chapter  1
AI AND ALIFE
ByJOHN JOHNSTON
Pages 13

What is life, and what makes human life unique? With the rise of the life sciences and Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection in the nineteenth century, new answers to these questions were proposed that were deeply at odds with traditional understandings and beliefs. With the advent in the twentieth century of new, life-altering technologies like genetic engineering, and lifesimulating sciences like Artificial Life (ALife), these questions became even more insistent. Moreover, after World War II, efforts to build fast, intelligent machines and the subsequent development of the computer made the assumption of human intellectual superiority seem uncertain and sure to be challenged, especially since the new science of Artificial Intelligence seemed to lead inexorably to the construction of superhuman machine intelligence. Indeed, both ALife and Artificial Intelligence (AI) dramatically encouraged the thought that the opposition between the natural and the artificial, the born and the made – an opposition dating back to that of phusis versus techne-in ancient Greek culture – was no longer so hard and fast, and certainly not inevitable. Yet this philosophical conundrum was hardly the central issue or worry. Rather, it was the nagging possibility that henceforth the evolutionary dynamic might begin to act on a biosphere soon active with non-natural life forms and that its crowning achievement – namely humanity itself – might eventually be displaced and superseded by its own technical invention. In short, many feared that the future would be determined by some cyborgian, post-biological form of the posthuman, or that the human species might be eclipsed altogether as evolution’s torch of life and intelligence passed to its artificial progeny. It was inevitable, therefore, that the possibilities of both ALife and AI would

begin to be explored, variously and even idiosyncratically, by literary writers. Here, “ALife” will simply refer to new and non-natural forms of life brought into existence through external and technical means at least initially under human control; similarly, “AI” will refer to some kind of human-constructed machine intelligence (usually an advanced computer) capable of performing

actions of such complexity that they require a level of intelligence comparable to that of humans.1 As we might expect – given that life has always been assumed to be a precondition for intelligence – ALife was of interest to imaginative writers long before AI. Specifically, ALife became possible as a fictional interest with the beginnings

of the properly scientific study of life, that is, with the emergence of biology in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, whereas AI, with rare exceptions, became a serious fictional interest only after the birth of the computer.2

Interestingly, the official births of the professional scientific disciplines devoted to ALife and AI – in 1987 and 1956, respectively – reverse this chronological order. However, in regard to ALife and AI as fictional themes, the most important background influence was not only the computer but also the immense transformation of biology and the life sciences by cybernetics, information theory, and modern genetics (specifically, the discovery in 1953 of how DNA functions). For many readers, in fact, the contemporary emergence of these themes in fiction will be associated with the historical amalgamation of technics and science in what has become known as technoscience and its more recent condensation, cyborg science.3