19-23 August 2010
Conference Report by James King
Alife XII was held at the University of Southern Denmark in Odense at the end of August 2010. About 300 people attended, most of whom gave a paper at one of the many parallel sessions. A diverse range of topics were covered: from the origins of life through to the latest developments in synthetic cells with a healthy dose of philosophy and robotics rounding out the program.
Steen Rasmussen opened this year's proceedings by noting that the very first conference held at Los Alamos in 1987 had focussed almost solely on the simulation of living systems. Since then, the emphasis has shifted towards synthesis but the core interest of the Alife community has remained the same: understanding the essence of what life is. Rasmussen went on to propose that the Alife community might next focus their attention on applied Alife - living technology that is adaptive, self-maintaining and self-repairing.
One of the recurring themes at the conference was the evolution of evolvability. Before evolution can take place, the mechanism by which it occurs must itself evolve. How did the the central dogma of biology, which most synthetic biologists probably take for granted, come into being?
This question, first articulated by Manfred Eigen in 1971 (and since known as Eigen's Paradox), remains unresolved. But several papers proposed ways in which the Alife community could explore the problem. Taking the simulation approach, Simon Hickinbotham and colleagues at the University of York presented three artificial chemistries aimed at modelling three distinct phases of the early development of life on Earth in a paper entitled The Blind Watchmaker's Workshop. Richard Watson and colleagues at Southampton and Sussex universities argued that a process of adaptation without natural selection might be able to explain the origins of evolution.
Bridging the gaps between the computational and chemical approaches in Alife research was another big theme epitomised by John McCaskill's work to integrate electronic microprocessors with chemical information systems. The electronic chemical cell project is an attempt to marry the desirable features of electronic technologies, which are easy to program, with chemical systems that are capable of evolution.
Pasquale Stano summarised the state of the art in minimal cell, protocell and artificial synthetic cell research, before discussing the latest findings in his work at the Luisi Lab. His research into the minimal size of a viable cell revealed some highly unexpected, counterintuitive and statistically improbable results. Watching Stano's presentation, I was struck by how unlikely it would have been to obtain these results through simulation alone. It would seems that there is no substitute to getting your hands wet in the lab.
Robots were rife at the conference and came in all shapes and sizes. Harold Lipson and Jonthan Hiller at Cornell University gave a talk about their work using genetic algorithms to design robots made from continuous substances rather than discrete parts. These resembled blobs that wriggled and wobbled around their simulated environments. Lipson and Hiller then demonstrated an ingenious technique to take these simulated robots and print them out into a functional 3D form out of a single, continuous material.
Philosophy and theory of biology were often the busiest sessions at the conference. One of the final presentations that I attended was a paper given by Juan Carlos Letelier who was leading a contingent of his students from Santiago. The presentation was only 15 minutes in length and Letelier stated plainly that this simply would not be enough time to describe the theories of Autopoiesis and (M,R) systems. It was enough time, however, to persuade those present that these theories were of prime importance to Alife research and that we should read the work of Robert Rosen, Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela.
My presentation at the conference went well and was generously received considering that I was speaking as a non-expert to an audience of professional researchers. I talked about my work as a speculative designer and my collaborations with members of the SynbioNT network. "Speculation" is often considered to be a pejorative term in science. Francis Crick once dismissed origins of life research as "too much speculation running after to few facts". To me, the value of speculation in a field such as Artificial Life could not be more obvious, whether we are asking questions about the origins of life or the potential impacts of living technologies on society in the future.