X-Message-Number: 26000
Date: Mon, 11 Apr 2005 18:26:14 -0400
From: Thomas Donaldson <>
Subject: To Yvan Bozzonetti, re "uploading"

 Claus Emmeche, trans. S. Sampson, Princeton U. Press, Princeton, NJ, 1994 
 This book tells about the idea of artificial life and just what it may mean.
What is artificial life? It's basically life implemented inside one or several
 computers. I personally have doubts about just how useful such a broad
definition of life may be; the critical point about life is that it acts in the

real world, not a simulated world. It's not even that I doubt the possibility of
computer life forms: a computer virus is a primitive life form living in REAL
computers. Regardless, Emmeche defines "life" so broadly that simulated life

"living" in a simulated world counts in his mind as life. The problems raised by

the simulated worlds aren't trivial at all: if we wish to draw conclusions about
the actual behavior and evolution of life forms, having them only live in a
simulated world omits almost all factors bearing on behavior and evolution of a
real life form.
 Some cryonicists seem to believe in the merits of this kind of artificial
life, and actually hope to someday become such a creature in a suitable

artificial world. It's not that anyone thinks such creatures or worlds will SOON
become real, but with cryonics we don't need our advances to come soon. We can
wait in suspension until they occur.  Yet to surround yourself completely with
an artificial world remains no more than a way to spend the rest of your life
gazing at your navel.
 Still, as a means to learn about real life forms computer simulations have
lots of usefulness. Biologists and biochemists have run into one problem: the
behavior of life forms, and even the behavior of biochemicals inside our body,
works in a far more complex way than, say, gravitation in our Solar System, or
even electrical circuits. We can usually easily decribe behavior due to mass,
force, and gravity. Yet even our brains use not merely one transmission method
(electrical currents) but a wide variety of chemical transmitters, plus
electricity too.  Computer simulations help us understand such complex systems.
The early part of Emmeche's book gives a good account of this work, with
discussions of all of the major work done here.
 Again, if we want not our artificial life not in an artificial setting but in

the real world, he tells of work aimed at making computer systems able to do the
kinds of things we and other animals do without much thought: walk, pick things
up, respond to what we may see. It turns out that here we have some quite
different researchers, and in a very broad sense, more imitation of biology:
neural networks, evolutionary computing, genetic networks. It's a truism now
that work in artificial intelligence has found tasks such as classification and
calculation very easy, but making a system with which a robot could walk on a

real path in the real world turned out very hard. (Since Emmeche first published
his book in 1991 in Denmark, this problem has seen some serious progress, with
4-legged robots able to walk without falling over). Many other such problems
await solution.  Emmeche himself repeats a quotation: "The dumbest smart thing
you can do is to stay alive".
 He's also clearly aware of the distinction between artificial life in an
artificial world and life in the real world. He tells of two ideas of
computation (which for at least for artificial life equals computation): one
consists of the modification and movement of physical signs only, with its
meaning given not by the computation but by someone outside it entirely. The
other notion involves processes and change inherent in a physical system. As
adult human beings we're normally immersed in symbols, and see even the real
world in terms of those symbols. Yet to say that a tree can walk doesn't allow

it to walk; many mammals and birds deal with the world without using language at
all, and do so with some intelligence. It is this feature of our brains that
gives MEANING to all the symbols we use. It also forces us to deal with
unexpected events, both minor and major.   
 In the latter part of his book, Emmeche devotes several chapters to
discussions of various critiques of artificial life.  The strongest argument
came from a Peter Cariani, who points out that a consequence of living in the
real world, whether a system is artificial or not. The real world never fits
neatly and entirely into our symbolic, linguistic account of it. Even a robot
endowed with a computer as brain can control its computations but not what it
sees or the results of what it does in the real world. In one sense, Cariani's
criticism should be quite obvious (but apparently may not be, at least for
 If you can ignore the broad definition of life with which he begins his book,
Emmeche has written an interesting book on two subjects: the use of computer
simulations of life to give us insights into how living things work, and the
methods computer scientists turned to when ordinary digital programs and
computers failed to help make robots able to work in the real world. There is a
garden in our computers, but only an artificial one, just like everything else
in our computers. It still remains beautiful, but not a place in which to live.

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