Steve Grand - Creation: Life and How to Make It

The problem with insights is that they are like skills: you can't use language to transfer them from person to person. I can tell you how to operate a video recorder, because that is knowledge. But even if I knew how to do it myself, I couldn't tell you how to be a better gymnast because that is a skill. Skills can be learned only through personal experience, and insights are much the same. Where new knowledge is simply added to one's existing mental store, insights bring understanding, and understanding changes one's whole being. (p. 9)
First of all, if you are expecting to find, through reading this book, that someone has actually created life, you will be disappointed. Second, I lost my notes taken while reading this book, and I finished the book three weeks before writing this review. Hence, my review will be less comprehensive, and perhaps less insightful, than originally intended.

Grand critiques what artificial intelligence (AI) and computer programmers have done to date in their methods and general approaches for creating artificial life. What they have done is to simulate life using a top-down approach rather than the approach that got life to where it is today--bottom-up with evolution driving the change.

This is the way organisms work. There is no architect, and no master controller telling the system what to do. There are just vast numbers of small independent entities that respond to signals as and when it suits them, and emit new signals whose destination they do not know. Top-down control leads to complexity explosions, because something somewhere has to be in charge of the whole system, and how much this master controller needs to know increases exponentially with the number of components in the system. Living systems are bottom-up: no part knows or cares what its role is in the whole, but the whole still emerges from the cacophony of these zillions of mindless loops of cause and effect. (p. 119)
Grand's points are well made and well taken, but a critique of others doesn't necessarily mean that he can create life any better than the other attempts that have been made. He emphasizes that life isn't just cause and effect, although cause and effect are certainly a big part of it, and life couldn't happen without such properties. One of the key elements that is missing from other AI attempts are the emergent properties, the things that spring out of a complex system of causes and effects.
Life is not the stuff of which it is made -- it is an emergent property of the aggregate arrangement of that stuff. Even the stuff itself is no more than an emergent property of a still smaller whirlpool of interactions. Living beings are high-order persistent phenomena, which endure through intelligent interaction with their environment. This intelligence is a product of multiple layers of feedback. An organism is therefore a localized network of feedback loops that ensures its own continuation. (p. 146)
When Grand finally sets out to explain his computer program--a program which I had never heard of, let alone experienced, before--I was more than a little bit disappointed. It sounded much more like computer code able to reproduce itself when someone was playing the game than artificial life, let alone life. There is no thinking by the creatures, no emergent properties, and even their appearance and their environment are totally made from the top-down rather than bottom-up approach. The theory sounded a whole lot better than the demonstration of it. Perhaps he takes a step forward from other video games, but it is a baby step, and not the leap the title of the book suggests.

There is a lot of good stuff in this book, and hopefully others will run with the ideas more than Grand has. I'll wrap this up with a couple of the better quotes found within the pages. The second is Grand's admission that his bark is more powerful than his bite. May his future endeavors deliver more of the bite. I hope to see the real deal in my lifetime.

Instead of 'command and control', we need to 'nudge and cajole'. Whether you run a school, run a country, manage an ecosystem or write computer software it makes no difference: complex adaptive systems cannot be dictated to -- you have to learn how to go with the flow and nudge individual components in order to encourage the system to go in the direction you want it to. (p. 149)
I wish I could tell you what a mind is, and how to construct one, but as yet I cannot. I can only give you some clues about where such a phenomenon may have come from. (p. 215)

from the publisher:
Working mostly alone, almost single-handedly writing 250,000 lines of computer code, Steve Grand produced Creatures, a revolutionary computer game that allowed players to create living beings complete with brains, genes, and hormonal systems--creatures that would live and breathe and breed in real time on an ordinary desktop computer. Enormously successful, the game inevitably raises the question: What is artificial life? And in this book--a chance for the devoted fan and the simply curious onlooker to see the world from the perspective of an original philosopher-engineer and intellectual maverick--Steve Grand proposes an answer.

From the composition of the brains and bodies of artificial life forms to the philosophical guidelines and computational frameworks that define them, Creation plumbs the practical, social, and ethical aspects and implications of the state of the art. But more than that, the book gives readers access to the insights Grand acquired in writing Creatures--insights that yield a view of the world that is surprisingly antireductionist, antimaterialist, and (to a degree) antimechanistic, a view that sees matter, life, mind, and society as simply different levels of the same thing. Such a hierarchy, Grand suggests, can be mirrored by an equivalent one that exists inside a parallel universe called cyberspace.

Steve Grand is co-founder and former director of technology at Creature Labs, a firm based in the United Kingdom. He has written and lectured widely on the topic of artificial life and was nominated by the Sunday Times (of London) as one of "The Brains behind the 21st Century." His latest research objective is to build the world's first conscious machine.

Steve Grand is the creator of what I think is the nearest approach to artificial life so far, and his first book, Creation, is as interesting as you would expect. But he illuminates more than just the properties of life; his originality extends to matter itself and the very nature of reality. --Richard Dawkins

If you've heard about A-life but aren't quite sure what it is or where it's going, Grand's book is an excellent place to enter one of the more exciting areas of twenty-first-century science. --John L. Casti