Life during summer and consilience notes

I should definitely to a decent post some time soon, but it seems that I’m in middle of severe drought of ideas and writing abilities. Hopefully this is just a passing phase… Someone should definitely develop a drug against writer’s block I think.

A few things I’ve been working on so far between all the jobs I have to run to pay my rent. I’ve been studying the Exploring Complexity by Gregoire Nicolis and Ilya Prigogine since the beginning of the summer. Studying as in tearing through every bit of reference mentioned at ends of each chapters and working out all the equations, making up some of my own for practice. The progress has been slower than I would have liked but it’s still coming along nicely. I’m upto  the randomness and complexity chapter where they begin describing Markovian processes and different types of entropy. I’ve been trying to come up with some cool graphics describing some of the stuff in the book using Mathematica but couldn’t really find the time to get around to it, with all the other coding projects on my hand at the moment, but I’ll definitely have something to show for by the end of the summer.

I’ve also been reading up on some bioinformatics literature, beginning with the eponymous ‘For Dummies’ book on the subject which is surprisingly well written, or at least comprehensible (well, considering the title it would be hard to write a book on the subject that is incomprehensible). It’s part of my attempt at coming up with a decent diybio coursework aimed at 14 and above, centering around the kind of projects the laymen would normally find out of reach, like designing a biological circuit and putting it together in a wetlab. With so many computerized tools and advent of abstraction in biological sciences brought on by synthetic biology, I think it is possible to empower the citizenry with end-user scientist toolset. The average computer user don’t code in assembly or the machine language yet many of them are perfectly capable of coming up with useful high-level softwares and beautiful works of art (it still takes effort and mastery but what doesn’t?). In order for the biological sciences to become user-friendly I believe we need a tool to familiarize them with the higher level abstraction in molecular biology and computerized tools associated with it. In my experience the best way to break down an intellectual barrier is to make people do the impossible easily and cheaply. The first step of breaking down the biology barrier would be teaching people how to design genetic circuits using extremely high level abstraction symbols. Theoretically it should be possible to put together a very simple circuit on a napkin using symbols and diagrams using unified ‘visual language‘ of synthetic biology. Once the individual becomes scientifically fluent enough to visualize these molecular circuits within his or her head, and feel a real want for building something in real life, we can easily transfer the design into computerized tools for specification and optimization. After that it would be a simple process of transformation using mail-order kits (or using diy tools if you’re so inclined), which DIYBio NYC have already demonstrated to be easy and straightforward.

By then, maybe I’ll try to pitch my not-so-secret ambition of coming up with diy-minimal/synthetic cell ::evil laugh::

As you might have guessed I’ve also been spending a lot of time reading through E.O. Wilson’s Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge again. It’s amazing just how much of the book resonates with me, not necessarily in solutions but in problems he outlines as something fundamental that needs to be resolved if we are to further our understanding of the universe.

-From pg.93
…the U.S. federal high-performance program has upped the goal to a trillion calculations per second by the end of the century. By the year 2020, petacrunchers, capable of reaching a thousand trillion calculations per second, may be possible, although new technologies and programming methods will be needed to reach that level. At this point the brute-force simulation of cell mechanics, tracking every active molecule and its web of interactions, should be attainable- even without the simplifying principles envisioned in complexity theory.

The continuing battle (if there is one) between raw computing power against elegant universal systems like the kind proposed by some of the complexity scientists is interesting. For one thing, would we need raw computing power the world has never seen so far to replicate human-like intelligence? Or can it be done in smaller scale using some aspect of the logical system that gives rise to emergent trait we refer to as intelligence? Classification of life/intelligence as a type of physical system that very closely resembles phase transition due to complexity is an intriguing possibility that will need to be examined in detail… I’m especially interested in intelligence as not something that computes but as something that creates. Why am I sitting here writing down this stuff when the weather outside is so great? Why do people strive to create this stuff and ideas when it’s much easier to sit on their collective asses and eat chips? To some the activity of creating get to the point of destructive obsession. Am I alone in sensing that the society at large tend to be envious of those kind of people?

