Saturday, November 03, 2007

No wonder I feel like a sprite

Next year sees the release of a new video game from Electronic Arts called SPORE™. Invented by Will Wright, the creator of The Sims, SPORE is described as 'an epic journey that takes you from the origin and evolution of life through the development of civilisation and technology and eventually all the way into the deepest reaches of outer space'. During the game you'll be able to evolve a creature through five phases: Tidal Pool, Creature, Tribal, Civilisation and Space.
It all looks pretty good fun and if you want a preview, visit the website (my thanks to Todd Sutton of the Sagan 4 Project for the heads up).

As it happens, the game mirrors some interesting reading this week. I've been having my mind bent and battered by Marcus Chown's remarkable book The Never-ending Days of Being Dead. A great title by anyone's standards, but a great book on cosmology too. One chapter talks about maverick physicist Stephen Wolfram and his extraordinary research into complexity in nature. Basically, Wolfram believes that the universe is being generated by something like a simple computer programme.

Working with the most basic home computers back in the early 1980s, Wolfram developed a series of programmes called Cellular Automata. In these, he would start with a simple object - such as a line of white and black squares - and then create a set of rules for each line to reproduce. Examples were things like 'If a particular cell has a black square on either side of it, it should turn black on the second line'. As he reports himself, as every new line was created, some patterns would appear but then fizzle out, while others would repeat endlessly. But, every so often, something more interesting would happen. Patterns of black squares would form into discrete 'objects' and would remain stable despite the fact that they were being constantly destroyed and regenerated. This made Wolfram ask the question, 'When nature creates a rose or a galaxy or a human brain, is it merely applying simple rules over and over again? Is this its big secret?'

Intrigued, Wolfram has spent the last two decades researching the concept of 'complexity from simplicity by simple rules' and has had some remarkable results. One such is the so-called Cellular Automaton Rule 110, a particular set of instructions that generates incredibly complex forms from a single black cell. As he puts it, 'Nature's program may be expressible in as few as four lines of program code.' His findings are recorded in a mammoth self-published work called A New Kind of Science.

In The Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy the late Douglas Adams suggested that the Earth and all life upon it were part of a gigantic computer programme to find the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything. In a curiously ironic twist, it could be that he was right all along.

He'd have liked that.

References:

The Never-ending Days of Being Dead by Marcus Chown (ISBN-10: 057122055X,ISBN-13: 978-0571220557 )
A New Kind of Science by Stephen Wolfram (ISBN-10: 1579550088, ISBN-13: 978-1579550080)
Screenshots taken from the SPORE™ site.

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