Do-It-Yourself Evolution

Katsura Hattori and I tried our hands at artificial evolution at the InterCommunication exhibit, a well-equipped public media lab funded by Nippon Telephone and Telegraph. This week's exhibition featured Christa Sommerer's and Laurent Mignoneau's "A-volve," an audience-participation, evolve-it-yourself experiment in artificial life. Upon entering the small, darkened, room, you see a touch-sensitive monitor. Using your finger, you draw the elevation and profile views of an imaginary creature. Then you step up to join a dozen other people gathered around a stainless-steel tank of water. The display screen at the bottom of the tank shows the artificial creatures that are created from a palette of biologically-derived growth algorithms, based on the template you drew on the monitor.

Up to half a dozen creatures co-exist in the virtual tank at one time, and interact with their creators and each other,according to a set of biological rules. Wave your hands, and your creature flees. Wave your hands the right way, and it plays with you. When different creatures meet, they fight, mate, or eat each other. Different kinds of fitness are passed from generation to generation. Natural selection and occasional divine intervention lead some creatures to throb and swell and multiply. Others fade into electronic ghosts. Someday, a few people are going to cook up something that steps out of the tank and eats Tokyo. Perhaps in time for the 40th anniversary of Godzilla.

When I got home, I discovered that my QuickTake didn't capture the a-life-art in its fully yummy luminosity, so -- what the heck, what's technology for? -- I PhotoShopped it. This is what it looked like. Trust me.

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