July 25, 2012

Overview of the Artificial Life (ALife) 13 Conference

Artificial Life 13 was a conference held from July 19-22, 2012 in East Lansing, MI, on the campus of Michigan State University and hosted by the NSF-funded BEACON Center. The conference theme was "evolution in action", and featured cutting-edge work  on evolution from theoretical, computational modeling, and experimental domains. Here I have presented an overview of selected tutorials, talks, overarching themes, and posters. The paper presentations were split into two tracks -- therefore I saw about half of all possible presentations. Please see the conference proceedings and program for more information.

The first day (Thursday the 19th), there were a number of workshops and tutorials. These included "The Evolution of Physical Systems", "Neuroevolution", "Artificial Life in Industry", and several on AVIDA software application and design. I ran a workshop with Laura Grabowski called the "Hard-to-define Events" (HTDE) workshop. Details are on the slides below.

There were a number of talks (including the keynote by Nobel laureate Jack Szostak) on protocells. Protocells are "minimal" cells, or cells that contain the minimal components necessary to enable self-replication, information storage, and metabolic function. Protocells are used to study the origins of life, but also may have many applications in the emerging area of synthetic biology

There were also a number of papers on collective behavior (or swarm intelligence) in robots and animals. One talk (by Radhika Nagpal) was on using termites as a template for designing robot swarms that can collectively build structures and enable distributed autonomous networks. There were a number of other talks and posters on this topic, mostly focusing on the assembly and control of robot teams.

The simulation of biology (and biological principles themselves) can now be transferred to physical 3-dimensional models. Related to this are models that capture the physical nature of biological systems. To transfer what we learn on a computer to the physical world, CNC machines can be used to "print" these models using a variety of materials. This allows us to test designs (such as robot body plans) using a set of actual physical forces and conditions. To actually model the physical aspects of biology, our toolkit now goes beyond physics engines. One example of this from the conference is the use of model genetic regulatory networks (GRNs) to approximate the emergence of a phenotype in development. See slide below for more details.
A less prominent but still important part of the conference was the art and philosophy track. The art and philosophy behind Artificial Life focuses on what it means to create artificial and engineered life. One  speaker (Oron Catts) showed demonstrations of his art involving "semi-living" systems (see slide below for more details).

Much of this conference was focused on discovering and exploring ways to simulate processes associated with evolution, whether it be on a computer, in a petri dish, or in some other physical form. In terms of computational evolution, there were two primary approaches covered (see slide below). One of these was AVIDA, which uses an encoded instruction set which can be used to perform a multitude of tasks. The other were variations of a genetic algorithm (GA), which uses a string of binary values as an analogy for DNA and chromosomes. Implicit to both approaches is that populations of these encodings are replicated and selected upon, which results in "evolved" solutions to problems. 

Another approach to evolution was embodied by neurevolution, which simulates what goes on in the brain during learning or task performance. Rather than using a traditional GA, the neuroevolution approach utilizes a modified neural network (NN) architecture, as the focus of the model is neural activity rather than heredity. The Evolutionary Complexity group (EPLEX) -- University of Central Florida and the Neural Networks research group -- University of Texas are major sites of this research. The slide below shows the two main approaches (CPPN and HyperNEAT).

There were a number of talks on experimental evolution. There was an excellent conference on this topic held at the University of Michigan (ECSS 2010) in 2010. The slide below provides an overview of the Long-term Evolution Project run by Rich Lenski at Michigan State. Aside from paper and posters on that project, there was a presentation by Betul Kacar (Georgia Tech) on knocking in ancestral forms of key genes to create a "sub-optimal" bacterial phenotype. These populations would then evolve a means to compensate for this loss, which is experimentally tractable way to look at the evolvability of gene networks.

Below is a sampling of "emerging work" from the paper and poster talks. I chose these (see slide below) as they were the most intriguing to me. These four choices also demonstrate the broad diversity of topics covered.

There were upwards of 50 posters presented in a single session. The range of topics are listed below. As an aside, there were many different type of layout used, ranging from traditional layouts (text, data, conclusions) to more avant-garde approaches (non-sequential images with minimal text).

That's all for this year (which turned out to be quite a lot). Looking forward to Artificial Life XIV, which will likely be held in Europe (as the location alternates between Europe and North America). And keep on evolving....

July 18, 2012

Steve Mann, misunderstood

Steve Mann, contemporary cyborg [1] and a professor in the Electrical Engineering/ Computer Science department at Toronto, was recently ejected [2] from a McDonald's in Paris [3] for wearing a pair of Augmented Reality glasses! His custom-made glasses (EyeTap) are a living archive of sorts -- they allow him to record everything he does (which is apparently where the trouble started). His glasses are also unique in that they have been a part of his body for decades [4]. While people (including myself) have been experimenting with Augmented Reality headsets and content for about a decade, the first potentially viable consumer product (Google Glass) has only recently come on the scene. So in ten years time [5], it might be quite normal to see someone walk into a McDonald's with a headset [6] on and place their order via touch screen. 

Is this what the McDonald's Corporation is afraid of?


