AlifeX was completed a few weeks ago, and its been quite a haul since. Some thoughts from then and now…

Update: Some of the Keynote Talks from AlifeX are now online.

It was incredibly stimulating to jump in the deep end of this research environment, so even though I’ve been exhausted I’m finding it hard to sleep. Pages of my sporadic notes link to lifetimes of research directions. I was especially taken with Evolutionary Development work, and Niche Construction, and naturally spatial relations, and think evo-devo may be key (along with community interaction I explored, and hope to explore further, in my work) to the question of Evolution of Complexity explored on Saturday. Evolution isn’t a blind search, its embedded in history and physics and chemistry, some pathways are quicker to climb in the evolutionary landscape, and sometimes some process is hit apon that spontaneously leads to leaps. And sometimes what makes most sense just won’t happen .. cause while it would be really cool to be a Centaur, our four appendage line makes this pretty unlikely. It’s a Hunch not Hypothesis .. need to find more of those elusive Hypotheses.

Space really needs some highly measured tests of its affect on simulation. So many ALife models incorporate space, with agent based modelling being perhaps a core definition of ALife traditionally, yet what is the precise effect? My idea is to implement 2-D Lotka-Volterra, varying the spatial heterogenity from perfectly homogenous, with results in line with equation based models, gradually to different spatial distributions and measure some systematic properties.

Another big question to me is biological relevance. I get a spectrum of opinions on how real ALife should be. There’s the mantra of simplicity, and the frustrating alure of incorporating real data.

I spent a lot of the conference looking for models of organism development supporting interesting, simple, possibly hierarchical and semi-open ended development (towards the ALife holy grail of open ended complexity growth). What happens when a model like this evolves in a food web. James Crutchfield’s epsilon machines are designed for a very different purpose, but something about coupled finite automata seems suitably abstract and potentialled for this. Finite automata have produced interesting results for me before, in evolving swarm foraging .. is there a way to make FA hierarchical? Wriggraph, while not suited for my purposes, was a very interesting model that combined ontogeny and motility in a single underlying mechanism based on chemical diffusion. Often for me, misunderstanding an idea leads to a new research question: can an L-System-like-System self modify its rule set to communicate some notion of position along the growth path; can this lead to arbitrary L-System growth, with Growth Universality?

The most ALifey, mind blowing work I saw at the conference was from the Cornell Computational Synthesis Lab. I’m not really into robots, but this stuff makes me wish I was. These are the same folks that built the Golem “Self-Assembling” Robot a few years ago. Their new work is just as great. A starfish like robot (with only four appendages, which starfish have five .. how is radial symmetry related to the fibonnacci sequence again) is placed in the world with no conceptions of its own self, only some methods to make use of experience. It builds up a model of its own body by iteratively generating models of itself, and testing those against its experience using this model .. an “Emergent Self-Mode” perhaps related to development in animals, children .. and eventually successfully evolving a method of motility. Chris Adami asked “Is this dreaming?”, similar to how amputees will have dreams of missing limbs, they are updating their internel model of self. Self-assembly is being pushed further, with voxels suspended in oil building up structures based on L-System like growth; each voxel can be quite sophisticated, for instance even a 300 micron tile could host a web server.
Incredibly, CCSL is pushing the frontiers of material science as a side project. The Golem Robots were a slight overexageration; wiring and joints were manually introduced post-printing. Now, they have developed their own Rapid Prototyping 3-D printer which can incorporate multiple materials, and have been working on printable materials that can store and conduct energy. That is, a 3-D printer that can produce a complete robot including wiring and batteries!! And the price of these printers they’re developing are potentially dropping below $1000. This is close to Fab@Home surreallity. I feel like I saw the future before anyone had even thought about it.