The Mission of Biota (circa 1996)
The mission of Biota.org is to create and deploy digital tools and environments for research and learning about living systems. These tools could range from simple genetic algorithms all the way up to entire synthetic ecosystems. Biota.org will seek to provide all of these experiences to a large audience through the medium of virtual environments on the Internet. Biota.org will also hold conferences and seminars on its key themes.
The specific concrete tasks of Biota.org are:
- To define an open-standard grammar (Metaforms) for the collaborative design and creation of virtual lifeforms, life processes, and ecosystems.
- To establish a public repository for these creations which supports their evolution within a networked environment.
A Treatise: Life Crossing a New Barrier
By Bruce Damer, November 29-30, 1996
In its 3.8 billion year existence, the great collective of Earth's life forms has pushed through barriers to express itself into new realms. It may have begun with the barrier of cold water around hot, chemical rich oceanic vents. Another likely barrier was the radiation-exposed top layers of ocean. The water-air barrier, the water-land barrier and then the land-air barrier were all breached in turn, allowing life to flow through. Living things were carried across each barrier by other living things. Those surrogate barrier breachers may have been nature's greatest opportunists or just forced into that role by accident. The first waves of simple living forms sweeping through each barrier transformed the new territories and set down the infrastructure for more complex life to follow.
Few would disagree that the Earth-space barrier is the gateway to another great territory. Some argue that thoughts themselves are a viable form of life, expressed across the mind-meme barrier through language. We posit that another significant barrier is now being breached. It might be called the DNA-digital barrier or the atomic-bitomic barrier. It is the expression of life into the pools and channels of Earth's collective compute spaces. Some may argue that software viruses, evolving genetic algorithms and other forms of what we call 'digital biota' are merely simplistic emulators of real life processes. Others claim that all software is a bona fide form of life, competing ferociously for system resources and human attention.
Regardless of whether we are in the digital pre-biotic era or not, we believe that the crossing of the atomic-bitomic barrier is inevitable and is a valid expression of life into a new and viable ecological realm. As human beings perpetrate a mass extinction on the Earth, so may the collective force of life be pressing against the bitomic barrier, using us as an unwitting surrogate to access a rich new realm for biodiversity. The bitomic expression of life may also be closely linked to the Earth-space and mind-meme expressions.
Freed from the constraints of chemistry and able to travel literally at the speed of light, bitomic life could transit the solar system in hours, but would only take hold if some storage and expressor mechanism was out there to receive it. The digital realm may itself be a kind of surrogate, for if molecular nanofabricators one day permit the re-crossing of the bitomic-atomic barrier, like the ancestors of whales returning to the ocean, digital biota will evolve and emerge well adapted to the vast ocean of space. Thus, life finds a way through the keyhole of human technology escaping both the bounds of Earth and the mortal coils of the double helix.
If digital biota begin as pure creations of our reason and our art, then they are close cousins to memes, those self-replicating thoughts which step from mind to mind. Perhaps digital biota will be ideal carriers of thoughts, capturing whole ecologies of memes and allowing us witness and better understand the seething agent societies of our own minds. Our survival depends primarily upon improving this understanding.
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