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God of the norns

What is life? If you could build it, what would happen? How would you even start? Impossible questions for most of us, but not for Stephen Grand, the man who created the world's most sophisticated artificial life forms. Grand was a reluctant writer of computer games with a passion to make them less predictable. That passion turned into a game called Creatures, featuring cricket-like A-life. The games industry saw its potential, insisting only that Grand make them look cuter. And so Grand created wide-eyed norns. They came complete with their own digital DNA, biochemistry and the ability to evolve. The game sold a million but the marketers underestimated the lure of norn science. The military was intrigued by the idea of using the technology in pilotless fighter planes, A-life fans made them into a cult--and recently Grand picked up an OBE. Duncan Graham-Rowe found out what drives someone to play god...

Have you created life?

I certainly think of them as creatures, not computer code. We could describe any self-reproducing or metabolic system as alive, and they are self-reproducing, metabolic systems, so I am happy to call them alive.

Are they just like any software following an algorithm?

Yes and no. They must be algorithms, because they live in a computer. When you write a computer program to simulate atomic theory, you haven't made atoms. But if you take those simulated atoms, plug them together, under the right circumstances they start to behave like molecules, and then those molecules react with each other and form networks of reactions, and eventually more complex behaviour emerges. So, at the first level, it is a con. But the second level is just as real as it is in our Universe.

Compared with animals, where you would place them?

They're like ants. They don't have thoughts of their own and they are trapped in a sensory loop, where the environment tells their senses what to receive, the brain generates behaviour, and, much like us, that behaviour changes the environment, and so on . . .

Were you surprised they worked?

No, I expected them to work, otherwise I wouldn't have dared try. But I was astonished that people were impressed and that they took to them. There are now somewhere between five and ten times as many norns as there are elephants. It is now the biggest Web user community in the world.

People are doing lots of experiments with norns on the Internet. What's the most bizarre?

Probably the most monstrous thing is this guy called Anti norn. I think he is a US Marine. He has a website devoted to torturing the creatures. In response, people have got rescue centres and adoption agencies for these poor battered creatures. If people are worrying about these creatures and adopting them, then I have achieved one of my aims--to make people ask questions.

So is a sense of moral responsibility creeping into A-life?

The first time I really knew I was successful was when someone sent me an ill norn by e-mail and asked me to cure it. The problem was it just stood there, and they were worried because it was wasting away. I discovered that it was deaf and blind because a gene hadn't been expressed. It couldn't see or hear the world, so it wasn't responding. I persuaded the gene to wake up, cured it, taught it some swear words, then sent it back to Australia. They sent me a Christmas card to say it was doing fine. Afterwards I wondered who was the idiot--them for worrying about a data file or me for spending a day trying to cure it?

What's so great about biology that we want to copy it?

Because it works. Biological machines have qualities that none of our machines have: ours are not robust, not adaptive, not intelligent, and they are certainly not user-friendly. Even simple animals can have all of those qualities, and, in a sense, I see my job as putting the life back into technology.

Aren't you just reducing life to information and processing information?

I sincerely hope not. The problem with reductionism is there is a difference between describing something and explaining it. You can describe complex systems in the language you use to explain their parts, but you cannot necessarily explain them that way. I would hate to think that I was explaining away life.

Do you identify with Victor Frankenstein?

Yes, Frankenstein was a misunderstood guy. He was trying to do what any of us do, which is to understand ourselves.

Could it go wrong the same way for you?

No, because Frankenstein was a lot smarter than me. He made a human being, whereas I am just making insects and eventually I want to make mice and rabbits. There are millions of species on this planet and I see no reason to fear yet another species.

Could norns ever evolve into more intelligent creatures?

No. Although I tried to make the genetic structures that wire up their brains as flexible as I could, I don't think it's enough to give them the freedom to make the next step up in intelligence. They might develop a few more facilities, and subsequent norns have been manipulated to have different brains. Whether they are more intelligent or not is a moot point. I opened the system up as much as possible for people to play with--I don't mind people tampering as long as they can't be malicious.

