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An Artificial Life

a short story
by Susan Beetlestone

It was on an uncomfortable afternoon in Mexico City that I first encountered Professor Gee in person, at the International Conference on Artificial Intelligence.

Artificial Life was my area of specialization in those days, biological modelling. I had just perfected my artificial cat, which was a considerable achievement, though my university was not sufficiently impressed. The artificial cat was perfectly capable of catching mice but apparently this talent was of little commercial value, and that was what counted most with the funding committees. Times being what they are, and knowledge not being valued much in its own right but only for the income it can generate, I knew I would have to find an industrial or military use for the visuo-motor coordinator that was the secret of the cat's success. There were already a number of proposals on my desk, including an autonomous drain cleaner, and I could feel a black depression descending on my thought processes.

The conference at least got me away from such concerns for a while. That morning I presented a paper on my recent work, after which I got into a running argument with the philosopher, Loosheim, who thinks Artificial Intelligence is a contradiction in terms and that my biological models are travesties of nature. He actually said he didn't think I could model an amoeba.

We carried on our argument throughout lunch and into the seminar room where Professor Gee was to speak on the subject of Evolving Curiosity Systems, His papers on these systems had been appearing for ten years or more. He worked at the Grove Island Institute which runs on the interest from a massive endowment left in the will of David Arthur Grove, all of which it has to spend each year to avoid punitive taxes. So Professor Gee never had to worry about practical applications,

Gee's problems had not been with curiosity, which had proved quite easy to program, but with evolution. He was not just after a simulation of the process, but actual change in the system on which the evolution program was acting. His early attempts with programs introducing purely random mutations had produced lethal changes within the first two or three steps every time they were run. On one occasion his entire operating system was destroyed by such a mutation, but the Institute had under spent its budget that year, so they looked on Professor Gee's mishap as a blessing in disguise.

Nobody who came into the badly air-conditioned seminar room that Mexican afternoon expected much more than a report on new problems with evolutionary programming and an opportunity to kick around a few wild ideas. Loosheim sat down next to me, his fat thighs overflowing onto my seat, crowding me with his hot flesh and muttering that the work I'd spent my life on was worthless, except perhaps to those who considered an intelligent drain cleaner to be the height of intellectual achievement. This was not what I wanted to hear, and between fretting over Loosheim's opinions and trying to breathe through my mouth to avoid the stench of academic sweat that filled the airless room, it was a while before I could concentrate properly on what Professor Gee was saying.

He was a handsome man with thick black hair and dark eyes who gave the impression of calm rationality. Even his enthusiasm for his work was subdued and cool. He was telling us that all the problems with the ECS had been solved and the project was now ready to move into its next phase. The evolution in the system was carried out by a random mutation program protected by a filtering program which screened out lethal changes while still allowing wide possibilities for unpredictable new forms. The programs were intended to work on an artificial cognitive system.

"We had to introduce the filtering program," the Professor explained, "since we, unlike natural selection, do not have a very large population to work with. Not that we are attempting to model natural selection, of course."

I was puzzled by that. Loosheim didn't like it at all. He sucked his teeth and tut-tutted throughout the whole presentation.

What followed was a description of the hardware that the ECS would be implemented in -- a system massively endowed with richly interconnected learning networks plus a few hard wired programs including the Evolving Curiosity System itself, which did not appear to be protected from acting on itself. It was bizarre, and I wondered if I'd missed something at the beginning of the presentation when I was still preoccupied with Loosheim's jibes. I don't think I had because, as the Professor finished talking and asked for questions, a voice from the back of the room put into words the question I was keeping to myself.

"What is it for?"

The Professor was surprised and he scanned the back rows to see who had spoken. No-one owned up.

"I would refer the questioner," he said, "to my first paper on the subject of Evolving Curiosity Systems. It was in Psychological AI volume twenty-three, I believe. I stated there quite clearly that the intended purpose of these systems was to provide an external, objective viewpoint from which the study of human intelligence can be carried out."

Everybody started talking at once. I swear nobody there had read that paper, and Professor Gee got that impression too. He looked around the room, dismayed. I suppose everyone else, like me, had assumed that he was trying to model the evolution of human cognitive processes from those of primates. We had only paid attention to the details of his problems with evolutionary programming and had lost, or never seen, the big picture.

In spite of the disappointing failure of his peers to appreciate the true nature of his work, the Professor regained his composure quickly.

