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on 26 February 2001
Creation - Life and how to make it by Steve Grand
If God wrote a book about the way he put the universe together, why the laws of physics were the way they were, how he came to design humans and all the other life forms on Earth, and why they are interdependent with each other and with the planet it would be a lot like 'Creation - Life and how to make it' by Steve Grand. Steve is a self confessed digital god. And he can prove it: there are over a million lifeforms created by him running around in computers all over the world. They live in their own world of Albia within the computer game 'Creatures'. These are not your run-of-the-mill scripted non-player-characters common in computer games - these little creatures aren't programmed to behave - their behavior emerges from the way they are. They are artificial life or ALife.
This is a lightly written mind-bendingly deep book. As light and refreshing as sparkling wine but with a kick like a mule. When you realize you have been smooth talked into abandoning the last fifty years of AI research and development along with the majority of current thinking on ALife you know the Grand philosophy has gotten into your blood.
'Creation' isn't just about the inhabitants of a game, it's about what makes something exist at all and what it is to be alive and even more important to humans, what is intelligence? what is a conscious mind and can machines have them too? Steve's challenge to himself was to make life within a computer, not just low life but intelligent life. In this book he describes how to do it from first principles. It's not a book about exactly how to write the code instead it's about how to think about simulations and about living organisms so that there's some point to writing the code. Explaining how to think about the world, starting with understanding subatomic particles, atoms, then molecules, then autocatalytic networks, self-reproducing systems, adaptive systems, intelligence and mind is something Steve is very good at. Must come from all the thinking he does. He says that sitting in a darkened silent room and just thinking is one of his favorite occupations. It's left him with an almost Buddhist sense of detachment from reality as most people conceive of the world. For example his idea of a law of nature is: "Things that persist, persist. Things that don't, don't." Note the resemblence to Newton's: "A body in motion tends to stay in motion. A body at rest tends to stay at rest." After a few of Steve's thought experiments you find yourself coming round to his point of view.
He's pushing for a paradigm shift in our view of reality and like the others before him: Copernicus, Gallileo, Newton, and Einstein, to name a few of these scientific revolutionaries, he's finding it hard work standing the world on its head. But as with his predecessors once the ground has moved under your feet the new place you're standing seems completely right and obvious. It's a new way of seeing that is vital to continued progress. If there has to be a god I wouldn't mind letting Steve have a go at the job - as long as he isn't answerable to another marketing department controlling what his creatures look like. Those cutesy Norns ugh!
Sue Wilcox bio: Sue Wilcox writes about ALife virtual worlds and other other technologies that define the edges around and between lifeforms. She chaired the Biota ALife conference in San Jose in 1999. She has spoken about the future of Alife inside and outside the computer at international conferences for several years.
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on 26 February 2001
The subject matter of this book is the creation of artificial life, a science at the dawn of a new era. In it the author gives a fascinating insight into the design of Creatures, his million selling computer program hailed by many to be a milestone in the development of artificial life.
However, to me some of the most interesting issues raised within it were concerned with the very meaning of life itself. Bringing together evolutionary science, quantum physics, genetics, biology, and computer science Grand examines the Mind, Intelligence, our Conscious and the meaning of Free Will. This brings us to a new point of understanding, not only for the world around us, but also for the virtual worlds we can create.
Written with humor and style, this is truly a thought-provoking book. One, which I'm sure, will make its mark as a work of great importance and be an inspiration to a new breed of thinkers to come.
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In recent years the volume of popular science books has expanded exponentially. Unfortunately, publishers have lowered their quality thresholds in order to get more books out of the door.
All of which increases the satisfaction when you find one of the gems.
Creation is a book in 2 parts - firstly Steve Grand demolishes your view of the universe, and then he explains how he created 'life' in the computer program Creatures.
Without the early groundwork, the second part would be interesting but in a 'so what?' kind of way. But viewed as a whole, the Creatures program emerges as a very clever approach to artificial life.
In passing the book also looks at other approaches to artificial life, but not in great detail, and as such this book is quite narrow in scope, but not annoyingly so.
Creation makes you look at the world slightly differently and opens up a whole load of new possibilities, which is exactly what popular science books should do.
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on 29 June 2014
Steve Grand's book was mentioned in Brad Stone's bio of Jeff Bezos, 'the everything store', which lead me to buy it myself a decade after Bezos. It's a very interesting explanation of how persistent, self replicating forms emerge layer by layer, with the rules at each level having little direct relationship with the ones below. It means you can create a complex persistent robust system that works without actually working on the system. Instead you can work on the rules of the layer from which it emerges. Small changes in the layer below produce changes in the one above. Some will be big, dramatic changes. Others will be unnoticeable. It may be hard to work out which will do what. But once you tune it right, the emergent system can be stable and self sustaining. That's what intrigued Bezos in his design of Amazon in the early 2000's, and you can see why. It is leverage.
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on 22 July 2012
It saddens me to see so many glowing reviews of this book.