Curiosity is not a rational trait. It’s crazy and sometimes suicidal, and doesn’t serve any kind of immediate need for survival or propagation. It is the very picture of irrationality. So where does it come from? What aspect of the molecular system that we refer to as living beings gives rise to such weird behavior? And what’s with this crazy unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences? Isn’t it weird how questioning the nature of mind, life, and human behavior so often leads us to the questions on the fundamental nature of the universe itself?

-From pg.93~94
In 1994 editors of Science, celebrating the inauguration of developmental biology by Wilhelm Roux a century earlier, asked one hundred contemporary researchers in the field to identify what they considered the crucial unanswered questions in the discipline. Their responses, in rank order of attributed importance, were:
1.The molecular mechanism of tissue and organ development.
2.The connection between development and genetic information.
3.The steps by which cell become committed to a particular fate.
4.The role of cell-to-cell signaling in tissue development.
5.The self-assembly of tissue patterns in the early embryo.
6.The manner in which nerve cells establish their specific connections to create the nerve cord and brains.
7.The means by which cells choose to divide and to die in the sculpting  of tissues and organs.
8.The steps by which the processes controlling transcription (the transmission of DNA information within the cell) affect the differentiation of tissues and organs.
Remarkably, the biologists considered research on all of these topics to be in a state of rapid advance, with partial successes in at least some of them close at hand.

Above questions were written around 1994 according to the Consilience. It’s been over a decade, so I wonder how many of above questions had been answered definitely and conclusively….

Also, it’s rather interesting that most if not all of above questions are in some way related to study of complexity sciences. It’s almost as if the whole field of complexity science is biology fused with mathematical abstractions.

Internet intelligence

So here’s an interesting short article on the possibility of internet gaining some type of consciousness due to its network based emergence-friendly structure. The author is the famous Ben Goertzel, one of the foremost minds of the futurist/AI school. If you’ve got time you should check out his blog for other articles as well. I’ve found a number of them to be quite compelling. I’ve always been interested in artificial intelligence, though my concentration is with artificial life. In time I’ve come to view the two as the same type of system manifesting in different mediums, and I’ve come to think that intelligence is a trait that naturally comes along with the collection of characteristic called life. Intelligence is life and life is intelligence. In that sense I consider even minuscule bacteria to be intelligent, though not in a way we usually think about intelligence. The very fact that certain collection of molecular machines can work in conjunction to behave in such a way that allows it to feed, evade harm and propagate, even in evolution-aided unconscious manner means that certain system should be considered intelligent. Of course, this is merely my personal view that is not backed by evidence based professional study. This is more of a personal impression with reasonable causes, something that’s on it’s way of becoming a hypothesis but not quite there yet as the things stand. Considering that I consider our current definition of intelligence to be lacking in many ways, I will be at ire of many neurobiologists should I exclaim such opinions carelessly. And for some reason there are a lot of neurobiologists around me so I try to keep my mouth shut most of the time regarding that issue.

Ben Goertzel’s answer to whether the net can become an intelligent construct is somewhat vague, but then he probably can’t help it himself. The question itself is a bit on the vague side when you think about it, including the whole uncertainty of the definition of intelligence that I just wrote about above. He briefly mentions the pervading ethos of the neurobiologists of the recent years, that many of them believe that intelligence/consciousness is a property that will inevitably emerge from any complex system that has the right sort of internal dynamics. I do definitely agree with him on that point, since when you think about it it’s about the only scientifically feasible explanation of the emergence of intelligence/consciousness without attributing some specific part of the brain to the trait of intelligence (like how Rene Descartes attributed ganglia as the sit of the soul). I also suspect that life arises in a very similar manner, and whether that pattern of internal dynamics can be an abstraction that can be applied to different types of physical systems is a major part of my current research as a fledgling science student (the one that’s helping paying my rent). Hopefully I’ll be able to come up with something in my lifetime, since I view the possibility of such a universal theoretical platform to be a big game changer in the upcoming human century, something that might as well change the world we live in along with applications of nanotechnology and modular biology.

