I was very interested in, but failed miserably to conquer, the question of sensory invariance (e.g. the ability to recognize a banana from any angle, distance and position, or at least a wide variety of them). Invariance may be bound up with categorization. This is a big but important challenge. However, I may not have to worry about it, because I doubt my creatures are going to see or feel or hear in the natural sense. The available computer power will almost certainly preclude this and I’ll have to cheat with perception, just to make it feasible at all. That’s an issue for another day – how to make virtual sensory information work in a way that is computationally feasible but doesn’t severely limit or artificially aid the creatures.

Oh yes, and it’s got to learn. All this structure has to self-organize in response to experience. The learning must be unsupervised (nothing can tell it what the “right answer” was, for it to compare its progress) and realtime (no separate training sessions, just non-stop experience of and interaction with the world).

Oh man, and I’d like for there to be the ability for simple culture and cooperation to emerge, which implies language and thus the transfer of thoughts, experience and intentions from one creature to another. And what about learning by example? Empathy and theory of mind? The ability to manipulate the environment by building things? OK, STOP! That’s enough to be going on with!

A shopping list is easy. Figuring out how to actually do it is going to be a little trickier. Figuring out how to do it in realtime, when the virtual world contains dozens of creatures and the graphics engine is taking up most of the CPU cycles is not all that much of a picnic either. But heck, computers are a thousand times faster than they were when I invented the Norns. There’s hope!

An end to Turing Instability

Alan Turing was a superhero. Admittedly he got a bit distracted messing around with mathematical logic, artificial intelligence and inventing the digital computer, but in-between he also developed some of the first ever theoretical ideas in artificial life, specifically his work on nonlinear dynamical systems in the chemical basis of morphogenesis, and his posthumously published and little-known explorations of “unorganised machines“, which we would nowadays recognise as neural networks. Unlike the digital computer, neither of these alternative paradigms for computation has yet been fully developed.

But Turing was also wrapped up in the highly secretive world of code-breaking, through which he helped to shorten the Second World War substantially and save thousands of lives. Wartime Britain took its secrets very seriously and this “walls have ears” attitude became so ingrained in the culture that much of Turing’s work was hidden from view for too long to become part of established history. As a consequence, few members of the general public had even heard of him, let alone realised his role in creating the 21st Century, at least until Andrew Hodges’ biography of Turing came out in the early 1980’s. Bletchley Park, the headquarters of the code-breaking effort, still unaccountably struggles to preserve what’s left of its gently rotting history in the absence of government support.

Turing was also gay, and hence became considered a security threat. He was sentenced to be chemically castrated and came under harassing scrutiny. In 1954 he apparently committed suicide. At the very least he was effectively hounded to an early death by the British government, and it is even possible that he was secretly assassinated. This is not the way to treat heroes.

But last week, thanks to a petition started by John Graham-Cumming, Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued the following official apology. It’s far too late for Alan Turing, but I’m sure it will go some way towards correcting the insult to his name. I’m sure the gay community will appreciate the sentiment too, although I imagine this is just one of a thousand hoped-for apologies as far as they’re concerned. Apologies are pretty empty things when given by someone other than those who carried out the offence, but I do think they represent a statement of intent for the future and can be held against people when they act hypocritically, so I think it is still A Good Thing and a valued correction to history. I hope it will now be followed by some positive government action to preserve our heritage at Bletchley Park, where I’ve twice had the honour to tread in Alan’s footsteps and give talks on AI.

Thanks to Ann for telling me about the petition.

[Update: September 30: Bletchley Park have just announced a grant of half a million pounds from the Heritage Lottery Fund and are applying for another 4 million. English Heritage and Milton Keynes Council have also provided almost a million for repairs. Jolly good show chaps!]

2009 has been a year of deep reflection – a chance for Britain, as a nation, to commemorate the profound debts we owe to those who came before. A unique combination of anniversaries and events have stirred in us that sense of pride and gratitude which characterise the British experience. Earlier this year I stood with Presidents Sarkozy and Obama to honour the service and the sacrifice of the heroes who stormed the beaches of Normandy 65 years ago. And just last week, we marked the 70 years which have passed since the British government declared its willingness to take up arms against Fascism and declared the outbreak of World War Two. So I am both pleased and proud that, thanks to a coalition of computer scientists, historians and LGBT activists, we have this year a chance to mark and celebrate another contribution to Britain’s fight against the darkness of dictatorship; that of code-breaker Alan Turing.

Turing was a quite brilliant mathematician, most famous for his work on breaking the German Enigma codes. It is no exaggeration to say that, without his outstanding contribution, the history of World War Two could well have been very different. He truly was one of those individuals we can point to whose unique contribution helped to turn the tide of war. The debt of gratitude he is owed makes it all the more horrifying, therefore, that he was treated so inhumanely. In 1952, he was convicted of ‘gross indecency’ – in effect, tried for being gay. His sentence – and he was faced with the miserable choice of this or prison – was chemical castration by a series of injections of female hormones. He took his own life just two years later.

