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Conway’s Game of Life

A friend passed this story on to me–Man Builds Computer Inside Computer Game. It reminded me of John Conway’s Game of Life, which I was fascinated with in grad school. This is a “cellular automaton” simulation invented by Cambridge mathematician John Conway. “This game became widely known when it was mentioned in an article published by Scientific American in 1970. It consists of a collection of cells which, based on a few mathematical rules, can live, die or multiply. Depending on the initial conditions, the cells form various patterns throughout the course of the game.” In grad school I wrote a program (in Turbo Pascal) to simulate the Game of Life; this was part of a study I did for a grad-level EE course on neural networks, where I showed that the Life cellular automata could be constructed using properly connected and weighted neurons in a neutral net. Now, you can find simulators online — see, e.g., John Conway’s Game of Life. More information at Lifesuite. What reminded   (includes a simulator). As explained on the Wikipedia article on Conway’s Game of Life “It is possible to construct logic gates such as ANDOR and NOT using gliders. It is possible to build a pattern that acts like a finite state machine connected to two counters. This has the same computational power as a universal Turing machine, so the Game of Life is theoretically as powerful as any computer with unlimited memory and no time constraints: it is Turing complete.”

See various demos on YouTube, such as this one:

In 1988, when I wrote that paper, I was in grad school pursuing my MSEE and about to start my first year of law school. One reason I went to law school was that while pursuing my BSEE and MSEE I got more and more interested in philosophy, political philosophy, etc., as some offhand comments in the paper indicate:

In the summer of 1986, a conference on cellular automata was held at MIT. The use of automata as models for exploration and prediction in such diverse fields as economics, neurophysiology, art, pattern recognition, parallel computing, circuit design, evolution and physics was discussed.

The complexity of LIFE and cellular automata in general–and therefore the neural networks which can represent them–has convinced some scientists that automata might even be able to create life. After all, von Neumann has already shown that automata can reproduce and this can be shown specifically with LIFE as well).

Given a large enough LIFE plane, with a random scattering of the basic shapes–glider guns, blocks, blinkers, ships, eaters–it is conceivable that a type of evolution would occur. That is, shapes that are unsuccessful at surviving would of course die out. Others better at living–due to their structure, reproductive abilities, and defense mechanisms–would of course tend to dominate regions of the LIFE plane. And when any unexpected event happened–such as a stray glider entering a previously successful pattern–this would be like a mutation occurring.

Of course, as in evolution in our world, most mutations would be harmful. But, due to chance, some would be beneficial. In this way, more efficient and complex “animals” could come to exist–possibly to the point where they are actually intelligent and conscious.

As Conway said, “It is no doubt true that on a large enough scale LIFE would generate living configurations. Genuinely living. Evolving, reproducing, squabbling over territory. Writing Ph.D. theses. On a large enough board there’s no doubt in my mind this sort of thing would happen.”

A situation could arise in which a simulation of a LIFE plane had progressed so far that conscious life has actually arisen. Then one might wonder whether the engineer running the simulation has the moral right to turn it off–fearing that to do so might possibly be akin to murder. Unfortunately–due to the lamentable dearth of any explicit philosophy whatsoever in the field of engineering, except for a cursory glance at the scientific method–it is not considered to be the role of engineering to answer such questions. Or even, I fear, to ask them.

(Okay, that last was a bit melodramatic and purple, due in part to my youth, and to the stronger sway Rand’s thinking had on me at the time.)

{ 3 comments… add one }
  • Crosbie Fitch October 1, 2010, 11:11 am

    You should check out science fiction by Greg Egan who’s developed stories on this theme to a considerable degree.

  • Michael Suede October 5, 2010, 1:49 pm

    Hey Stephan, I didn’t know you had a background in EE.

    You might be interested in seeing some research I’ve dug up on plasma physics.


  • Paul Vahur November 7, 2010, 5:54 am

    I saw this documentary http://www.youtube.com/user/thesecretlifeofchaos and thought of this blogpost.

    BTW, the documentary has two very austrian/anarcho-capitalist points (in the physical world for them, but they mean it also in metaphysical way): order does not need an creator, rather than designer (rulemaker) and future is unknowable.

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