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ARTIFICIAL LIFE by Steven Levy

ARTIFICIAL LIFE

The Quest for a New Creation

By Steven Levy

Pub Date: June 15th, 1992
ISBN: 0-679-40774-X
Publisher: Pantheon

 Levy again reports from the front lines of technology in this exploration of the history and future of the creation of artificial life--as impressive and illuminating a work as his memorable Hackers (1984). Colonies of light on a computer screen compete, learn, reproduce, and die; ``viruses'' committed to self-preservation adapt to new environments, search computer systems for food, replicate themselves, and destroy; tiny ``bugs'' swarm out of a vacuum cleaner to suck up dirt beneath sofas and carpets, then return to deposit the dirt at home base; a mechanical cockroach sees an object in its path, adjusts its legs to crawl over it, and continues in its explorations. The question of which of these creatures, if any, are alive has stimulated a storm of controversy concerning the definition, underlying structure, and necessary characteristics of life itself--primary concerns in the creation of ``alternative life forms,'' an endeavor that has also led to insights into the workings of flocks of birds; the mechanisms behind the evolutionary process; the origin of life; and more. As Levy methodically traces the development of ``A-life'' studies from John von Neumann's interest during the 1940's in the similarities between computers and nature to today's soul-searching by researchers into the spirituality, civil rights, and destructive power of future artificial life forms, he also highlights the other lure of such research: the eventual production of robotic servants; cheap planetary pioneers; more efficient, virtually immortal bodies for our human descendants; and even, some scientists believe, a successor species to our own. Ringing with echoes of Faust, Frankenstein, and the history of the atom bomb, the field of A-life research is fertile ground for Levy's articulate, probing journalism. This thought-provoking inquiry may be the most comprehensive yet on the subject. (Eight pages of color illustrations; 20 b&w drawings and charts--not seen.)