Thousands of people have come together to demand justice for Alan Turing and recognition of the appalling way he was treated. While Turing was dealt with under the law of the time and we can’t put the clock back, his treatment was of course utterly unfair and I am pleased to have the chance to say how deeply sorry I and we all are for what happened to him. Alan and the many thousands of other gay men who were convicted as he was convicted under homophobic laws were treated terribly. Over the years millions more lived in fear of conviction.

I am proud that those days are gone and that in the last 12 years this government has done so much to make life fairer and more equal for our LGBT community. This recognition of Alan’s status as one of Britain’s most famous victims of homophobia is another step towards equality and long overdue.

But even more than that, Alan deserves recognition for his contribution to humankind. For those of us born after 1945, into a Europe which is united, democratic and at peace, it is hard to imagine that our continent was once the theatre of mankind’s darkest hour. It is difficult to believe that in living memory, people could become so consumed by hate – by anti-Semitism, by homophobia, by xenophobia and other murderous prejudices – that the gas chambers and crematoria became a piece of the European landscape as surely as the galleries and universities and concert halls which had marked out the European civilisation for hundreds of years. It is thanks to men and women who were totally committed to fighting fascism, people like Alan Turing, that the horrors of the Holocaust and of total war are part of Europe’s history and not Europe’s present.

So on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan’s work I am very proud to say: we’re sorry, you deserved so much better.

Gordon Brown

Ok, so, about this game thing…

If you look up into the night sky, just to the right of the bit that looks like a giant shopping cart, you’ll see a small blue star, called Sulis. Around it floats a stormy orange gas giant, and around that in turn swims a small moon, called Selene (until I come up with a nicer name).

selene2Selene is gravitationally challenged by all that whirling mass and hence is warm, comparatively wet and volcanic. It’s a craggy, canyon-filled landscape, by sheer coincidence remarkably similar to northern Arizona. The thin atmosphere contains oxygen, but sadly also much SO2 and H2S, making it hostile to earthly life without a spacesuit. But life it does contain! Spectroscopic analysis and photography from two orbiters have confirmed this (never mind how the orbiters got there – work with me, guys!)

There are hints of many species, some sessile, some motile. And just a little circumstantial evidence that one of these species may be moderately intelligent and perhaps even has a social structure. Your mission, should you wish to pay me a few dollars for the privilege, is to mount an expedition to Selene and study its biology and ecosystems. If at all possible I’d also like you to attempt contact with this shadowy sentient life-form.

Nothing is known (well, ok, I know it because I’m God, but I’m not telling you) about Selene’s ecosystems, geology, climate or, in particular, its biology. What is the food web? How do these creatures behave? What’s their anatomy? What niches do they occupy? How does their biochemistry work? How do they reproduce? Do they have something similar to DNA or does a different principle hold sway? What’s the likely evolutionary history? For the more intelligent creatures, what can be learned of their psychology, neurology and social behavior? Do they have language? Can we communicate with them? Are they dangerous? How smart are they? Do they have a culture? Do they have myths; religion? What does it all tell us?

You need to work together to build an encyclopedia – like Wikipedia – containing the results of your experiments, your observations and conclusions, stories, tips for exploration and research, maps, drawings, photos and all the rest. It will be a massive (I hope!), collaborative, Open Science experiment in exobiology…

So that’s the gist of what I’m working on. I was going to open a pet store and sell imported aliens but I decided it would be much more fun to build a virtual world you can actually step into, instead of watching through the bars of a cage. I’ll try to develop a whole new, self-consistent but non-earthlike biology, building on some of the things I learned from Creatures and my Lucy robot. I’ll discuss some of the technical issues on this blog but I’ll try not to give the game away – the point of the exercise is to challenge people to do real science on these creatures and deduce/infer this stuff for themselves. They/you did it admirably for Creatures but in those days I couldn’t give you anything as complex and comprehensive as I can now, and this time I don’t have marketing people breathing down my neck telling me that nobody’s interested in science.

I have no idea what the actual features will be, or to what extent it’ll be networked, etc. I’m just starting work on the terrain system and I have an awful long way to go. Because I’m working unfunded and have only a limited amount of money to live on, I’m going to work the other way round to most people, so instead of working to a spec I’ll squeeze in as many features as I can before the cash runs out. I know it’s absurd to hope to do all this in the space of a year to 18 months – after all, how many programmers and artists worked on Spore? Something like a hundred? But I think I’m as well equipped for the job as anyone, I work far more efficiently on my own, and it’s worth the attempt.

Whaddaya think?

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.