Will internet itself become intelligent at some point? I’m sure it will. Dr. Ben Goertzel points out that the internet is way too fragmented to display a coherent vision of an artificial intelligence and instead suggests that there might be a way to construct a sort of unifying backbone using the network infrastructure of the internet itself as a sort of raw data feed/complexity provider for that central structure. It makes sense, in a way that no one really thinks about it before someone else says it first. Most complex emergent systems, when laid out using some elements of graph theory (the graph theory, we are not talking about bar graphs and such nonsense here, for those who haven’t been keeping tabs on mathematics) displays inexplicable tendency to form central clusters around certain limited number of nodes instead of distributing indefinitely. And the change usually isn’t gradual or predictable. It happens rapidly under certain critical threshold as Stuart Kauffman put it very succinctly on his book “At home in the universe.” Internet is very obviously following in that pattern. The last graphic map of the internet I’ve seen displayed certain number of nodes (websites/services) with overwhelming number of links with a lot of nodes with limited number of links. Similar pattern is also observed in the growth of neural pathways and formation of galactic clusters, and who knows what other phenomenon in this universe escaped our notice, considering that complexity science is still a new field. Now I don’t have a very clear idea of what form that central structure would have to take to make the internet truly intelligent to observable degree… I assume it would be something on par with designing CNS for the distributed system that is the internet, possibly with a hint of recursive structure via Douglas Hofstadter, but this is all just some ideas bouncing around and I have no idea what physical/informational form such a construct would take. I’d assume it is something far past the simple matter of linking a lot of links within network nodes or providing raw processing power (that would be like saying any game of go can be won with large enough number of stones, which is just dumb. This isn’t a chess, kiddo)… I should definitely give some more thought to this, the ideas on the nature of the ‘central structure’ might as well be the catalyst I’ve been looking for.

The problem that continues to bother me whenever I think of artificial intelligence is the vague definition of intelligence we seem to share. Just how can we tell what is intelligent or not? Most definition at the moment seem to be about figuring out how human-like other organisms/systems are without regards to the actual ‘intelligence’ of that organism/system. I may not be a professional but I smell a very homocentric perception whenever I read something that pertains to the nature of intelligence. If intelligence is about being able to communicate with other beings then antisocial foreigners are not intelligent. If intelligence is about being able to react to the environment so that you can find sources of food and multiply, then bacteria are intelligent. Maybe even viruses. Both of them do not have any sort of nervous system like we do with ‘higher organisms’ so it makes the problem of intelligence a bit more complex.

Internet may become intelligent someday. This is the year that the internet will have the equal or higher number of hyperlinks as there are synapses in our brains. The real question is, how will we be able to tell if it is intelligent? Are we looking for intelligent traits or are we looking for human traits?  How would we be able to tell the difference when the time comes? Maybe the first machine intelligence that blossoms on the world wide web will be trampled on by us as a mere bug in the system. After all, we do it to each other all the time.

On a little side note, the diy-bio NYC had our second meeting this Monday. We made a gel box, extracted DNA, and had a jolly good time. More on that later.

artscience rant

Just a little something I jotted down a moment ago on notepad, about art, science, and artscience (and possibly what artificial life has to do with it all)

 

A machine to create as we know it can only a machine that follows certain mathematical patterns giving output that can be interpreted by both the machine and observers as being coherent. Would it imply that there is something missing in such interpretation of the acts of creation or that act of creation and all subsequent endeavors are in effect replicating mathematical algorithms/formulae? Moreover, what exactly is the drive behind the origin of the will to create? In case of artificial machines we can say that we coded its mind/body to act in certain expected way, but the same cannot be applied to the creators of the creating machines, since (as far as we know) we haven’t been programmed by some entity in such specific manner as to will to create objects and ideas (and even that would create the question of who created the entities, so the whole line of questioning is more or less a dead-end). The obvious answer to the explanation of the behavior of creativity as things stand right now, would have to be drawn from the thermodynamic characteristics of the life-like intelligent systems themselves. Arts, and any type of object/idea creation by life-like intelligent systems must be a direct result of the thermodynamic system that forms the basis of the life-like intelligent systems themselves. In short, art is science.

A note- engine of creativity

Juergen Schmidhuber is supposedly working on an artificial scientist. I’ve come to a sudden realization that I am very interested in creating an artificial creator, or an engine of creativity, and that my interest in artificial life might have in fact been an interest in studying the origins of the trait we refer to as creativity.

It is rather curious. Will an artificial scientist be different from an artificial construct capable of demonstrating the trait we refer to as creativity? From what I am seeing, artificial scientist is an informational construct while an artificial creator is more of a physical system, thus the term engine of creativity.

