Artificial Life

With HACKERS: HEROES OF THE COMPUTER REVOLUTION, Steven Levy established himself as a gifted science writer, deftly interweaving personal profiles and local color with technical exposition accessible to a lay audience. In ARTIFICIAL LIFE, Levy uses the same approach to explore an even more provocative subject.

When Marvin Minsky declared that human beings are machines made of meat, he was playing his role as an aging infant terrible. Yet what Minsky said so bluntly is after all implicit in the naturalistic view of human life as the product of eons of undirected evolution. “Ultimately,” Levy writes, “the goal of a-life is to do what has occurred only once on the planet—to make something alive from parts that were not alive.”

The researchers profiled by Levy are a diverse lot—among them, the legendary John von Neumann, Stephen Wolfram, Doyne Farmer, Norman Packard, Chris Langton, Stuart Kaufman, Rodney Brooks, and Fred Cohen—united by their quest to understand how a system governed by a relatively simple set of rules might evolve into patterns of extraordinary complexity. The computer has made feasible the simulation of such systems on a large scale.

Levy does a very good job of conveying the excitement of an emerging science in which the work of many thinkers appears to be converging, with momentous implications. What he fails to do is provide sufficient counterpoint from questioning voices. In his concluding chapter, “The Strong Claim,” Levy touches on some of the disturbing issues raised by the quest he so vividly describes, but even here the issues are addressed solely from the perspective of a-life partisans. The text is supplemented by figures and color photographs, notes, and an index.