Artificial Life (AL) is the enterprise of understanding biology by constructing biological phenomena out of artificial components, rather than breaking natural life forms down into their component parts. It is the synthetic rather than the reductionist approach. I will describe an approach to the synthesis of artificial living forms that exhibit natural evolution.
The umbrella of Artificial Life is broad, and covers three principal approaches to synthesis: in hardware (e.g., robotics, nanotechnology), in software (e.g., replicating and evolving computer programs), in wetware (e.g., replicating and evolving organic molecules, nucleic acids or others). This essay will focus on software synthesis, although it is hoped that the issues discussed will be generalizable to any synthesis involving the process of evolution.
I would like to suggest that software syntheses in AL could be divided into two kinds: simulations and instantiations of life processes. AL simulations represent an advance in biological modeling, based on a bottom-up approach, that has been made possible by the increase of available computational power. In the older approaches to modeling of ecological or evolutionary phenomena, systems of differential equations were set up that expressed relationships between covarying quantities of entities (i.e., genes, alleles, individuals, or species) in the populations or communities.
The new bottom up approach creates a population of data structures, with each instance of the data structure corresponding to a single entity. These structures contain variables defining the state of an individual. Rules are defined as to how the individuals interact with one another and with the environment. As the simulation runs, populations of these data structures interact according to local rules, and the global behavior of the system emerges from those interactions. Several very good examples of bottom up ecological models have appeared in the AL literature [34,92]. However, ecologists have also developed this same approach independently of the AL movement, and have called the approach ``individual based'' models [19,40].
The second approach to software synthesis is what I have called instantiation rather than simulation. In simulation, data structures are created which contain variables that represent the states of the entities being modeled. The important point is that in simulation, the data in the computer is treated as a representation of something else, such as a population of mosquitoes or trees. In instantiation, the data in the computer does not represent anything else. The data patterns in an instantiation are considered to be living forms in their own right, and are not models of any natural life form. These can form the basis of a comparative biology .
The object of an AL instantiation is to introduce the natural form and process of life into an artificial medium. This results in an artificial life form in some medium other than carbon chemistry, and is not a model of organic life forms. The approach discussed in this essay involves introducing the process of evolution by natural selection into the computational medium. I consider evolution to be the fundamental process of life, and the generator of living form.