Log Illustrated - a publication from the Physics RoomLog 14 - Life and Death
Log 14 - Life and Death

Are ‘Friends’ Electric?
Charlotte Craw


The possibility - however sceptically approached - of ‘thinking’ machines has seen a focus, at the level of both scientific experiment and cultural representation, on - movie by Spielberg out now! - Artifical Intelligence. This focus has emphasised a view of humans as emotional, fleshy, and possessed of a body in opposition to the disembodied cold logic of the machine. This has replaced an earlier dichotomy, in which rational and calculating humans were defined against irrational and instinctive animals. In the age of machinic intelligence, represented by such texts as Blade Runner, animals are almost extinct, replaced by clever reproductions. Two recent shifts are drawing attention back to animals, on the one hand, the emergence of third wave cybernetics and the quest for Artificial Life (ALife), and on the other, a theoretical reconsideration of animal life and humans within the context of cybernetic systems.

Cybernetics (the word was coined from the Greek for ‘steersperson’ by Norman Wiener in 1941) is the study of information systems1. Early cybernetics attempted to create homeostatic systems—systems that self-corrected to return to their stable, original state (the most obvious example is an air-conditioner that keeps the air at a stable temperature). These computer systems were also seen as largely self-contained units.

Since the late ’80s, some computer programmers have moved away from attempting to emulate (human) intelligence to focus on creating ‘simulations’ of these life-forms, or Artificial Life. These simulations work on an ‘emergent’ basis, where randomness, turbulence and noise are not disruptions to the system but the source of its ability to evolve. These endeavours extend out of the computer screen into robotic models of insectile, reptilian, crustacean and mammalian life. "Robot III", for instance, is robot based on a cockroach. Pity that its 13.6kg mass can only lift itself up from a crouch, unable to walk.2

Outside of the ALife laboratory, these efforts are being matched by creatures created for leisure-time consumption. You can create an online animal at the Technosphere3, kill your Tamagotchi (or its more complex successor Furby), or tickle Tickle-Me Elmo4. While the Technosphere obviously draws on ALife programmes, the latter three are the commercially released forerunners of robotic imitations of pets developed for urban humans. Like the experimental programmes and robots, these all regard life as, to some extent, a quality of cybernetic systems - that is, as a quality of the relation of system components rather than as an being inherent in some types of material.

Polish sci-fi writer Stanislaw Lem once wrote a short story (actually the introduction to an imagined book5), in which a scientist taught generations of bacteria to read and to access information from the library that had once stood on the site of his laboratory. 30-odd years later, Lem’s story still sounds amusing, but the scientist’s view - that bacteria can be considered as information systems capable of communicating - is shared by other, real life, scientists. The Bacterial Cybernetics Group in Tel Aviv6 consider bacteria as adaptive cybernetic units capable of self-awareness. They put selective pressure on colonies of bacteria, exposing them to paradoxical environmental conditions that require each organism to act in contradictory manners. In such conditions, creativity emerges as a response to surroundings, a response that can be interpreted, according to the group’s on-line documentation, as "cooperative self-improvement or cooperative evolution". Unlike Darwinian survival of the fittest individual, this is a collaborative effort: the colony forms a web which can exercise its creativity and solve what is a paradox at an individual level.

An emphasis on inter-special communications for mutual benefit is also found in the work of Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan7. Their work looks at the parasite Mixotricha paradoxa. Found in the hindgut of a South Australian termite, M. paradoxa has five distinct kinds of internal and external symbionts living on, in and with it Though the scientific name suggests an individual organism, it is difficult to say where M. paradoxa ends and its millions of symbionts begin.

Such work has inspired re-considerations of the thousands of animals that secure what we think of as ‘human’ individuality. The lush prose of Alphonso Lingis and the Deleuzean-inspired writing of Luciana Parisi and Linda Birke8 draw attention to human parasites. Human individuality is ensured by thousands of bacteria that maintain our skin. In this confusion of self/other distinctions, the human body is porous, its individuality dependent on its interfaces with thousands of animals.

These processes are contributing to a major re-evaluation of what constitutes life. ALife scientists may not claim that their computer programmes are ‘actually’ alive, but the analogy between life and their simulations considers the former as being, at least in part, a self-organising information system. Unlike the view of human life as downloadable data, capable of being removed from the ‘meat’ in which it resides, these considerations of life-forms as information systems stress life’s material basis. ‘Life’ may be an informational process, but it takes different forms in specific materialities. Bacterial behaviour and ALife simulations can both be viewed as turbulence manifesting itself in different material surroundings and forms9. In these revisions, life comes to be regarded not as a quality that things either have or don’t, but as a sliding scale, where a rock is less alive than a bacteria, less alive again than a frog, or a kauri or a human and computer simulations, they sit somewhere on the scale between rocks and bacteria.

This confusion of animal/machine/human boundaries emphasises the plentitude of animals and other living organisms with which we interact. There is, of course, a need for caution. Treating living animals as informational systems can make them vulnerable to control mechanisms, such as the patents, stock prices and eugenic promises that the Human Genome Project has attracted10. Nevertheless, a renewed focus on animals is important in a world where living organisms are all too often seen as endangered and unnecessary, to be exploited or exterminated. As animals and machines are combined and re-evaluated, animals are no longer the flesh left behind when we all jack off into cyberspace.

Charlotte Craw is host to thousands of species of anaerobic bacteria, colonies of microbes and numerous macrophages. They all live in Auckland with some other humans and a cat.


1. Further information on cybernetics can be found at the Principia Cybernetica Web <http://pespmc1.vub.ac.be/DEFAULT.html>. See also N. Katherine Hayles’ How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature and Informatics (1999), especially on the shift in cybernetics from homeostatic to emergent systems.

2. This and other robot friends can be found in Peter Menzel and Faith D’Aluisio Robo Sapiens: Evolution of a New Species (2000).

3. Technosphere III <http://technosphere.linst.ac.uk/>

4. Ken Goldberg’s The Robot in the Garden (2000) considers, amongst other robots, such commercially available human-machine interfaces.

5. Lem also wrote the novel on which Solaris was based. The story mentioned here can be found in Wielkosc urojona (1973), translated as Imaginary Magnitude (1984).

6. Bacterial Cybernetics Group <http://star.tau.ac.il/~inon/baccyber0.html>

7. Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan. What is Life? (1995).

8. Both of these essays (Linda Birke and Luciana Parisi "Animals, Becoming" and Alphonso Lingis "Bestiality") can be found in Animal Others: On Ethics, Ontology and Animal Life. Ed. H. Peter Steeves (1999).

9. Luciana Parisi and Tiziana Terranova. "Heat-Death: Emergence and Control in Genetic Engineering and Artificial Life" <http://www.ctheory.net/articles.aspx?id=127>.

10. Mae-Won Ho "The Human Genome Sellout and Beyond" <http://www.ctheory.net/articles.aspx?id=30>. See also Parisi and Terranova, for analysis of the possible complicity between turbulent, fluid cybernetic organisms and the global flows of postmodern capital.


Log Illustrated - a publication from the Physics Room