My background: 26 year old Computer Science BA/PhD from the University of Oxford, UK. Many-years-long fascination with neural networks, genetic programming etc, and implementation of some of the most modern complex techniques in aforementioned fields.

After reading the recommendations and reviews of this book, I was expecting something revelatory, inspirational and scientific. This book is, sadly, none of these things.

Steve Grand's book contains 15 chapters. 13 of these are self-indulgent narcissistic ramblings with superbly information deficient prose such as:

"We have uncovered the most important law of nature, and it is this: Things that persist, persist. Things that don't, don't."

These chapters combined feel like a botched attempt at Godel Escher Bach stardom, not only falling far short but failing to leave the ground at all.

The remaining 2 chapters are the closest to describing the Creatures implementation that you'll get. However these too are shockingly waffle-rich and information-poor. There's a reason for this: the "chemistry" Steve implements is crude and irrelevant to the creatures' successful mental evolution, and the "unique brain" he describes is nothing more than a simple neural network with a finite number of neurons such that those firing the least over time get disconnected and reconnected in a new, random position. The system he describes is essentially the world's worst implementation of genetic algorithms and genetic programming.

At time of writing, Steve has a video on kickstarter, a "make my project a reality by giving me money" site where you can advertise projects you need money to complete. He's raised money for "Grandrions", what he's publicly announced as a groundbreaking AI project. After researching this project, I can tell you several facts: (i) The kickstarter video is even more embarrassing than this book (ii) Grandrions is equally unremarkable, from the first video reveal it appears to be a software simulation of the "learning like a human" robots we see ubiquitously in modern science news, nothing unique or novel in any way, and (iii) he's shockingly behind schedule, despite accruing over twice the amount of funds he'd set as a target on kickstarter. The fact Steve has been awarded an OBE is an indictment of the intellect at the core of our government and the Queen's administration.

Go read about Gene Expression Programming by Candida Ferreira, An Introduction to Genetic Algorithms by Melanie Mitchell, or almost any Neural Networks text out there to learn about "real" AI and efficient machine learning. Don't waste your time on this dross.
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on 10 April 2001
I really enjoyed this book. The first part explains and justifies, to my mind completely convincingly, that artificial minds should be possible in a computer and sets out a philiosophy for creating them. It's very well thought out, but not at all stuffy - there's lots of humour and vitality. My main dissapointment, the reason I gave it 4 stars not 5, is that when he describes how the Creatures work, they don't fit his own philiosophy, and so cannot be considered intelligent or alive. Basically he applied a philiosophy that he already rejected earlier in the book. Maybe this was due to processing power constraints, I don't know. Overall though it's excellent and I hope other researchers follow up and build on the work.
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on 25 July 2003
Even though I never got around to playing the game I always had an interest in it and what it could do. It was really helpful to me as I working on a project in 'AI in Game Development' for my degree. I had some idea of how to implament AI in a game but seeing how it was done for real was a great help.
Don't buy this book for details of how to develop a computer game. That isn't what it's about. Nearly all of it is theory about how and why to do it.
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on 31 August 2009
The basic premise is that at an atomic level matter is always changing and so the secret sauce of living systems is therefore the recipe, blueprint, whatever you want to call it, that informs how the matter should interact and replicate. So given "life" is the recipe not the stuff, if you make a similar recipe using different stuff (i.e. character in computer game) you can stretch definitions and call it a living creature.
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on 20 January 2015
complex book, need to think about what they are saying
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on 11 December 2014
Long winded and takes time to get to the point.
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