Only known case of creativity exhibited in nature is us. If we ignore that the universe itself demonstrates ingenious and unexpected things through emergence, self organization and evolutionary principles, the only observed and somewhat-understood case of creativity in the universe are demonstrated by life-like systems. Would this somehow imply that only life-like systems can demonstrate traits of creativity? Would this mean that any artificial engine of creativity formed by human hand would have to be alive? Considered alive?

Musing

People love fantasies. They fantasize about things all the time. Act of shaping the most compelling traits of that fantasy in real world is called art. And the process that allows the conversion of idea to shape is called technology. Look at this.

Beauty may be in the eyes of the beholder, but I think this will definitely appear beautiful in the eyes of the majority. Now, this is merely a model. But sciences and technology might as well make this come true sooner that most people expect it.

What I find truly interesting, however, isn’t the shared trait between arts and sciences. That much had been obvious since the days of Leonardo Da Vinci, and the hints of the inseparable relationship between the two had been acknowledged even before then… Or rather, would it be correct to say that modern separation between arts and sciences is a freak accident of history that was given birth a few centuries ago at most? I guess we are all collectively reeling in from the aftershock of the events that happened centuries ago (and people ask why we should bother to learn history).

What I really find interesting, to an almost obsessive degree, is where the beginnings of arts and sciences came from. That is, what would drive bunch of complex systems of collections of molecular compounds to form ideas, worldview, beliefs, and etc… Whether you are a religious fundamentalist or a Dawkins-ian atheist, the fact is that most if not all of humanity have some capacity at aesthetic sensitivity that borders on mystical. Like any prudent scientist (to-be), I believe in things happening in front of my eyes rather than some abstract ideas floating in the clouds. It is a fact that people keep on creating and reacting to stuff, tries to keep themselves alive (though survival seem to take on varying degrees of priority in individuals), and are a system of molecules. So it should be reasonable to suspect that there is a method in nature to create systems of creativity out of components we already know about, using systematic pathways/algorithms that can be replicated.

What is creativity? It is a constant drive to do stuff. Is that enough? Not really. Simply being active isn’t good enough… Creativity is a drive to do stuff in coherent manner. Thermodynamic work with coherence, which I might even call ‘memory’ though it might be too hasty at this point. Would this mean that a metabolic engine with capacity for coherent action (memory?) on the system-wide level contains innate ability to create? Like bacterium? Localized complex chain reaction with proper coherence eventually leads to self-replication? So would this mean that the human capacity for arts is in some deep level related to the capacity to procreate in minimally life-like systems?… Then what would be the concept of beauty? And why/how would human beings pursue aesthetics/ideas outside of the necessity for survival?

It’s fun to do a bit of musing like this. Yet it always get frustrating at the end, because I know in my heart that there’s no way to test all this physically. Or is there?

All I can do at the moment is to sit here and wait for my muse.

Neal Stephenson notes

I’ve been googling some Neal Stephenson articles on the net in preparation for his new upcoming book, Anathem.

Here is an interesting excerpt from a Wired article I encountered from a blog about Neal Stephenson and his upcoming work (I recommend you read the full article as well if you are interested in current status of Neal Stephenson’s life).

Stephenson spends his mornings cloistered in the basement, writing longhand in fountain pen and reworking the pages on a Mac version of the Emacs text editor. This intensity cannot be sustained all day–”It’s part of my personality that I have to mess with stuff,” he says–so after the writing sessions, he likes to get his hands on something real or hack stuff on the computer. (He’s particularly adept at Mathematica, the equation-crunching software of choice for mathematicians and engineers.) For six years, he was an adviser to Jeff Bezos’ space-flight startup, Blue Origin. He left amicably in 2006. Last year, he went to work for another Northwest tech icon, Nathan Myhrvold, who heads Intellectual Ventures, an invention factory that churns out patents and prototypes of high-risk, high-reward ideas. Stephenson and two partners spend most afternoons across Lake Washington in the IV lab, a low-slung building with an exotic array of tools and machines to make physical manifestations of the fancies that flow from the big thinkers on call there.

