[-empyre-] self-modification, emergence
I'm going to have a go at self-modifying this tangent back in the
direction of a-life. Self-modification might also be thought of as
adaptation, learning, innovation... and depending on your view of
biology and what constitutes a "self" then you might also find it in
evolution. Lamarckian evolution theorises adaptive self-modification
which can be passed on to the next generation. While it's been
overtaken by Darwinian theories, it's not a done deal - there is some
controversial science that suggests that parts of the immune system can
pass on acquired traits (Ted Steele, Lamarck's Signature - see for eg
http://www.abc.net.au/rn/science/ockham/stories/s14075.htm). If you
stretch the idea of "self" out to a species (or in to a gene) then
Darwinian evolution is self-modification too.
A-life, and a-life art, involve the pursuit of the emergent moment of
excess and surprise. Emergence is a knot unto itself, but the ongoing
emergence that characterises biological life, requires adaptive
self-modification. Thinking about self-modifying code (or other
technological systems) quickly runs us into the problem of brittle
grammars: basically, how likely is it that some random "mutations"
applied to a bit of c++ code, are going to result in code that is even
functional, let alone interesting / adaptive? Imagine a robot trying to
self-modify by picking parts from the shelves of an electronics store.
The predefined grammars of our technological forms are not an ideal
substrate for self-modification. Most artificial evolution gets around
this by creating a grammar of its own. Some grammars are very rich (eg
Karl Sims' or Steven Rooke's image breeders) and some are more limited
(eg Latham's virtual sculptures), but all are constructed and involve
their own constraints.
My favourite example of self-modification and emergence is the work on
evolved circuit designs by Adrian Thompson of the COGS lab at Sussex
(http://www.cogs.susx.ac.uk/users/adrianth/ade.html). Basically he used
a programmable chip (a FGPA, field gate programmable array) to "breed"
and automatically test thousands of electronic circuits, on a task such
as distinguishing between two different frequencies at their inputs.
Many many generations later, circuits were evolved that indeed
fulfilled the task. But when the evolved circuits were analysed, they
were found to operate according to no known principles of circuit
design... for one thing they were tiny and incredibly efficient (using
only a small portion of the array) but also they used no internal
clock, and instead seemed to use the dynamics of interlinked feedback
loops to analyse the input. Best of all, the circuits didn't work so
well when the same design was transferred to another chip: the evolved
design made use of the specific physical characteristics of its
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