1998: Digital Biota II, the Second Annual Conference on Cyberbiology,
Cambridge UK, Sept 10-13, 1998

Conference lecture notes

Why is Life trying to Enter Digital Space?
Bruce Damer
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Digital Biota II, the Second Annual Conference on Cyberbiology
Magdelene College Cambridge, UK
Sept 11, 1998

Apologies in advance for any errors, ommissions or other gaffs from a purely rank amateur in all these fields.

Kevin Kelly writes in "Out of Control" in reference to the Gaia theory that "..summer thunderstorms may be life raining on itself". He also declares that "..the realm of the born.. and the realm of the made.. are becoming one. Machines are becoming biological and the biological is becoming engineered".

Seen from another perspective, alien visitors gazing down on our world from high above would almost certainly declare hominid cities, redwood forests, roadways, termite complexes, power grids, coral reefs and other macro structures as all very interesting growths of the biosystem.

Indeed, the grid-patterned, store and forward, clock-pulsed nature of our city streets would be seen by these aliens mirrored in the design of computer circuitry. And yes, every time I fly over Silicon Valley it looks more and more like an Intel Pentium Processor! In addition, at a deeper level, the aliens would note similarities between the molecular token flow machinery of the cell and the message traffic and control linkage of computer operating systems and networks.

There is strong evidence that stromatolites and other ancient cousins transformed the oceans and atmosphere, adding free oxygen and shaping the geology of continents. Nature has once again contrived a powerful biological catalyst agent and is again raining change on itself. But where is Nature headed this time?

Breaching Barriers

If life first developed around deep hydrothermal vents it must have managed to travel through the blackness from extincting smokers to new sources.

The Stomatolites and their ilk opened a much more energetic biotic highway for those cells fortunate enough to metabolize oxygen, the new pollutant of the day. Steven Rooke will talk later about this Oxygen holocaust and Margulis' symbiogenesis. This highway carried life through the water-air-land barriers to our own time.

Barrier breaching required the constant engineering and co-opting of new supporting machinery. Margulis' eukaryotic symbiots absorbed simpler bacteria along the way up the oxygen and solar energy highways.

Then came the hominid brain and its teams of memes driving these ten digits to write yet more supporting structures for the next journey. Cyberspace began as a mesh for memes but where memes tread can genes be far behind? Will the meme, carefully encoded in its new digital bilipid casement, create a new eukaryotic cell by absorbing the more automatous digital biote?

In a brief 20th century lineage of digital biota we have seen the coming of simple computer viruses, digital creatures as pet things, and larger virtual ecosystems like Tierra, hovering around the few rich cyberthermal bitstreams and feeding centers of human attention.

Will we see in the next century a new life cycle: meme gestation, happening for a time in human minds, meme-gene colonization, replication and mutation in cyberspace, light speed travel, and time stasis in dormant storage, and a chrysalis to moth stage spun into atoms and out into the universe by molecular nanofabrication.

But Why is Life Trying to Enter Digital Space?

Can selfish genes in a sort of collective angst be aware that the clock will ultimately run down? Individuals are programmed to die but do not genes strive to continue for ever? Perhaps these genes created consciousness to contemplate life's origins and its ends. Through us, our genes can now know about their ultimate end. The inevitable end will happen in a distant eon as our red giant sun, starved of hydrogen, consumes all genes and memes still dwelling down in this gravity well. Other ends could be more imminent, including untimely impacts or the impact of the prodigious human CO2 emitter. There is evidence is mounting that the Permian extinction (much more deadly than the more famous Jurassic event) was a near miss with a total greenhouse effect. And perhaps not an absolute extinction but a set-back of a billion years of machinery and atmosphere building is as good as a termination condition.

So will life enter digital space in search of an ultimate persistence? What advantages are there to be gained by evolving to live in such an ephemeral, narrow and arid ecosystem? One advantage is super charged selection, freed from the slow speed of chemical replication and limited supply lines of atoms, the essential genetic machinery can be copied relentlessly rapidly. Of course, the machinery of the ecosystem itself is still atomic and at this point extended relatively slowly by we the memetic partner. When the atomic support system is also spun by the genes of the digital biotes, the pace will pick up dramatically.

One other distinct advantage of digital biota is lightspeed travel. Massless organisms can escape gravity's well easily, and traverse the solar system in mere hours. If Freeman Dyson is right the collective surface of the Oort cloud, Kuiper belt and various comets and asteroids may be the largest and most fertile surface for ex-terrestrial life.

20th Century emissaries to this zone include spacecraft such as Galileo, whose software brain is constantly morphed and improved by the meme partners at JPL. Clearly humans are poorly adapted to a hard vacuum. Preceding us into these realms will need be countless infrastructure builders better suited for life there.

So will we live to see sometime in the next millenium, biologic nano fabricated asteriodal lichens in symbiotic spore spreading colonies in the outer solar system instanced out of cyberspace?

And at least some of Eath's biological eggs will be out of the proverbial single basket. This would be a wonderful legacy that humankind could leave from its time in the biosphere.

Post Notes

Today we open this second annual conference on cyberbiology. All of you are part of a pursuit, a passion, and a community whose beliefs and goals are only now being defined. We met for the first time one year ago in Banff, Canada and trekked to the Burgess Shale to see first hand compelling evidence of life's origins. We will meet again, perhaps at another site of great importance to the understanding of life's origins.

A comment about the poor caliber of the presentations at Alife VI, reductionist, mathematical, procedural and incomprehensible sessions, and pointless "build another robot" presentations.

A note on how inappropriate we are to live outside the Earth's biosphere.

More comments on the evolution of Galileo's brain.

Where are we now? What is out there in the virtual real estate to support the digital biote?

In the next few days, we will take a look at the state of the art of designing whole organism and ecosystems in digital space. I want to close my presentation with a glimpse at some of the worlds I work with and hope that these will stimulate the "how to" discussions.

  • Alphaworld Cityscape see "from space"
  • Active Words AWGate showing users in their avatars inhabiting a community plaza. Multi user inhabited spaces are a natural space for the assisted emergence of a digital biota. Thousands of net users doing a great deal of informal theoretical biology.
  • The evolving blockie creatures of Karl Sims
  • The cyberbiological world Nerve Garden
  • Gerald de Jong's Struck creatures: new swimming fish from Dawkin's coverage of Terzopoulos's swimming fish in Climbing Mount Improbable


Digital Biota 2 is sponsored by



The Contact Consortium