“In Neal’s books, he’s been fantastically good at creating scenarios and technologies that are purely imaginary,” Myhrvold says. “But they’re much easier imagined than built. So we spend a certain amount of our time imagining them but the rest of our time building them. It’s also very cool but different to say, ‘Let’s come up with new ways of doing brain surgery.'”

That’s right–brain surgery is one of the things Stephenson is tinkering with. He and his team are helping refine some mechanical aspects of a new tool, a helical needle for operating on brain tumors. It’s the kind of cool job one of his characters might have.

This article seem to further compound my idea about Stephenson’s (or any other writer/artists’) almost instinctive urge to see the products of their written fantasies manifest in their world in a more corporeal form. Many artists throughout history seem to share that trait in particular, from Leonardo Da Vinci to Jasper Johns, methods of manifestation sometimes taking form of involvement in things of the ‘secular world’ or integration of their artistic ideas into lifestyles and memes. Such universally observed trait might as well be the reason that synthetic biology, or rather, any and all forms of artificial life holds so much promise for artists of the world. Synthetic/artificial life might as well be the catalyst needed to bridge the unreasonable cultural and intellectual gap between the arts and the sciences.

Indeed, I might even go as far as to say that the utility of artificial life in the field of arts would be an inevitable development of the future, based on the innate human desire to breathe life into immaterial thoughts.

Once I get past the deadline season, I might do a bit more detailed post on the matter of human creativity and obsession towards its manifestation…

Mad science contest!

Who in their right mind does not want to become a mad scientist? Underneath the prim and proper veneer of sanity and polite gestures, I know that there is a darker longing gravitating us toward the callings of mad science.

Yet the fact of life is, there are usually few opportunities, if any, to pursue and perfect the dream of mad science in this world, whether it be societal taboo or physical restraints. In the light of the scared world we live in, I am very happy to announce the contest for mad scientists, aimed primarily at the emerging field of synthetic biology.

There are two categories of the contest, and each category offers a delicious prize for the taking. The category one is the more realistic mad scientists in all of us. You are supposed to work with the real BioBrick parts and form an artificial synthetic organism/something to sate the mad genius inside you and possibly even help the world in the process. The prize for the category one winner is an all-expense paid trip to Hong Kong for the upcoming Synthetic Biology 4.0 conference and a chance to present your work before the whos who of the synthetic biology scene today.

The category two is the one for the imaginative madhouses in all of us. While scientific reasoning behind your creation must be present to certain plausible extent, the second category does not force you to figure out real PCR amplification rates or the roles of each specific BioBrick parts, something you should be proficient with should you decide to compete in the first category of the contest. Instead, category two seem to be leaning toward discovering truly imaginative applications of the tenets of synthetic biology and possible social/industrial implications of such a noble craft.

This is not a contest cooked up by bunch of enthusiastic crackpots either. Some of the judges are full-time professional devotees/founders of the very field of synthetic biology itself, like Drew Andy.

So spread the news, and get all of your families and friends involved. This is a contest for the mad scientists of the world, and we really need diverse and crazy ideas that deserve the mantle.

Abstraction- Engines of Art

The update at this blog had been intermittent for a while due to my personal circumstances, with moving to a new apartment, and the need to write up bunch of papers happening all at once. Now that I am a bit more settled I should be able to write here regularly. At least I hope that is the case… I do not think I can handle as much workload for a while.

I have always been interested in writing things. Writing is something that comes natural to me, in that while I am certainly not good at it, I can always pick up a pen or sit in front of a keyboard and scribble/type away as I drift away to a state of reverie. It is the same as with reading a good book. There is no need to force myself to concentrate. The process is quick and natural like playing an old instrument while intoxicated by its melody, a sort of self-reinforcing phenomena.

As such, it was only natural that I would try to fulfill my predilection toward the ever vague idea of beauty. I have always been puzzled by the nature of beauty since young age. I can tell for sure when something is beautiful to me or not, yet it is quite impossible to pinpoint the specific quality of the thing/person/situation that makes it appear/smell/feel beautiful in my senses. There is no consistency in the things that are capable of displaying the traits of beauty, as a garbage can and a work by Michelangelo might display the similar sense of sublime, that strange trait that we can only refer to with the vague term called beauty. And this *beauty* appears quite immaterial. I do not believe there is a single thing in this universe capable of appearing beautiful to all observers for all lengths of time. The trait of beauty can be highly subjective, and is bound to fade away after a period of time (when in view of a single observer) regardless of the hardiness of the physical material that radiates the feeling of beauty in its observers.