There is growing concern about the effect of genetically modified organisms on the environment. Is there a similar problem in releasing your digital DNA onto the Net?

My creatures only exist in a virtual world, they couldn't live on the Net. I doubt if you can have intelligent life on the Net. Intelligence has to exist in a rich, self-consistent world. The Net is consistent, but it is not self-consistent because you have to be a human being to understand it. Unless an agent has that knowledge, it can't make sense of the Net so an awful lot of attempts to make intelligent search agents are doomed. At the moment the Net doesn't even support the protocols for agent communications. When it does, people will have to be very careful about releasing these organisms. But they will be no different from computer viruses. I had to be careful when I designed norns to make sure that you couldn't wipe someone's hard drive from inside a norn's brain.

You have interesting views about intelligence . . .

Well, there's much more to intelligence than logic. Most of the AI pioneers were mathematical magicians and philosophers and to them, thinking was about logic, about reason. But it has to grow out of more primitive systems, and most intelligence is not logical. Most of the time we are not reasoning people. Dogs tend not to argue about syllogisms, but they still seem bright. Chuck IBM's Deep Blue chess computer and a dog into a pond, and see which one climbs out first. Which means that intelligence is grounded in survival. If you haven't got a reason to think, you won't think, and survival is what motivates us.

Are we wasting our time with robots that have no sense of existence?

Nothing is a waste of time. But there's been a backlash against symbolic AI and everyone is now far more interested in nematodes. There is a huge middle ground that nobody seems to be exploring, an area where psychology starts to make sense but human reasoning is irrelevant. More than an insect, but not quite human . . .

It's 2000. Where are the intelligent robots? Has AI failed?

Yes. Alan Turing predicted that the idea of machines thinking would be routine by the end of the century. The very second that time ran out for his prediction was the second that computers were set to demonstrate their complete stupidity because they couldn't add up dates. But Mark II in the AI game will be a success. I believe we will reach simian intelligence within forty years. I may be wrong, but you've got to have a goal.

Do you believe computers are the right way to go about AI?

It's the wrong tool for the wrong job. It was designed to be a logical machine. It was designed to do one thing very quickly, one step after another. But all the naturally occurring intelligent systems we know about are made from large numbers of very dumb things--such as neurons--acting in parallel. The saving grace of a computer is that you can make it pretend to be a million stupid machines acting in parallel.

Do you think your work has contributed to science in any way?

I don't know. If it has, then it is probably only in showing that something can be done that other people hadn't tried. I am quite proud of what I did because when I started, I'd never heard of AI, never read any books on the subject. I invented neural networks not knowing that other people had done it better, earlier. I have ploughed my own furrow all this time.

You recently left your position as co-founder and technical director of Cyberlife, the company that marketed Creatures. Why?

We agreed to part on friendly terms. The rest of the company chose to earn money, which they can do more quickly if they haven't got to develop complex technology.

Where is your research heading?

I am interested in imagination. I'm not trying to solve the problem of consciousness explicitly, although that's the only reason I am interested. For a thing to be conscious, it has to have an imagination to do the higher-level thought processes.

Isn't that a chicken and egg thing?

No. I think imagination has a biological substrate. A world inside the head to live in as well the world outside, or instead of the world outside. Maybe consciousness naturally emerges out of it. I suspect not. I think there is another layer, which I don't understand. I think imagination probably comes from distinguishing between self and non-self--how you know whether you are hitting something or whether it is hitting you. And also out of body image--the ability to have a model of your body so that you can predict where it will be if the nervous system isn't quick enough to get feedback. But at some point in evolution, something usurped that ability to distinguish between self and non-self and something new emerged. That something was the subconscious which allowed us to plan, and from that emerged consciousness.

I've never managed to keep a norn alive long enough to breed. Am I doomed as a parent?

I've succeeded in keeping one child alive for 18 years but I'm a lousy norn keeper as well. They all either die on me or learn to hate me. I think they resent me for being their God . . .

From New Scientist magazine, 01 April 2000.

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