[1] His Wikipedia entry calls him the "father of wearable computing". I like the cyborg moniker better. He also invented the Hydraulophone. Below is a timeline showing the design evolution of his headset (also from Wikipedia):

[2] Here is a story from the Daily Mail (UK). It has a lot of pictures (captured with the EyeTap display, of course) and a video explaining how the EyeTap glasses work. And it says he even had a doctor's note! A less comprehensive article is available from NBC, notable for the first sentence: "No shirt. No shoes. No augmented reality glasses. No service."

Scenes from YouTube video: Above: multitasking. Center: fashionable. Below: at work.

[3] Is this typical of a North American tourist? I guess it's convenient.....

[4] They are permanently attached to his skull. I have heard that when he takes them off, he suffers health effects (e.g. severe balance disorder).

[5] That's the way technological innovation seems to evolve. It takes some time (and a few pioneers) to make a technology viable.

[6] headsets are technically called "head-mounted displays", or HMDs. Aside from being deployed in wearable lenses, they are also deployed on car dashboards and using projection systems.

July 9, 2012

Alife XIII Proceedings: now available

The proceedings for Artificial Life XIII [1] are now available. This should include all papers being presented at the conference, in addition to the extended abstracts. A very good and diverse set of papers this year -- enjoy. By the way, my full paper contribution ("Contextual Geometric Structures: modeling the fundamental components of cultural behavior") is the first paper [2] under the Collective Dynamics track.

The program is also available. Nobel prize-winning physician Jack Szostak will be giving the Keynote address on Thursday, July 19 (7:30pm). Also found out that the talk for my paper will be part of Collective Dynamics session III (Networks and Topology) on Saturday the 21rst at 4pm.

[1] The theme of Artificial Life XIII is "Evolution in Action".

[2] I believe the order is alphabetical and not of importance, but it still feels good to be the first paper. It's nice thing to have a last name that begins with "A" -- it can provide a short-term boost to the ego when needed.

July 5, 2012

Amiga Computing, after all these years

There has been a fair amount of ongoing nostalgia since the early 1990s for the Amiga personal computer [1]. Even though the various models of Amiga machines were manufactured on a relatively small scale, people were captivated by the graphics and multitasking capabilities of the AmigaOS [2]. However, Commodore (original maker of the Amiga) went out of business in the early 1990s, which undermined the technology's further development [3].

Here is some basic information on AmigaOS (the best "lost" OS [4] there is) from operating-system.org and YouTube:

Best of Amiga Demos (from 1988!). As you can see from the screen capture, the original Amiga models used floppy disks rather than everything being stored on and run from a hard disk.

Who uses AmigaOS in 2011? As you will see, the floppy disk days are over [see also 5].

The signature demo of the graphics capability was the Boing Ball demo, shown below. The Amiga was also used to drive Video Toaster software, an early non-linear editing system used for generating specialized computer graphics used in television and movie production [6].

Use and development of the Amiga continued sporadically, and the OS evolved to Version 4.x (the current version). Preparing this post got me to thinking about the viability of AmigaOS for mobile devices. In particular, the low-resource multi-tasking and efficient graphics processing capabilities of the AmigaOS would be a very good fit for the current generation of tablet computers. Unfortunately, it is not clear as to the current status of the intellectual property and/or technology development [7]. 

[1] a forthcoming book by MIT Press (which I previewed on Tumbld Thoughts) and a never-say-die fan base.

[2] the Commodore 64 served as the progenitor of the Amiga, as the Amiga combined the usability and graphics capabilities of the C64 with a modern operating system design. MorphOS was a descendent of the AmigaOS designed for PowerPC Macintosh machines (as they shared a similar motherboard architecture at the time).

[3] the development of interesting and sophisticated (for their time) games and software were another matter. Here are a few examples: Demo 1 (on the Amiga 500 circa 1993), Demo 2 ("Sanity" from World of Commodore, 1992), Demo 3 ("Syndrome" from 1994). Keep in mind that these were programmed during the late 80's and early 90's.

For more detailed information, please see a video documentary called "History of the Commodore Amiga" on YouTube: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4,

[4] there is no sign of opening the kernel (Exec) or GUI (Workbench) up to open source developers (at least that I am aware of).

[5] very informative historical and instructive video with lots of information on current AmigaOS apps.

[6] here is a demo video from Newtek on the capabilities of the Toaster, circa 1992.

[7] the latest proprietor of the hardware and software technologies (Amiga Inc) are trying to focus on mobile applications. However, it is appeared that their website has "gone silent" on the matter.

July 2, 2012

Robot Reproduction, as seen on TV

The Season 7 premiere of Futurama [1] features a lesson in robot reproduction [2], which, as it turns out, proceeds much like an evolutionary algorithm [3]. Traits such as body shape (e.g. square "torso") or behaviors (e.g. long arms with bending ability) are directly encoded in the robot genome. The entire process (shown in the episode) relies heavily on recombination. Pictures from the episode (Bender with Son, and Mother, Father, and Child are shown below).

Watch the episode (airs on Comedy Central in the USA or Hulu+) for more details.


[1] cleverly titled "The Bots and the Bees".

[2] according to Matt Groening, the idea of robot reproduction is a very intriguing but "wacky" idea.

[2] phenotypic traits (see Bender's son "Ben") are inherited by the next generation in a manner similar to "building blocks", a technique commonly employed in evolutionary optimization.