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Artificial Life and Emergence

Geschreven door Ben van Lier - 13 maart 2015

Ben van Lier
In 1943 the Austrian quantum physicist Erwin Schrödingered in an lecture [1]: “What is the characteristic feature of life? When is a piece of matter said to be alive?” Schrödinger’s question becomes topical[2] once more in a scientific project is that is reported about on the internet and whose purpose is “to develop a fully digital life form, a virtual nemotode.” The intended life form which is being reproduced digitally from the cellular level is a roundworm called Caenorhobditis Elegans. Daniel Cossins says of this project: “With just 959 cells, including 302 neurons, the hermaphrodite gender of C Elegans fits the bill. But creating algorithms to simulate the functions of even this number of cells is a big task[3].” The open worm project could be categorised as one of the many projects described as A-life or Artificial Life and aimed at “the synthesis and simulation of living systems[4].”

The project’s scientists assume, that if they ever want to understand how the human brain works, they need to start with a small, robust and predictable model which can be built up from the basic elements. As they put it on their website: “Let’s start by doing a full simulation of a very ‘simple’ biological system, but focus on capturing as much of the rich detail of that biological system as possible.” Project coordinator Stephen Larson[5] suggests that as a creature, at first sight the C Elegans, with just 959 cells and 302 neurons, appears to be a simple organic system. However, this simplicity quickly evaporates once you consider all the possible permutations of these elements, connect them with the internal workings of the individual cells and take into account the possible arrays of behaviours and interactions which may arise from these permutations. This suddenly gives us an astronomical volume of possibilities. It is all these interconnections and interactions and the behaviours arising from the C Elegans which cause Stephen Larson to conclude: “We are dealing with a very complex system.” The development of the digital version of the C Elegans gives rise to a whole host of new and fascinating issues: What do we mean by, or for instance what significance do we attach to, to the conclusion that something is a living being? What are the possible consequences if the project is successful and actually manages to model the digital version of the worm successfully? Will we then perhaps face a new digital concept in the shape of a digital or virtual organism, and what in turn will be the consequences of this?[6]


According to Johnston[7], a project like the open worm one is an example of a new development, and we are at the dawning of a new era in which ‘nature and technology will no longer be distinctly opposed’. He believes this era will be characterised by a revelatory expansion of theoretical fields, where interactions and relationships between non-linear dynamic systems can be computerised and calculated, and through which forms of evolutionary development from these relationships and interactions can also be analysed and characterised. However, the development of new digital life forms also entails many new challenges and problems. According to Weaver[8], these new problems can also be stated as “problems which involve dealing simultaneously with a sizeable number of factors which are interrelated into an organic whole. They are all, in the language here proposed, problems of organized complexity.”

The quantity of different elements, the individual workings of these elements and the unimaginable number of possible permutations of relationships and interactions, all turn new digital life forms into an organised, but complex, whole. One of the new characteristics of organised complexity which we still need to learn to understand is the so-called emergent properties arising from this complexity. Fromm[9] believes however that these properties are difficult to embody in a new theory or new theoretical model, because “during an emergence process new and unpredictable entities appear, which are governed by their own laws.” Thus for Cilliers[10] it is better to refer to relational properties than emergent properties. In whatever way, properties which are emergent or arising from relationships are above all a product of interconnected and context-dependent interactions between various elements, suggests Holland[11]. From a technical viewpoint, these interactions and the system which arises from them are non-linear, but, he concludes, “the behaviour of the overall system cannot be obtained by summing the behaviours of its constituent parts.”


Although we are easily tempted to believe that these types of developments are located far from everyday reality, this is certainly not the case. Our day-to-day lives and work are taking place increasingly in networks in which people, organisations and objects are interconnected. In these networks, growing volumes of data and information are exchanged and shared, and growing numbers of interactions occur on the basis of this data and information between people, objects and organisations, at a scale we have hitherto never experienced. Complexity is perhaps one of the most characteristic properties of our current society, as Heylighen[12] et al suggest. In the decades ahead these relationships and interactions are bound to grow and spread further across the entire world. The result will be a steadily increasing complex socio-technical ecosystem, comprising people, objects, software, algorithms and organisations, where a change in one individual element can lead to a change in any possible other element, while at the same time introducing a change to the behaviour of the ecosystem as a whole. Not only at the micro scale will we need to address the question ‘What is life?’, but at the macro scale we will also need to ask ourselves what new knowledge and insights are needed to be able to function as people and organisations in such a worldwide socio-technical ecosystem.

Ben van Lier works at Centric as Director Strategy & Innovation and, in that function, is involved in research and analysis of developments in the areas of overlap between organisation and technology within the various market segments.

  1. Schrödinger E. (1944) What is Life. The physical aspect of the Living Cell.
  2. www.openworm.org
  3. http://www.wired.co.uk/magazine/archive/2013/03/start/meet-wiki-worm
  4. Aguillar W. Santamaria-Bonfil G. Froese T. and Gershenson C. (2014). The past present and future of artificial life. Frontiers in Robotics and AI, Volume 1 issue 8.
  5. http://cacm.acm.org/news/166853-the-worm-crawls-out-international-team-creates-a-digital-c-elegans/fulltext
  6. http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/05/is-this-virtual-worm-the-first-sign-of-the-singularity/275715/
  7. Johnston J. (2008) The allure of Machinic Life. Cybernetics, Artificial Life, and the new AI. The MIT press ISBN 9780262101264
  8. Weaver W. (1948) Science and Complexity. American Scientist Vol. 36, pp. 536
  9. Fromm J. (2005) Types and forms of Emergence. ArXiv june 2005
  10. Cilliers P. (1998) Complexity & Postmodernism. Understanding complex systems. Routledge, NewYork.
  11. ISBN 0415152879
  12. Holland J. (1998) Emergence. From Chaos to Order. Basic Books ISBN 0738201421
  13. Heylighen F. Cilliers P. and gershenson C. (2006) Complexity and Philosophy. In Bogg, J. and R. Geyer (eds.) Complexity, Science and Society. Radcliffe Publishing, Oxford



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