Digital Digital Burgess Conference Follow-up:
Paul Marrow's Review
Conference was held August 29-September 1 1997, Banff Alberta, Canada

Artificial Life, the Natural Sciences and Industry: an example from British Telecom

The natural sciences have inspired a number of developments in computer science in recent years. Examples are genetic algorithms and evolutionary programming as well as the emerging discipline of Artificial Life. At BT Labs we are looking to the natural sciences, and in particular to biology, to provide new directions for solutions to industrial problems. Our work falls into three areas; evolutionary software, visualisations and virtual worlds, and modelling of complex systems. We are working in these areas in order to solve two major problems which BT, as a telecommunications company, faces.

The first is the need to develop new, intelligent, services which can be supplied over telecommunications networks. This is needed to replace the declining revenue from more conventional services as technological advances lead to lower costs of providing telecommunications. Our work on visualisation techniques and the development of virtual worlds is one example of the work going on at BT Labs which addresses this problem.

The second problem is the increasing complexity of the software and hardware systems used to control telecommunications systems. These have increased in complexity over the past decades and we have no reason to believe that they will not continue to increase in complexity in the future. One way we are tackling this problem is to study evolutionary computation - in particular we are interested in evolving software. We are also aware that the current architecture of digital computers may not be the most appropriate for all applications of managing complexity. Consequently, our group also focuses on models of complex systems, such as the brain and the immune system, with a view to developing new computational architectures.

Our work addresses real-world rather than pure scientific problems. What implications, if any, does it have for the natural sciences? Firstly, it depends upon underlying biological metaphors. While these are simplifications of the detail found in real biological systems, we need the work of biologists and others to provide the metaphors we can work with. Second, there is the possibility that the computational techniques we develop may inspire research in other scientific fields. We believe that cross-fertilisation of ideas between industrial and academic scientists is essential.

For further information, see the BT Artificial Life Group web pages at

by Paul Marrow

Research Scientist
BT Laboratories
Ipswich, UK

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