Creation - life and how to make it

Author: Steve Grand



Publisher: Phoenix

Reviewed by: Simon Wistow

Steve Grand is a digital god.

I'm not just saying that as some sort of hero worship or as a glowing reccomendation of this book (although you could probably accuse me of both) but because he concieves and creates binary creatures and imbues them with life.

Steve Grand begat the Norns - the impossibly cute, wide eyed inhabitants of the game Creatures (and all its sequels). Norns were not just some sophisticated Tamgotchi, nor were they a clever hack designed to appear life like whilst a Wizard like figure behind the screen pull all the strings - Norns were designed to be alive.

Despite (or, possibly, because of) having Igor Aleksander as a lecturer at college I've remained skeptical about the possibility of artificial life and machine intelligence (I shy away from saying the more normal, and loaded, Artificial Intelligence) but find the Intelligent agents in games to be a fascinating field and so I bought this book expecting it to be a HOWTO guide for building seemingly intelligent characters mixed in with some Neural Net theory.

However I was pleasantly surprised to find a wide ranging and incredibly complete (especially considering that it's only 263 pages long including diagrams) book which was vaguely reminiscent of classic Feynman (but without the misogony).

This book debunks the last 50 years of AI research but is cautiously optimistic for the next 50 years claiming, that we've been looking in the wrong place, that AI Research has failed its own Turing Test, and that the solutions to the problems lie within this book.

Like any good theorem it starts off with the basics, by defining the axioms that the rest of the proof can be built upon. Only in this case it's more like redefining the basics - there is no such thing, argues Grand, as matter.

I blinked hard a couple of times too.

Essentially the argument goes like this - matter is no more than a disturbance in the universe just like a wave is nothing more than a disturbance in water. Sitting typing this on a laptop that I've just found out wasn't worth one and a half grand because, essentially, it's not there, is a little disconcerting but after a short think and a nice hot cup of tea it becomes a more palatable idea - think of it like this : the same difficulty one has with believing that a thing is just a disturbance in the universe is the same difficulty someone watching an incoming tidal wave has with believing that it's 'just' a disturbance in the sea and not a coherent thing.

For more on this read "The Matter Myth" by Paul Davies and John Gribbin.

>From there Grand goes onto explain clumping - subatomic particles clump together to form atoms, to form molecules to form chemicals. At this point, I have to admit, I was wondering what, precisely this has to do with games and intelligence. The answer is positive and negative feedback loops which drive evolution and give rise to emergent behaviour.

What Grand shows is that some seemingly intelligent behaviour, such as ants storing all their dead in a mass grave is little more than emergent behaviour. Ditto their path finding ability. By attempting to reproduce piece meal pure learning or intelligence or reasoning classical AI research has missed the point - what is needed is a combination of emergent behaviour, learning and emotions and then you get the intelligence 'for free'.

It works in the same way as writing the dynamics in a game. Pacman didn't implement a physics engine - there was a simple rule that said "you can't move into the walls". However the same rule would come for free if it had been done with a physics engine. It would have Just Worked [tm].

Still with me? Good, we're only half way through. And I've missed out lots.

Armed with these concepts we plunge into "God's Lego Set" - kind of design patterns for the universe - which examines the tools at our disposal before swerving neatly into "The whole Iguana" were we start plumbing everything so that in "Igor hand me that screwdriver" we can start building our virtual creature. Which is named Ron - Grand unconvincingly tries to claim that it's named Ron because that was the name of King Arthur's spear and also because of the infamous (mostly due to Fight Club) series of Readers' Digest articles about body parts such as "I am Jane's spleen" and, more relevantly, "I am Ron's brain".

With the equivalent of some virtual neurons and a small hormone factory Ron quickly starts to take shape - what I liked best is the fact that everyt time Grand describes a problem (and he's not afraid to admit the mistakes he made and the corners he had to cut) there's always an elegant hack to get round it - as a programmer I found this as beautiful and as fascinating as the finished product and it's almost certainly the hallmarks of a well designed system.

With everything plugged in the rubber gloves are donned and the switch thrown. Lightening cracks, thunder roles, cliches are perpetrated. Ron LIVES!

The emergent behaviour is fascinating - when placed with other Norns we discover that Ron, being attractive in a Norn kind of way learns that the first things that run towards him are females wanting to mate. Sadly when a truck rushes towards him he hasn't yet learnt to fear it so he, err, attempts to get jiggy with the Semi. This, explains Grand, is a feature not a bug.

The last few chapters of the book deal with consequences of having machine life by taking stories from the online Creatures community (which is even larger than the Quake) and from the worldwide population of Norns - rough guesses place the figure in the several millions, more than the worldwide population of elephants - such as how it reacted to the Creature Torture site and the impassioned pleas of an Australian family who had one of their Norns give birth to a deaf and dumb baby (Grand did the equivalent of gene surgery, fed her up and sent her back and then recieved a Christmas card from the family saying that little 'Kelly' was doing fine) - and mixing them in with some philosophy. For examples he asks why people think that robots will try and take over the earth - there is no point for them, their pleasure will be in serving us and so extermination of the human race would be counter productive.

To sum up, an excellent book. Whilst some scientific knowledge (or at least scientific interest) is useful it isn't required. It leads us through fairly complicated ideas without patronising or bamboozling and Grand writes with warmth and humour (viz. the Chapter titles mentioned above - my favourite being chapter 7 which uses the Red Dwarf quote "They call me Legion; for I am many" and starts with a quote from Elbert Hubbard's Philistine "Life is just one damn thing after another") but with obvious intelligence and passion, hence the Feynman comparison. Or closer to home - think our own Mr Conway (Damian not John 'Game of Life' Conway, although he is mentioned lots) but smoking from a biological crack pipe rather than than a Latin or Quantum one.

If you're interested in AI, biology, philosophy or just looking for a good book to read then this book is 8 pounds very well spent.