I'm glad they're not real, because if they were, I would have to feed them and they would be all over the house.
--- Isabel Ray.
Evolution is an extremely selfish process. Each evolving species does whatever it can to insure its own survival, with no regard for the well-being of other genetic groups (potentially with the exception of intelligent species). Freely evolving autonomous artificial entities should be seen as potentially dangerous to organic life, and should always be confined by some kind of containment facility, at least until their real potential is well understood. At present, evolving digital organisms exist only in virtual computers, specially designed so that their machine codes are more robust than usual to random alterations. Outside of these special virtual machines, digital organisms are merely data, and no more dangerous than the data in a data base or the text file from a word processor.
Imagine however, the problems that could arise if evolving digital organisms were to colonize the computers connected to the major networks. They could spread across the network like the infamous internet worm [2,8,83,84]. When we attempted to stop them, they could evolve mechanisms to escape from our attacks. It might conceivably be very difficult to eliminate them. However, this scenario is highly unlikely, as it is probably not possible for digital organisms to evolve on normal computer systems. While the supposition remains untested, normal machine languages are probably too brittle to support digital evolution.
Evolving digital organisms will probably always be confined to special machines, either real or virtual, designed to support the evolutionary process. This does not mean however, that they are necessarily harmless. Evolution remains a self-interested process, and even the interests of confined digital organisms may conflict with our own. For this reason it is important to restrict the kinds of peripheral devices that are available to autonomous evolving processes.
This conflict was taken to its extreme in the movie Terminator 2. In the imagined future of the movie, computer designers had achieved a very advanced chip design, which had allowed computers to autonomously increase their own intelligence until they became fully conscious. Unfortunately, these intelligent computers formed the ``sky-net'' of the United States military. When the humans realized that the computers had become intelligent, they decided to turn them off. The computers viewed this as a threat, and defended themselves by using one of their peripheral devices: nuclear weapons.
Relationships between species can however, be harmonious. We presently share the planet with millions of freely evolving species, and they are not threatening us with destruction. On the contrary, we threaten them. In spite of the mindless and massive destruction of life being caused by human activity, the general pattern in living communities is one of a network of inter-dependencies.
More to the point, there are many species with which humans live in close relationships, and whose evolution we manage. These are the domesticated plants and animals that form the basis of our agriculture (cattle, rice), and who serve us as companions (dogs, cats, house plants). It is likely that our relationship with digital organisms will develop along the same two lines.
There will likely be carefully bred digital organisms developed by artificial selection and genetic engineering that perform intelligent data processing tasks. These would subsequently be ``neutered'' so that they can not replicate, and the eunuchs would be put to work in environments free from genetic operators. We are also likely to see freely evolving and/or partially bred digital ecosystems contained in the equivalent of digital aquariums (without dangerous peripherals) for our companionship and aesthetic enjoyment.
While this paper has focused on digital organisms, it is hoped that the discussions be taken in the more general context of the possibilities of any synthetic forms of life. The issues of living together become more critical for synthetic life forms implemented in hardware or wetware. Because these organisms would share the same physical space that we occupy, and possibly consume some of the same material resources, the potential for conflict is much higher than for digital organisms.
At the present, there are no self-replicating artificial organisms implemented in either hardware or wetware (with the exception of some simple organic molecules with evidently small and finite evolutionary potential [25,36,66]). However, there are active attempts to synthesize RNA molecules capable of replication [4,42], and there is much discussion of the future possibility of self-replicating nano-technology and macro-robots. I would strongly urge that as any of these technologies approaches the point where self-replication is possible, the work be moved to specialized containment facilities. The means of containment will have to be handled on a case-by-case basis, as each new kind of replicating technology will have its own special properties.
There are many in the artificial life movement who envision a beautiful future in which artificial life replaces organic life, and expands out into the universe [49,50,62,63,64]. The motives vary from a desire for immortality to a vision of converting virtually all matter in the universe to living matter. It is argued that this transition from organic to metallic based life is the inevitable and natural next step in evolution.
The naturalness of this step is argued by analogy with the supposed genetic takeovers in which nucleic acids became the genetic material taking over from clays , and cultural evolution took over from DNA based genetic evolution in modern humans. I would point out that whatever nucleic acids took over from, it marked the origin of life more than the passing of a torch. As for the supposed transition from genetic to cultural evolution, the truth is that genetic evolution remains intact, and has had cultural evolution layered over it rather than being replaced by it.
The supposed replacement of genetic by cultural evolution remains a vision of a brave new world, which has yet to materialize. Given the ever increasing destruction of nature, and human misery and violence being generated by human culture, I would hesitate to place my trust in the process as the creator of a bright future. I still trust in organic evolution, which created the beauty of the rainforest through billions of years of evolution. I prefer to see artificial evolution confined to the realm of cyberspace, where we can more easily coexist with it without danger, using it to enhance our lives without having to replace ourselves.
As for the expansion of life out into the universe, I am confident that this can be achieved by organic life aided by intelligent non-replicating machines. And as for immortality, our unwillingness to accept our own mortality has been a primary fuel for religions through the ages. I find it sad that Artificial Life should become an outlet for the same sentiment. I prefer to achieve immortality in the old fashioned organic evolutionary way, through my children. I hope to die in my patch of Costa Rican rain forest, surrounded by many thousands of wet and squishy species, and leave it all to my daughter. Let them set my body out in the jungle to be recycled into the ecosystem by the scavengers and decomposers. I will live on through the rain forest I preserved, the ongoing life in the ecosystem into which my material self is recycled, the memes spawned by my scientific works, and the genes in the daughter that my wife and I created.