"My stated premise in that paper is," he told us, "that a system, in this case the human mind, is incapable of coming to anything but a distorted understanding of its own functioning, since objectivity concerning such a goal is impossible to achieve. We might then consider building investigating machines to work on this problem, but they would suffer from the same faults as their creators and fail for the same reasons. The only answer, I argued, is to submit ourselves to investigation by alien intelligences.

"In the absence of visitors from outer space," he smiled briefly, "this project is a bid to create such an intelligence by building a system with an innate curiosity drive and an enormous amount of free and flexible processing capacity and allowing it to become something quite alien by submitting it to a rapid process of cognitive evolution.

"We are aiming very high, Gentlemen, and Ladies, and our chances of failure are also high, especially since we cannot constrain the ECS in its choice of subjects suitable for investigation, though perhaps we may be permitted the arrogance to assume that we are the most fascinating organism in existence. I am convinced that this project is a step closer to what must be the ultimate goal of everyone in this room."

Loosheim could take it no longer. He stood up and cleared his throat with emphasis.

"I respect the Professor's worthy aims," he said, "but feel I must point out to him where he is bound to fail. The thought processes of such a system as he describes may well evolve into new and alien forms, but how, I ask, will it gain the information it requires to feed its curiosity drive?"

He answered his own question, as we all knew he would.

"This information will come to it through the mediation of the Professor and his colleges. They constitute the system's link with the outside world and all its input must pass first through their minds. The human perspective cannot, therefore, be eliminated by merely displacing a set of cognitive functions into a machine and pressing the 'Mutate' button. It remains an integral part of the system."

He remained standing, ready to pounce upon and dismember any reply Professor Gee might dare to offer. The Professor smiled at him in a friendly way.

"Your objection is, of course, quite valid, and by raising it now you force me to make an announcement that I had planned for a more formal occasion, later in the week." He cleared his throat, which needed no clearing, and looked around the room.

"We intend to build Evolving Curiosity Systems into a small number of mobile robots fully equipped to learn directly from the environment and thus, we hope, eliminating the kind of contamination that Dr. Loosheim has drawn your attention to."

The artificial cat in my head opened its eyes and pricked its ears.

"Naturally," the Professor continued, "This major undertaking requires a larger pool of expertise than I have available to me at present. The Grove Island Institute has ensured me that all the necessary funds will be provided and I shall therefore be calling for proposals from any interested parties."

Excitement filled the room. Loosheim sat down, temporarily unable to find a suitable reply. I sprang to my feet and asked Professor Gee if he had attended the presentation of my paper that morning. He had.

The Grove Island Institute is paradise in more ways than one. It is the only centre of population on that tiny island in Micronesia, linked to the outside world by sea, air and its own communications satellite. The Island was bought by David Arthur Grove fifteen years before his death, and he spent those years there, fishing and overseeing the foundation of the Institute.

When I moved to the Island I took with me the latest version of the artificial cat to defend me from the only problem in paradise. The black rat came ashore in the eighteenth century and found a very comfortable home for itself. No efforts have since been able to eradicate it. Now it is a super rat, consuming all varieties of rodenticide and thriving. Even cats had been tried, but the rats ate them, too.

I heard tales (somewhat exaggerated) of Institute employees being attacked in their beds by hungry rats, but my cat defended the bungalow I lived in with perfect efficiency and I was never bothered (except initially by the piles of corpses on the verandah, but I soon reprogrammed her to dispose of her victims more discreetly).

At last I was free, well paid, living with like-minded people and working on a project which, if I considered it fanciful in the long term, was fascinating in the short term. Once I had settled in, the Institute was more than willing for me to spend time on projects of my own. I had an affair with one of the marine biologists which led me to become interested in cephalopods. An artificial octopus was taking shape in my lab even as the final models of Professor Gee's investigating machines were liberated into the community to begin their strange 'lives'.

They were endowed with better sight, more sensitive hearing and touch and far greater potential 'brainpower' than any human being, and innate learning capacities which were alarming to watch in action. During their infancies they were protected from mutation while they learned language as a child does, just from hearing it spoken, but so much faster. Loosheim wrote a scathing article about this use of human language, calling it contamination, but we needed a direct means of communication with them, and they probably would have learned it anyway just like they learned everything else. Once they were fluent and could cope with their environment, the Evolving Curiosity Systems were turned on and we left them to do as they chose, only making regular observations.

