"In the beginning" by Steven Rooke
Darwin@Home - The Short and the Long of It
The Short Mission Statement
Darwin-at-Home* is a planetwide effort to create networked digital ecosystems. "D@H" teams strive toward an elusive goal: to observe lifelike evolutionary processes in virtual or robotic space.
D@H platforms run distributed across a large pool of networked computers and interactive permitting people to play a role in shaping each digital biotic ecosystem.
A Longer Explanation - The Hypothesis
It is our hypothesis that compute space is now or soon will be sufficiently rich and complex to support a reasonable "lifelike" simulation of the processes and products of evolution.
The Darwin@Home project is a challenge to multiple, independent teams to construct platforms in software, hardware or a combination, to test this hypothesis. In recent years, several platforms have been built that suggest that this goal is attainable. We believe that by pooling efforts and creating a shared community of interest, we will quicken the journey along the path of innovation.
But don't take it from us, hear what Gerald de Jong, a D@H platform builder, has to say about the effort (and he should know, he came up with the name Darwin@Home!).
The hypothesis and the entire Darwin@Home endeavor evoke a whole series of questions. Who is to say what evolution is, and how will the hypothesis be tested? Will evolutionary processes emerge within a sufficiently well designed digital ecosystem, will they require interfaces with physical reality, or will the minds and hands of humans be required to "tweak" system parameters? Lastly, what are the engineering, moral and philosophical consequences of the creation of bona fide evolutionary processes within human technology?
Challenges and Insights
Of course the Darwin@Home challenge can only motivate participating teams if the goal is worthy and intellectually compelling, provides insight and understanding of the Earth's biological heritage and is to some extent visually interesting and interactive for end users. Like SETI@Home, Darwin@Home will run across thousands (or millions) of computers, using spare computing cycles, and providing visual feedback as the engines run, with the ability of some to interact with the simulated ecosystem and its inhabitants.
Karl Sims' Evolving Virtual Creatures
Tom Ray's Tierra
Darwin@Home rides on the shoulders of giants and a lot of prior work along the direction of this vision. Two exemplar platforms are Karl Sims' Evolving Virtual Creatures (1991) and Tom Ray's Tierra (1990). To learn more about prior art and the people behind it, visit the Biota.org pages.
Where are we going? A Competitive Prize!
A long term goal of Biota.org has been to create an international prize competition called the AlivePrize. Darwin@Home is a first step along that road by encouraging the community of people developing platforms and providing them resources and intellectual contributions. In a couple of years after the Darwin@Home efforts have matured, we will pursue the goal of financing and managing a competitive prize modeled after the Ansari X-Prize and the DARPA Grand Challenge.
How can I Get Involved?
Get involved by trying out some D@H platforms on your computer, by contributing your thoughts to the community Blog, by joining our mailing list or by building your own D@H platform! Want to explore more about this whole subject area? See our Related Resources.
We would like to thank Gerald de Jong for coming up with a great name for this effort: Darwin@Home (Darwin at Home). In Gerald's words:
I've been building structures, and letting a simple genetic algorithm loose to have these structures learn to run like the wind. I'm currently working to create a website and web start application which facilitates many client machines evolving creatures in parallel (not seti@home but darwin@home), so that we can really see what it's possible to brew with this survival-of-the-fittest stuff. I want a whole zoo of these things and especially ones that other people have dreamt up.
Gerald is building a Darwin@Home platform based on his years of work on "fluidiom". Gerald also writes...
I came up with the darwin@home name to explain to people what fluidiom will be about, but i guess it's indicative of the general approach of partitioning the problem of a genetic algorithm and distributing it among volunteer number crunchers. The advantage that darwin@home has over seti@home is that it's easy to reward participants by showing them the frequent evolutionary breakthroughs: "hey, look what my machine created last night"!
PS: Thanks and Gerald for the cool logo!
Virtual creatures of the Burgess Shale,
used in the Digital Burgess Conference (1997)
Courtesy Professor Kerry Clark
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