Spotlight on Science: Alan Dorin

We are pleased to present the latest Spotlight on Science (SOS) Q&A. If you missed last month’s SOS debut, don’t worry. You can catch up here.

For our August 2015 Spotlight on Science post, we talk to Alan Dorin, guest editor of the Summer 2015 issue of Artificial Life—a forthcoming special issue on Artificial Life, Art, Creativity, and Techno-Hybridisation. The issue will be available in mid-August.

Dorin is interested in breaking down the boundaries between artists, engineers, and research scientists. He explains how this special issue of Artificial Life aims to disrupt the conventions of artificial life research. Dorin’s article will be available to read for free on our SOS page in mid-August.

What drew you to the field of artificial life?

I think it incredible that human creativity is capable of imagining, and potentially realizing, life forms that are entirely believable but simultaneously alien—they are the essence of our answer to the question, “What if… ?” So, since I was a schoolboy, I have drawn fanciful creatures and read about monsters and mythological beasts from many cultures. When my parents bought an early PC I learned to program it by creating text-based adventure games. These involved imagining and constructing virtual worlds populated with specters, trolls, vampires, goblins, dragons, demons. Later I learned the principles of computer graphics. There was nothing academic about it then, it was great fun. However, the die was cast early and now I make similar environments for “serious” research.

 This issue is concerned with “Artificial Life, Art, Creativity, and Techno-Hybridisation.” Why did you decide to dedicate a special issue to these topics?

This special issue is really late in coming—I should have organized it long ago! Artists, creative engineers, and experimental inventors have been directly involved in the discipline since its inception. You could even argue that these people provided the pre-history of the scientific discipline of artificial life as we now see it. Yet their activities have recently diverged from those of the research scientists. The artists, engineers, and theorists often attend their own events, publish in their own journals, show their work, debate and chat within their own cliques. As do the researchers. I would very much like to see these newly fashioned boundaries collapse. This special issue is one way I am working to achieve this. We all can benefit from a critical eye, a willingness to disrupt convention, and a desire to expose constraints and take a blade to them. That is clearly articulated in the articles of the special issue.

You write that humans have been “prolific inventors of hybrid life.” Why do you think people find the idea of hybrids so fascinating?

The most engaging hybrids are a seamless blend of opposites; for instance, the familiar and the foreign, or the horrific and the beautiful. I think such unsettling contrasts are intrinsically fascinating, especially when realized in living beings. We feel the tug of affinity or the promise of engagement, but we are repulsed by fear of the bizarre, uncanny, unknown, and unpredictable. Artists are particularly adept at manipulating this to create enticing, confusing, disarming, and “prompting” artificial life.

What would you say has been the biggest advancement in artificial life in the last decade?

Perhaps strangely, I feel it is difficult to make that judgment. Each sub-discipline sets its own agenda based on the approaches to artificial life study or practice it considers appropriate or relevant. Important advances then occur towards each goal. From my personal perspective, I have been excited by the greater acceptance, even amongst field ecologists and biologists, of artificial life’s increasingly mature approaches to understanding biology and ecology through software. Simulations are now regularly applied to model real ecosystems, social systems, and individual organisms in detail. These artificial life models are calibrated and validated against real-world data. This is thrilling to me. I am certainly interested in exploring abstract conceptions of living systems too. But if artificial life can continue to contribute to interdisciplinary research that helps us understand lovely, complex, and vital biology, all the better—this is the field’s inspiration!

What progress do you envision artificial life making in the next decade?

We will continue to revise our day-to-day conceptions of the distinctions between the living and the non-living. For everyday purposes, this distinction has long been fluid anyway. But as our technology becomes capable of generating increasingly complex behavior, and as we continue to increase the tightness of the coupling between technologically realized complex systems and humans, it will be natural to engage with technology in ways we currently only interact with life. Actually, we will also engage with this technology in novel ways!

If this trend is pushed in the direction of ecosystem interaction, an area I find fascinating, I would be unsurprised to find artificial lifeforms filling ecological niches vacated by extinct organisms or new niches created as we disrupt and perturb natural ecosystems. We might engineer artificial life in order to sustain or modify the ecosystems we depend on for food, fresh water, fuel, oxygen, shelter, and other needs. By this I don't mean we just genetically modify existing species, although that of course is one option. I mean instead that we can build new techno-species from scratch. For instance, we could create new self-sustaining, self-distributing food sources for insect pollinators suffering under climate change. Or we could create technological flower pollinators. New distributed, autonomous technology could suppress bush and forest fire outbreaks when they occur, or eliminate excess fuel when it grows. Mobile swarm-based technology operating on principles studied by artificial life researchers will reliably and autonomously aid search and rescue. Our cars and other vehicles could interact with one another collectively to select routes that not only assist individual travellers, but allow the transport network as a whole to function efficiently. Artificial life and technology driven by its principles is seeping into everyday human life. It will certainly continue to do this over the next decade.

Dorin’s article "Artificial Life, Art, Creativity, and Techno-Hybridisation" will be available in mid-August.