Digital Digital Burgess Conference Reviews:
Tim McCormick
Conference was held August 29-September 1 1997, Banff Alberta, Canada

The stated aims of the meeting (according to the programme) were to "provide an interdisciplinary forum for the exchange of ideas between natural scientists, computer scientists, and artists" including "demonstrations of digital tools that model organisms and living systems." This means that the meeting sat at an intersection between palaeobiology, computer science, social science and the arts, and the attendees included representatives of all those fields - the sort of people an academic palaeontologist like me does not normally get to meet. The role of the Burgess Shale was really that of an icon or mascot for the meeting. Sponsorship came from, among others, Silicon Graphics, British Telecom, Sun Microsystems and Intel, so clearly there is industry interest in the link between evolution and computing.

The meeting opened with a keynote session open to the general public. Presentations included the mesmerising NHK film/computer graphic documentary on the Burgess animals; Randle Robertson of the Burgess Shale Foundation who hope to open a visitor centre in Field; Paul Johnston from the Royal Tyrrell Museum who described the display they are designing and discussed aspects of reconstructing extinct organisms for the public; and Des Collins on the importance of the Burgess Shale.

Day 2 saw about 35 of us make the non-trivial hike to Walcott's quarry on the Burgess Shale, led by Des Collins, and in the company of a Discovery Channel camera crew.

The morning of Day 3 was Palaeo Morning: Bill Riedel introduced the proceedings; Stefan Bengtson discussed issues surrounding the use of today's life as key to understanding past life; Roy Plotnick showed how computer models can help in understanding the response of ecosystems to perturbation; Bruce Runnegar introduced the systematic method and discussed virtual reconstructions of fossil organisms; Richard Gordon illustrated differentiation waves on axolotl embryos, and showed how they may relate to the generation of Bauplans.

The afternoon of Day 3 was Artificial Evolution Afternoon: Tom Ray (ATR) showed us Tierra which explores the dynamics of evolution and creation of diversity among digital "organisms" which reproduce with mutation; Larry Yaeger (Apple) discussed what it means to be "alive" with illustration from his "PolyWorld" program in which virtual creatures with artificial neural net brains reproduce sexually and compete for food; Karl Sims (Genetic Arts, Inc.) of "Panspermia" (the computer graphic movie, not the theory) fame showed us "evolved" (through crossover and mutation) art and some very funny movies of virtual creatures which exhibit learned behaviours including swimming and walking. He also had his creatures compete for a "desirable object" in a memorable sequence of 1-on-1 bouts. Demetri Terzopoulos (U of Toronto, Intel) showed us his extremely life-like virtual fish with their own cognitive processes and learned swimming and schooling behaviours.

Day 4 started with P Prusinkiewicz (U of Calgary) illustrating modelling of living and extinct plants (including Cooksonia, Lepidodendron) using the method known as L-systems; Christian Jacob (U of Calgary) modelled plant recolonisation of cleared land and showed how genetic algorithms can be used to model plant evolution; Ricardo Colasanti (Cyberlife) showed how a surprisingly simple cellular automaton can model plant growth and response to light and nutrient conditions; Chris Winter and Paul Marrow (British Telecom) spoke about how this high tech company believes that understanding evolution and origins of diversity may be important in optimising software efficiency; Rajarshi Das (Los Alamos Nat. Lab.) discussed the way in which sophisticated computation can emerge in simple dynamic systems and the implications for understanding emergent collective behaviour.

On the afternoon of Day 4, Steve Grand (Cyberlife, and "Creatures" creator) discussed virtual pets and gave more thoughts on what "life" is; Bruce Damer (DigitalSpace Corp.) discussed cyberspace as a real place. We ended with three artists: Steven Rook showed us the results of "aesthetic selection" of genetic (i.e. "bred") artwork; Darrel Anderson talked about his algorithmic art and "GroBot", his 3D drawing and programming environment for children; Joel Hagen discussed past and present perceptions of extraterrestrial life and showed us his museum of "alien fossils".

The meeting closed with another evening keynote which was open to the local public, at which Sims, Rook, Yaeger and Ray reprised their performances.

OK, so not everything was fine and dandy. Interdisciplinary interaction, especially among people with such diverse backgrounds and agendas, is unlikely to run completely smoothly, and it did not here. There were a few misunderstandings caused during the open discussions by misconceptions, preconceptions, and misuse of terminology, and the discussion sessions often did not get anywhere. Also it seemed to me that the "Stately and Progressive Unfolding of the Story of Life from Slime to Humans" image of evolution, as opposed to the "Many-Branched Tree" image that most of us hold dear, coloured the perceptions of many of the non-palaeontologists, and of course their picture of the fossil record was skewed by the one example they were being shown - the Burgess Shale. Having said that, all non-palaeos I spoke to were interested in the subject and wanted to learn more (but maybe they were just a captive audience).

Also there was a definite problem in that some of the talks and discussion sessions were summarised for the Conference web site, but this summarisation was done by none specialists. Although I am sure the summarisers did their best, it does mean that what is recorded is a vastly oversimplified version of what was actually said, and in some cases has resulted in statements being attributed to people who do not remember making them (and some of the statements do not make sense in the English language).

That said, I found these 4 days a very rewarding experience. I have long thought that computer modelling (possibly including "evolutionary computation") could be a very useful tool in several areas of paleobiology, and some of the presentations at this meeting have helped me to focus some of my own ideas. I understand preparations are underway for a second conference in San Francisco in October 1998 - if it does not clash with GSA it may well be worth a few more palaeontologists going and taking a look.

Congrats to conference organiser Bruce Damer and the staff of the Banff Centre for the Arts.

BTW, explanations of L-systems, cellular automata, genetic algorithms can be found on the web, often by following links from the Digital Burgess Homepage. Alternatively, there is a book "Artificial Life" by Steven Levy which is a good way into the field.

Review by Tim McCormick

Department of Palaeontology, The Natural History Museum
Cromwell Road, London SW7 5BD, United Kingdom
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