To a biologist, there are only a few key elements that determine if something is alive: it must undergo homeostasis (stable internal state), metabolism (use energy to maintain organization and homeostasis), respond to its environment, adapt over time and reproduce. It sounds like a simple set of rules — after all, a bacteria can do it. But we, as human beings, have never been able to capture such essence and truly bring machines to life.
But such is the quest of many computer scientists that seek to create “artificial life,” or AI. The goal is to design a digital genetic code that can survive in a cyber world over generations and adapt to meet the demands of a virtual environment without needing the programmer to step in. Such is the quest of Steve Grand.
Gaming nerds will know him as the father of Creatures, a life simulator that took the gaming industry by storm when it was released in 1996. The “Norns” have their own digital DNA, which dictate how both their physical attributes and how they interact with the digital environment. Instead of natural selection, you, the gamer, chooses how to breed your norm and give your creatures the best chance at survival in a hostile digial world.
A decade and a half and a couple of books later, and Grand is still on his quest to create true artificial life. This time, though, it isn’t a rich gaming company funding his quest, it’s a kickstart campaign relying on donations.
“Finally,” Grand writes in the project description, “I think I’ve made the scientific breakthrough I was looking for and I’ve started to develop it, but although I’ve been working towards this for years it’s happened a little too late, and without your support I don’t have the resources left to finish it.”
As Grand explains, “I’m not talking about a computer game designed to simulate lifelike behavior; I mean genuine artificial life.”
They won’t be just simulations, they will be digital organisms, capable of the core tenants of life. “If you conclude that they’re conscious, thinking, feeling beings then it won’t be because I’ve somehow fooled you. I’m not here to fool you; I’m here to celebrate the beauty and complexity of life with you.”
If you do want to pledge, you can get something in return, too. Pledge $15 and Lucy the robot will send you a postcard. Pledge $25 and you can have a photo of Lucy or Grace, plus access to an exclusive online ‘look his my shoulder’ at the state of the game as it develops, his personal programming diary, explanations of the theoretical stuff, and his raw laboratory notes. Pledge $50 and you get all that, plus the chance to be a beta tester with a pivotal role in the game’s development and a free copy when it’s done. And you can get more involved if you pledge even more!
It’s not about the money, Grand explains. “I don’t want to take it to a publisher because it will cease to be a labor of love and a work of art and science, and instead become a commercialized video game. I’m asking for the bare minimum I can live on while I put my latest ideas into practice”
So if you want to be a part of what may become the biggest advancement in artificial intelligence in our lifetime, check out Grand’s kickstart campaign. If you like what you see, help support his work. There is no pledge too small — every dollar helps.
If you want to learn more about Steve Grand and his quest, also check out this mashable interview.