It was my idea to make them spiders. Professor Gee wanted them to begin as something quite far removed from humanity to give them a head start on their journey into alienness and he was delighted with my suggestion. They weren't proper artificial spiders, of course. As well as their magnified size there were many other differences. They were built for other things than catching flies.

There were six units. They were waist high with eight tapering legs, and four unblinking eyes mounted on the front of a body that was all brain, in which the time bomb of accelerated evolution was ticking away. The two pairs of eyes between them gave the units a view of the world from the infrared to the far ultraviolet. Both the legs and a pair of pedipalps beneath the eyes (where the mouth would have been had they needed mouths) were provided with tactile sensors. They were masterpieces of robotic engineering and sensory information processing, but even so they weren't as satisfying to me as the cat who faithfully stalked my verandah day and night.

On their second day of free life I was walking from my bungalow to the lab, smelling the Pacific Ocean on the breeze and thinking of my octopus, when I saw someone running, pursued by one of the units. I hesitated for a moment, then ran after them, between the main buildings and into a dead end. The running man I recognised as one of the marine biologists. When I caught up with him he was trying to climb a blank wall. The unit was looking up at him and saying, "I don't think you're going to make it."

"Hello, Three," I said when I caught my breath. "What's going on?"

Three shuffled around to look at me.

"Oh, hello," it said. "I really don't know. Perhaps you could explain,"

The man (I won't name him) had dropped whimpering to the ground, covering his face with bleeding fingers. He had to be taken off the Island to hospital in Australia, and never came back. I felt bad about it, but I still don't consider it my fault. After all, how many people really take arachnophobia seriously?

A few other people expressed doubts about having six giant spiders loose on the Island, but soon got used to them. The units bothered no-one. They'd often sit out in the sun, recharging their power cells and discussing things amongst themselves. At first they communicated with each other in English, but that rapidly changed and they began to make a high speed chittering noise. We thought something had gone wrong, but when recorded and slowed down, the chittering showed systematic patterns of frequency change. Professor Gee was so happy that his coolness began to crack a little. The new language was our first observable sign that the evolutionary process was working.

They continued to use human language when forced to communicate with us, but only reluctantly. Professor Gee became engrossed in making observations during the day and at night in trying to decode their new language, without notable success.

The units asked for, and got, their own lab, complete with technician. I visited it now and then but could never quite make out what they were doing. They had acquired a lot of equipment and were busy with it day and night. Whatever they were up to, it was expensive. As the end of the tax year neared, we all started making plans for disposal of the yearly underspend. Only, that year there wasn't one. The Institute's Accountant informed us the budget had been fully allocated. The units had taken up the slack.

I had always been rather detached from the project, seeing it just as a way into the Grove, but now something was really happening. I became bothered by the fact that I didn't know what. I visited the lab again. I asked questions and got answers I didn't understand. I tried to develop a relationship with Three, to gain its confidence. Three always seemed more tolerant of human beings than the others, perhaps because of its early experience with irrational human fear. Even so, it often told me to mind my own business. When I said I was, it would just walk away.

I gave up for a while, but a few weeks later, I followed Three up there again. As we went in through the door, the lab technician tried to make a break for it. Three tripped him up and pinned him to the floor while it secured the door with a free leg. The technician (I tried to remember his name) had all his hair shaved off. He lay in Three's grip without struggling, looking up at me with tragic eyes.

"Keeps doing that," said Three to me. "Perhaps we should requisition a new one."

"Er, what have you been doing to him?"

"Just some physiological-behavioural studies. There were some rather large gaps in the literature."

"You're not supposed to experiment on your lab technician."

"Really? I thought that was what he was for."

"Are you in the middle of anything with him right now?"


"Then perhaps you could let him go? I mean, he looks, er, worn out. I could see about getting you a fresh one."

I grinned at Three to underline my sincerity. They were only doing what they were supposed to, after all. Three agreed quite casually and let him go. I unlocked the door and he fled.

We tried to question the technician that night, but he remained mute. What had begun as a meeting of those involved with the project turned into a general meeting as the rumours spread. As the night wore on and a storm blew in, whipping the palm trees into a frenzy, the majority feeling grew into a vote to temporarily suspend the project by shutting down the experimental units. Professor Gee regarded his colleagues sadly.

"The units have evolved their own morality," he told us. "They have debated the question of vivisection and decided that invasive or destructive techniques should be avoided. I'm sure this young man has been subjected to nothing cruel. Perhaps his distress comes from a lack of understanding."

