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It's Alive!

Well, sort of. Animation studios, manufacturing firms and medicine are turning to the once-obscure field of artificial life to provide solutions to some of their toughest problems.


In the earliest days of computing, Alan Turing and John von Neumann, considered the fathers of modern computer science, sketched the theoretical outlines of a scheme that remains one of the most wild-eyed and chimeric of the last half-century of science: the creation of artificial life.

At a time when the most advanced computers could barely match the power of today's hand-held calculators, Turing and Von Neumann believed it was possible to build machines that incorporate some essential pieces of intelligent life--such as self-reproduction and thought.

The public in 1950 would have laughed out loud at Turing and Von Neumann's idea--if it had the chance. The research was so obscure that few outside the world of computer science even knew about it.

Fast-forward to the present and a bustling factory floor cranking out heavy agricultural seeding equipment in Moline, Ill. John Deere's factory produces more than 75 different models of machinery, each with dozens of different options. The factory must schedule worker teams, component inventories and assembly areas to turn out this extensive product line. In all, there are more than a million scheduling combinations possible--most of them not particularly efficient.

To solve the problem, John Deere four years ago turned to a type of program that uses what are known as genetic algorithms, which are modeled on the Darwinian concepts of evolution, random mutation and natural selection. The program pits mutations of itself against one another in a battle in which only the best solution survives.

"We're using it in six factories now," said Bill Fulkerson, the John Deere technology analyst who first sought help from artificial life researchers. "Hey, when you consider it has moved to our competitor too, it can't be that bad an idea."

Once on the furthest fringes of computer science, the field of artificial life has slowly begun to emerge from the laboratory and creep into the realm of commercial application.

While no one has created anything that could remotely be called alive, the decades of research have resulted in a variety of powerful tools that have helped lift mere machines from their dull, rigid existence into a realm that allows a degree of serendipity and the unexpected.

Today mutating genetic algorithms are used to predict stock market behavior and to find new drugs to combat cancer and AIDS. Animation houses such as Walt Disney and DreamWorks SKG use complex, biologically inspired software tools to create lifelike hordes of Huns charging through the snow or masses of slaves in the deserts of Egypt for the latest in animated films. The military has embraced advanced programs to evolve new strategies using virtual opponents that get more cunning with each battle they fight.


Even in the realm of the arts, machines have begun to make their first entrances, intruding--often hilariously--into a domain that humans have guarded as their own. At the sixth Artificial Life Conference at UCLA last month, a group of robots programmed by a USC computer science student staged a performance of a short play titled "The Self-Made Man and the Moon" before an attentive crowd of biologists, computer scientists, mathematicians and others.

The performance, in which each robot was programmed to express a few basic emotions and then turned loose to interact with other robots, had all the emotional impact of a power sander jiggling across a floor on its own.

Creator Barry Brian Werger apologized to the crowd for his robots' off day, adding that acting was just one of many skills expected of his metallic troupe. A few days after the performance, Werger's robots were headed to Paris to participate in an international robot soccer meet.

"They do research in the lab on a daily basis, and next year they'll be doing weddings," he said. "These are the hardest-working robots in show business."

The field of artificial life, or a-life as it has come to be known, is about as broad a pursuit as any in science. The pieces of the puzzle are so numerous and complex that studying even the simplest of them can entail a lifetime of research.


Even in the earliest days of computer science, researchers realized that some aspects of life--evolution, adaptation and complexity emerging from simple elements--provided models for resolving some of the most difficult limitations of traditional computation.

While computers were fast at calculating figures and manipulating symbols, they were also maddeningly literal and rigid in everything they did. Artificial life researchers believed the solution lay in a "bottom-up" approach, in which machines could learn and evolve from simple instructions, as opposed to the "top-down" approach of cramming megabytes of information and instructions into a computer from the beginning.

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