Author’s Note: Prena's Eye
Back in the summer of 1986, when I was young, cocky and naive, I wrote my own evolution program. I wanted to see if I could create intelligent life on the computer. I had just graduated with a master’s degree in electrical engineering from Cornell, and I hated my new job working as a contractor to NASA. I needed an intellectual hobby to restore my sanity.
Every day after work I’d boot up my brand new “state of the art” IBM 286 PC with its massive 10 megabyte hard drive, and I’d try to create life. I designed a simple form of DNA that could specify both the creatures' bodies and brains. They would improve themselves by evolving via survival of the fittest. Each creature could have one or two arms, an eye, a mouth and a hand. The mouth, eye, hand and arms could be configured arbitrarily so for example, the eye could be at the end of the arm or the mouth could occupy any location on the belly. Creatures were born as either herbivores who could not digest animals, or carnivores who could not digest plants.
The program ran for several days before I saw anything interesting. However, once a life form was born that could eat and reproduce on its own, the population exploded. Most of the species evolved eyes near their mouths. I assume that this happened so that the creatures wouldn’t have to spend too much time trying to maneuver food to their mouths. Although their brains were primitive, they behaved like insects, chasing each other around the graphics screen eating, reproducing and dying. After letting the program run for a week I brought my creatures into work for “show and tell.”
After giving a short demonstration to my coworkers, I suspected that something was wrong. It appeared that the red carnivores were trying to eat plants. I knew that this should not have happened because my population of carnivores had descended exclusively from other carnivores. I told my coworkers that I must have made some kind of programming error. A tall engineer named Rich disagreed. The carnivores weren’t trying to eat plants; they simply were hiding near the plants so that they could ambush the herbivores. A few moments later a herbivore swam near a plant and was attacked by a carnivore. Rich was right; my program didn’t have an error. It never had occurred to me that my creature’s brains could have evolved something as complex as an ambush.
Over the next few months I added more features and let the program run for progressively longer time periods to see what else would evolve. I gave my creations the ability to make sounds, but I could never tell if they were using the sounds to communicate. When a creature yells out a cry, is he trying to communicate, or is he just making random noises? I wasn’t sure, and I didn’t have time to run a rigorous study.
After one long, simulated evolution, I observed a very interesting carnivorous species that had evolved after an extended famine. This species' children ate their mother immediately after birth. This trait lasted only as long as the famine, and once the population of herbivores had rebounded, the carnivores lost the trait.
I had planned to publish a ton of technical papers on my creatures and improve the software to create more complex life forms. However, life caught up with me, and soon I had no time to work on a project with no obvious practical application.
I often wonder how I would rewrite my evolution program to create sentient, intelligent life. I know others over the years have written similar programs, but as far as I know nothing sentient has evolved.
However, I’m convinced now, more than ever, that the creation of an entity with human-level intelligence is possible. Although I don’t have the exact recipe for the solution, I’m sure that it will involve a simulated world over thousands, or perhaps millions, of generations. It might be a world where evolution is assisted by some advanced optimization algorithms; however, its population will live in an environment completely alien to our own. We will have to learn how to communicate with them and will have to study their society to understand what they have achieved.
Today I’m married with three children and serve as the Chief Technical Officer and President of a space systems engineering company. I suspect that I will never have time to rewrite my software. The best I can do is to write fiction and imagine.