Artificial Life

Christopher Langton (editor)

The MIT Press 1995
A book review by Danny Yee © 1997 http://dannyreviews.com/
Artificial Life contains a selection of articles from the first three issues of the journal of the same name, chosen so as to give an overview of the field, its connections with other disciplines, and its philosophical foundations. It is aimed at those with a general background in the sciences: some of the articles assume a mathematical background, or basic biology and computer science. I found it an informative and thought-provoking survey of a field around whose edges I have skirted for years.

Many of the articles take biology as their starting point. Charles Taylor and David Jefferson provide a brief overview of the uses of artificial life as a tool in biology. Others look at more specific topics: Kristian Lindgren and Mats G. Nordahl use the iterated Prisoner's Dilemma to model cooperation and community structure in artificial ecosystems; Peter Schuster writes about molecular evolution in simplified test tube systems and its spin-off, evolutionary biotechnology; Przemyslaw Prusinkiewicz presents some examples of visual modelling of morphogenesis, illustrated with colour photographs; and Michael G. Dyer surveys different kinds of cooperative animal behaviour and some of the problems synthesising neural networks which exhibit similar behaviours.

Other articles highlight the connections of artificial life with artificial intelligence. A review article by Luc Steels covers the relationship between the two fields, while another by Pattie Maes covers work on adaptive autonomous agents. Thomas S. Ray takes a synthetic approach to artificial life, with the goal of instantiating life rather than simulating it; he manages an awkward compromise between respecting the "physics and chemistry" of the digital medium and transplanting features of biological life. Kunihiko Kaneko looks to the mathematics of chaos theory to help understand the origins of complexity in evolution. In "Beyond Digital Naturalism", Walter Fontana, Guenter Wagner and Leo Buss argue that the test of artificial life is to solve conceptual problems of biology and that "there exists a logical deep structure of which carbon chemistry-based life is a manifestation"; they use lambda calculus to try and build a theory of organisation.

Several more specialised articles are included. Mitchel Resnick writes about his experiences teaching decentralised systems to school children using the LEGO/Logo and StarLogo systems. Eugene Spafford considers the possibility that computer viruses are a form of artificial life and suggests there are safety and security lessons to be learnt from them. And David Stork reviews a variety of artificial life books.

On the philosophical front, a very brief comment by Daniel Dennett suggests that artificial life should be seen as a new way of doing philosophy, not just as a new subject for traditional philosophy. Stevan Harnad considers "artificial life" and "artificial mind" as exercises in reverse-engineering, suggesting that similar confusions have beset both concepts. Finishing the volume, Eric W. Bonabeau and G. Theraulaz argue for the epistemological value of artificial life, while stressing the importance of finding the right balance between holism and reductionism.

December 1997

External links:
- buy from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk
- details at the MIT Press
Related reviews:
- more biology
- books about computer science
- books published by The MIT Press
%T Artificial Life
%E Langton, Christopher
%I The MIT Press
%D 1995
%O paperback, references, index
%G ISBN 0262621126
%P xi,340pp,8pp colour photos