Computerdom's most sophisticated artificial life form is the Norn, a cute, bug-eyed virtual pet with floppy ears and a Mickey Mouse-like falsetto voice, currently being bred and nurtured--and traded, via the Web and e-mail--by 150,000 users in Europe and Australia.
The Norn's home is a CD-ROM called "Creatures," developed by CyberLife Technology Ltd. of Cambridge, England. A smash hit in Europe and Australia, "Creatures" has turned evolution into a recreational obsession, allowing breeders to improve the species by sharing and trading a huge gene pool of the smartest, fastest, biggest, healthiest Norns.
For U.S. Web surfers who have been monitoring the craze, the long wait is over. "Creatures" arrived in stores this month from Mindscape (http://www.mindscapegames.com) of Novato, Calif. The cost is $40, and it comes in versions for Macintosh and PCs running Windows 95 and Windows 3.1.
The user hatches a Norn from an egg, helps it learn how to speak, eat, play with toys, avoid enemies. In an average life span of 10 computer hours, the Norn develops from childhood through adolescence to adulthood and then dies.
You breed Norns by hatching mates of the opposite sex. They "nuzzle" (a prolonged kiss), and after two hours of pregnancy, the female lays eggs that carry a mixture of genetic code (digital DNA) from each parent, along with random mutations.
Norns possess a neural network (a "brain" capable of learning) made up of 1,000 neurons, and an internal biochemistry and metabolism containing digital equivalents of hundreds of genetic chemicals. When the Norn dies, its offspring carry its inherited traits, passed on in digital DNA strands.
A tool bar button on the CD-ROM will automatically dial up the official "Creatures" Web site, where you can compare notes with other breeders or swap Norns. Independent searches, using combinations of key words--Norn, CyberLife and Creatures--will turn up dozens of unofficial sites.
"Creatures" was demonstrated at the recent Electronic Entertainment Expo in Atlanta by executive producer Toby Simpson, a 27-year-old British technology evangelist with the boyish good looks of Brad Pitt and the brains of the scientist Jeff Goldblum played in "Independence Day."
The behavior of "living" things in computer games and simulations controlled by artificial intelligence is limited, because they're pre-programmed, said Simpson. "If you want a creature that behaves like a complete animal, you need a complete animal. Which means you need a brain, you need biochemistry, you need genetics. And that's what we did with 'Creatures.'
"We set out to create a complete organism inside a chip. They have immune systems, digestive systems, reproductive systems. The digestive system, for example, consists of about 30 genes that describe the chemical reactions for catalyzing starch into glucose."
By allowing the Norns to breed and mix their DNA, natural selection takes place. "And natural selection over many generations is evolution," said Simpson. "The Internet speeds up the process by offering a vast gene pool. It's very exciting. People are conducting their own genetic experiments and breeding programs by using the Internet."
When you start, you get six eggs (three males, three females). Each egg contains two DNA strands. By moving the cursor over an egg, you get an ID of its gender.
"Here's a little girl," said Simpson, picking up the egg and dropping it into the incubator. "We created three different Norn types. When they start breeding, they intermix. So you might end up with your mother's arms and father's legs, for example, plus mutations. Ahh, we got a blond one."
The newly hatched Norn crawled out of the incubator.
"Hello, you!" Simpson said.
It uttered a bird-like sound, in apparent response to Simpson's greeting, although the user actually communicates with Norns by mouse and keyboard.
The Norn's world, a diverse environment with lush woods and desert islands, is called Albion. All the words for things in "Creatures" are derived from Scandinavian mythology. The Norn's enemies include the Grendels.
"The Grendels," said Simpson, "can hurt the Norns. They can punch them. And they excrete a poison from their skin. They also carry around infections. The Norns have immune systems, and they generate antibodies in response to bacteria and viruses. And the viruses are alive, as well, so they evolve over time. The Norn will build up immunity to one, and then another will challenge them."
Where does the learning take place?
"They have a neural net. A biologically plausible neural net, I might add. It's done with digital equivalents of chemicals, proper synapses and neural transmitters. Over time, they learn by remembering which neurons fired during a particular experience. Good things, like eating when they're hungry, get chemically reinforced. So the next time the hunger stimulus occurs, they know what to do. And they are capable of stringing together a number of actions to respond to stimuli."
When you quit "Creatures," it automatically saves the chemical state of every cell in the individual bodies.
"The Norn's DNA gene is tiny," said Simpson, "only about 10 kilobytes each. But our own DNA is not exactly large. We only have 100,000 genes. Yet, those 100,000 genes are able to create a trillion cells, none of which is aware of what the other cells are doing. Isn't that amazing? Since I've worked on this project I've come to recognize how miraculous nature is. In creating artificial life, nature is our guide."