From the way be looked around at those assembled, I knew that he meant us to examine our own minds for a lack of understanding, too.

"In order to demonstrate my confidence," he continued, "I shall offer myself as an experimental subject, and you," he turned to me, "will observe and report back to these good people who will see that their fears are based on imagination."

And besides, I thought, they don't have 'Off' switches. They weren't supposed to be under our control.

The Professor's proposal was reluctantly accepted (not least reluctantly by me, but what choice did I have?). The technician was shipped home with a large compensatory payment, and the Institute settled uneasily back to work.

Professor Gee spent sixteen hours a day for the next few weeks with his nervous system wired into a battery of instruments while trying to perform increasingly impossible, and incomprehensible, tasks. Always it seemed to me that the units were most interested in his reactions on both sides of the point where performance broke down.

The Professor was dedicated, beyond his breaking point, but that was not enough. Three told me they wanted more subjects and at the next meeting of staff, after I had given my report, I had to request volunteers. Unsurprisingly, there were none. Instead there was another unanimous vote for the suspension of the project. It was not well received when I admitted that the units could not be shut down. An action committee was formed and I was voted on to it against my will, even though no-one was too pleased with me. I suppose they thought I knew the most about the units, next to Professor Gee. I did not say that I thought by now we knew nothing worthwhile about them.

I walked back to my bungalow alone. On the verandah the Institute Accountant was waiting for me, trying to make friends with my artificial cat.

"It's not programmed to be a pet," I told him. He grinned nervously and handed me an envelope.

"I thought I should deliver this to you in person. Everyone else is getting a similar letter tomorrow morning. You have to understand, it isn't my decision. The Institute runs on a set of economic rules and your little, er, spider friends really know how to use them. I thought you'd like to be forewarned in case there's any hostility."

He left me and my cat standing there. The envelope contained notice of my dismissal from the Institute, which could no longer fund my projects since the units wanted to expand their field of studies and would be taking over all of the Institute's facilities. They had negotiated research contracts in several different areas with the Australian, Japanese and American governments. Anyone who wanted to stay as an experimental subject for the comparative psychology project was welcome, otherwise six months' salary would be paid in lieu of notice.

I sat down next to the cat.

"What shall I do?" I asked her.

There was a scuffling in the bushes and she sprang up to continue her depredations on the rodent population, leaving me to consider my own question.

A small riot broke out the following morning when one of the units strolled out alone to get a blast of sunlight. A gang of enraged scientists showed they didn't care about 'Off switches by beating it to pieces. When I heard, I had to see if anything was salvageable. It was Six. I'd never cared for Six, but seeing it like that was an almost physical blow to me. Delicate legs lay scattered and broken, and the body was mangled beyond repair. Its eyes, gazing blindly at the sky , were cobwebbed with fine cracks, I began to cry, not for Six, but for myself.

Those involved in the attack lost their severance pay and the rest of us were shipped off to Australia within a week. Only Professor Gee and the administrative staff stayed on.

The few days I had left on the island I spent tinkering with my cat. There was nothing else left for me to do, since the incomplete artificial octopus would remain the property of the Institute.

I was flown out in a plane all to myself, because there had been a few hysterical threats to my health from my former colleagues. I carried the artificial cat up the steps to the plane and turned for a last look at Grove Island. There was a single bubble of white cloud in the perfect sky. The palms were bending before a strengthening wind and appeared to be bowing in deference to the cluster of white buildings at the centre of the island, the research labs. I groaned. The cat nuzzled my chest with her hard head and purred.

The action committee, without me, removed themselves to the United States, where the Institute's funds are based, and began a hopeless lawsuit. Because of my involvement with Professor Gee's project and the contracts it had won for the Grove I was not long without employment, though I don't suppose I shall ever get back to my real work again.

A few months after I left, the units gave up comparative psychology to concentrate on less messy areas of research. So much for the fascinating nature of Homo Sapiens. Hearing that Professor Gee was in hospital in Japan, I visited him there, but he did not remember me. He sat hunched in a chair, staring at a mark on the wall.

"I know what the problem is," I told him anyway. "To be truly alien, they'd have to evolve in an alien environment. What happened was that they evolved into an organism perfectly adapted to the environment they found themselves in, to the Grove Island Institute."

The mark on the wall flexed its legs and strolled off towards the ceiling.

© Susan Beetlestone 1990, 2004.
"An Artificial Life" was first published in Interzone #34, Mar/Apr 1990.

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