Would such traits suggest that the beauty literally is in the eyes of the beholder? There is no evidence to think that inorganic objects in this world is capable of reacting to certain objects in a way that an organic, conscious object would react to a thing of beauty. So it would be possible to assume that the ability to perceive beauty and react toward it in this world is limited to complex life-like systems (this is an assumption based only on what we know about complex systems and the physical relationships within the universe at the moment, of course). Yet the problem does not quite end at that point. Prokaryotes are complex life-like systems, yet can we possibly assume that such microbiotic systems are capable of feeling the thing we conscious human beings refer to as beauty? I have never talked to a prokaryote culture before, so I would not know. Let us re-examine the trait of beauty and beautiful things in this world for a moment. From what I can tell, beauty requires significant amount of neuronal resources in terms of sensory organs and processing units, aka the CNS. Would that mean that the ability to perceive beauty must be limited by the capacity of the senses? That external catalysis of sorts is always required in order to perceive/imagine beauty? It might be tempting to say yes to such an assumption, but I think we must remember that there are plenty of things in this world that are considered beautiful despite having no physical counterpart. Beautiful ideas. Beautiful future. Such are more or less information based constructs that might be represented by certain physical objects and situations in this world but not tied to the specific characteristics of the material. If beauty is intimately tied to its nature as a construct of information, then it is possible that the ability to perceive and react to beauty is intimately tied to the information processing capability, like the brain, which is in itself a vast complex adaptive system.

I think we might be onto something here. If the things I have outlined above have even a modicum of truth in it, the illusive nature of beauty might in fact be tied to the informational structure of the brain and its interaction with the external world, within which learning and memory themselves might act as catalyst between the world and the brain in perceiving and reacting to beauty…

Here is a million dollar question. If the immateriality of the concept of beauty and its acting in concert with innate mechanisms of brain and memories are true, would it be possible to write a finite-length work capable of giving persistent impression of beauty by conjuring up any and all images and ideas that can be felt/perceived by the readers mind? Would it be possible to write a piece that can simulate almost infinite gradient of human ideas and feelings within the readers mind by the virtue of ever changing yet persistent nature of human memory and innate information processing capacity of the human brain itself, using only limited number of imageries and terms that can be utilized in a single work of writing? The idea behind such a writing would be similar to the idea behind the evolution of natural language, of how limited number of alphabets are capable of composing rich vocabulary and astronomical variety of written, spoken works and ideas born from those works. Instead of alphabets, however, the work would have to discover and utilize certain archetypes of ideas, patterns and imageries as to make it possible for the reader to create something entirely new every time he/she reads it, the only characteristic shared between the infinite variety of reconstructions being the persistent presence of the indescribable beauty.

The ideas of artscience and artificial life takes on an entirely different perspective when viewed in such light. Artificial life would no longer be static art, but rather an *engine of beauty* in a persistent yet ever changing universe. Just as Kurzweil proposed the universe of meaningful information, artificial life might as well be the first step in a whole universe of sublime beauty.

On time, and the life

I read a poem from a blog of my acquaintance, titled ‘On time’ written by John Milton.

On Time

FLY envious Time, till thou run out thy race,
Call on the lazy leaden-stepping hours,
Whose speed is but the heavy Plummets pace;
And glut thy self with what thy womb devours,
Which is no more then what is false and vain, 5
And meerly mortal dross;
So little is our loss,
So little is thy gain.
For when as each thing bad thou hast entomb’d,
And last of all, thy greedy self consum’d, 10
Then long Eternity shall greet our bliss
With an individual kiss;
And Joy shall overtake us as a flood,
When every thing that is sincerely good
And perfectly divine, 15
With Truth, and Peace, and Love shall ever shine
About the supreme Throne
Of him, t’whose happy-making sight alone,
When once our heav’nly-guided soul shall clime,
Then all this Earthy grosnes quit, 20
Attir’d with Stars, we shall for ever sit,
Triumphing over Death, and Chance, and thee O Time.

Beautiful poem. I just wanted to share it with you all…

I’m a physicist (to be). Everything in the world is within the realms of cause and effect, even the imagination of the human beings, even the ‘bits’ of information that can ever be represented by the universe itself. If my belief is true, just what mechanic of this universe allows impressions to surpass their expressions? Musics transcendent over instruments, and memory over life? Integrated together into a beautifully knit whole, yet one’s emergence feels entirely different from the substance it originated from.

Again, I am a physicist and a scientist (again, in training). And I refuse to leave such profound movements of my heart to simple metaphysical jumblings as if they weren’t part of this universe to begin with. I can perceive them, and I can feel its intent spreading throughout my heart. The indescribable sensation of being alive and empathetic to things made by the living, they are definitely integral parts of this physical universe.

The beauty should not be relegated to some pathetic social conventions that grew from physical impediments of last few centuries should humanity ever hope to go beyond a few more centuries into the future. If something in this universe is so capable of grasping at our hearts, then we must be able to explain it in the language of this universe. We must be able to recreate it. And active study and understanding of us, the life, might as well be the first step into the breach.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is the reason why I am obsessed with artificial life.

Giorgio de Chirico- Ariadne to artificial life

painting ariadne

On my recent excursion to the Met, I’ve had chance to sit in front of Giorgio de Chirico‘s painting Ariadne. On days like that I enjoy strolling among the vistas of my thoughts, sightseeing in my own mindscapes. Sometimes I reach some interesting idea, and I’d like to share this particular one with you. I start with the first hand observation and speculation on the painting, and goes on to the social contexts and perspective on the relationship between art and artificial life. Of course, I am in no way educated in matters of art, so what I say about the painting is purely personal and speculative. If you want proper information about the painting itself, I’d suggest the official Met description and associated sources.

Ariadne awaits outside the labyrinth, frozen cold as a statue. The towers and progresses of the world slip by outside, unnoticed by her and the observer locked within the wall. Ariadne is a statue, but as I look closer she begins to resemble a stone cover of an ancient sarcophagi. It would fit with the melancholy atmosphere pervading through the painting. Theseus walked into the labyrinth ages ago with the thread of Ariadne, and he is yet to emerge from its dark paths. Or perhaps he has left the empty husk of the labyrinth a long time ago? Defeating it of the ferocious monster inside, leaving it as an empty dark corridor. Only the desolation remains and shadows haunt the dark corridors of the labyrinth.

When did Ariadne pass away? What had happened to Theseus? Perhaps he met the same fate he would have met within the dark corridors of the labyrinth, as a desiccated corpse. The activity of the world surrounding the walls begins to throw an ominous hint as to the fate of our hero and heroine. The heroic and dramatic gives way to the tides of the mundane.

The sense of timeless waiting and longing, intermingled with the thick taste of isolation and desolate serenity fill the whole of the canvas with strange attraction, and makes it stand out among the numerous canvases displayed in the white halls of the modern art exhibition of the museum. As I stare into the painting the position of the observer becomes uneasy, as I begin to wonder whether to apply myself to Ariadne, Theseus, or even the bustling activity of the world outside the wall.

Depiction of Ariadne as a sculpture provides some interesting insight into the world of the painting. What was the fate of Ariadne? In the state she is in now she has become a symbol in the lexicon of the consciousness. As I consider the matter of Ariadne and the rich symbolism of labyrinth in human history, I feel as if the world of the painting is being spread from the mind of the artist to my own. Perhaps the inside of the wall (though it might be argued that the stage is set outside, there is no way to tell) can be understood as the collective unconsciousness of the human world. Maybe it is a desolate, timeless place buried within the waves of zeitgeist. Perhaps the place within the wall is an ancient, timeless place in our psyche, waiting for some sort of resolution that we know for certain will never be found.

It is no secret that the mythical labyrinth associated with Ariadne held a minotaur within its dark corridors, and is a frequently visited theme across variety of cultures depicting the primordial passages of the human psyche. As such, labyrinths of almost any cultural significance is a path to some sort of resolution, guarded by difficult ordeal or mythic beast that must be overcome. Even within the labyrinth depicted in the painting, quite clearly devoid of all life, one cannot help but to think that some sort of secret still lurks inside, throwing an overwhelming curiosity toward us that soon borders on obsession. In fact, beneath the veneer of timeless desolation and serenity, one cannot help but to perceive of certain intense quality of questioning, as our eyes drift toward between the archways of the entrance to the labyrinth. The whole painting begins to metamorphose into a question in the back of the observers psyche, isolated from the world yet longing for something, some kind of attainment.

Here is where the conventional notion of the classic and the modern splits. Being classical or modern in this case has nothing to do with timeline in this case, of course. Classic and the modern are mindsets, values impressed into the very fabric of our social consciousness. The classics are obsessed with the idealized patterns, the equation of the human with the superhuman, contemplation of the nature of superhumanity and underlying human pursuits, and so on. A kind of peculiar disdain toward contemporary human condition and urges to metamorphose is a common universal sentiment among the arts and ideas commonly referred to as classical. The prevalent attitude encompassing almost every single work of art and ideas considered classical, all superhuman, not because human is, but because the human strives to be.

Yet certain indefatigable essences of the modern runs directly contrary to such sentiments. Consider the works of Gustave Courbet and his realism. Gustave Courbet and his realism is widely considered to be the first step of the true modernism in painting, in a twilight zone where the classical begins to turn modern. The most conspicuous feature of the modern is the depiction of the human wants. No more hero becomes the motto of the day, either by making everything heroic or denying the concept of the heroic. And as the process continues the art increasingly becomes the depiction of the art rather than depiction of the human of art.

It almost feels as if there is some sort of cycle, propagating through the stages of Middle Ages-Renaissance-Baroque-Rococo-Neo Classic-Empire, which are not as clearly defined as they would appear on paper but still retains certain zeitgeist that is apparent to a methodical observer. They all seem to revert back and forth in the relationship between the art and the human. Is this a primarily European (thus Christian) fluctuation? I am beginning to doubt it, for many other cultures like those in the Far East, show similar fluctuations of the relationship between the art and the human.

Such fluctuation is interesting in light of the oncoming possibility of artificial life. What will the art of artificial life be like? Idealized pursuit or depiction of the basic principles of the life? Life-like physical system treated as an art is a valuable opportunity to clarify some of the dilemma facing the issue of art and art’s relationship to the world and the human, though the precise form it would take is difficult to predict at the moment. Art, real or ideal, is quite discontent to be sitting on canvas and velvet lined pedestals. The art will inevitably flow out into the world (in some sense it already has) and walk and talk with us. Perhaps the divide between the real and the ideal, the focus on the art of art and the art of the human would manifest as a debate on the form of artificial life in human world. Perhaps it will be a debate on whether the human should BE artificial life.

Why my ongoing interest/obsession with the artificial life and the art? Why do I believe in art as life and life as art? Why my belief that the science and art should, and will, become inseparable from each other?

There was an interesting accident a few years back, when a young child stuck a chewing gum on a priceless painting of modern art, and gave an excuse to the horrified museum authorities that he did not think it was art. It is true that art in modern times seem to be an acquired taste, which is very peculiar to me. Isn’t art, at its naked core, a search and depiction of beauty? The nature of beauty might remain as illusive as ever, but for all intends and purposes it is universal. And if the social conception is in such a way that capacity to feel beauty must be educated into someone’s head, we have a problem. This might be the root cause behind today’s absurd separation between the field and practices of arts and sciences. Art in its inception should be universal to all of us, and that means it should be universal to all senses and all brains, something fundamentally integrated into the human system’s architecture that might even be replicated in non human life forms. The true nature of the origin that powers people to perform art and the true nature of the beauty that cativates us and evokes things and ideas that we never consciously thought of before, must in someway be related to our own physique, for life and consciousness cannot manifest without a body.

If the existence of the physiology and metabolism of life is essential to the process of art and aesthetic fulfillment, we have a pressing need for artificial life, both as scientists solving the great and observable problem of the human phenomena and as artists searching for the manifestation of art. The art will walk and talk among us, and no child will dare to stick gum on their faces. Everyone, even those without the art education and art sensitivity drummed into their heads will be able to intuitively grasp the presence of beauty and revel in the process of aesthetic fulfillment, since, in the end, human beings best understand things that resemble them. And what better resembles us than life, staring at us in the eye?