Physical simulations harboring unfamiliar life.

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In this project I will imagine alternative life and build physical illustrations of where it might hide.

"Life" is hard to define. We know it when we see it. But we do not have a no satisfying, all-encompassing definition. Schrödinger looked at the problem from the point of view of theoretical physics and predicted that life needed an "aperiodic crystal" to record and transfer the genetic information accumulated during evolution. Watson and Crick later confirmed the existence of such a crystal in the form of DNA. All of the life we know about on Earth uses an aperiodic molecule like RNA or DNA. But that does not necessarily mean that life cannot exist without these molecules.

I am speculating about the far future and alien present nature of life. And building some functional physical simulations inspired by that speculation to interrogate in the here and now.

The Great Lagrangian Garbage Patch

Transporting fleshy, vulnerable humans through space requires a lot of shielding. We have to be protected from the vacuum of space and the radiation that fluxes through it. Minimizing the mass required for shielding is going to be a key engineering challenge for future space missions. Water works great as a radiation shield and is relatively easy to deal with (can be pumped into inflatable structures) but it's very dense. Smarter materials can block more radiation with less mass. It turns out that there are some living organisms that fall into this category. These living radiation shields use ionizing radiation for nourishment. One example of such an organism is cryptococcus neoformans which can be found growing both in bird poop and the reactor vessel at Chernobyl. A similar lifeform was taken aboard the International Space Station to examine the potential for engineering living radiation shielding for future space missions.

Humans might be a small part of a dense ecosystem aboard space craft of the future. Besides shielding there are benefits in using living organisms to produce food and medicines en route, to help clean the air, alleviate human stress, and potentially more exotic applications like in self-healing composite structural components or helping to monitor for environmental contamination. As we get better at creating synthetic biology it's likely that we replace more and more of our current dead technology with new and improved living equivalents. After all, finding general methods for convincing biological systems to do our bidding would be equivalent to stealing fire from the Gods - the constructs of biology can be viewed as a fantastically advanced form of technology of non-human origin.

Space flight is a uniquely constrained problem space because of the high cost it assigns to the mass of the system doing the flying. Every bit of mass has to be accelerated, and we accomplish acceleration by flinging mass opposite where we want to accelerate. That double cost from mass creates the tyranny of the rocket equation. Mass makes it hard to get where you are going, but it also makes it hard to stop once you get there. As a result the engineering game is both about reducing the amount of mass launched and getting rid of it as efficiently as possible along the way.

An interesting consequence of these constraints for future human colonization of the solar system is that we are going to generate a lot of waste, and a lot of trash. When we launch our rockets we'll leave most of their mass on Earth in the form of hot exhaust gases. When they arrive at their destinations they will either jettison or park most of their mass before landing their cargo and/or crew. For reasons I'll get into elsewhere I guesstimate that humans will be spewing bits of spacecraft around the solar system for around a few hundred years (assuming we survive at all and don't send ourselves back to the stone age). The clock started with Sputnik 1 (or maybe that steel cap from Operation Plumbbob) and ends at some arbitrary point along a curve rapidly approaching its asymptote at zero. That end will come about when we are able to package up the stuff we really care about sending into space (self-replicating systems and a lot of information, I think) without a ceiling of efficiency set by the mass of a human body.

So what happens to all that space junk? What does it look like? If the observations above about the potential utility of living spacecraft are on the mark then the space trash of the future is going to look something like a well-used refrigerator designed by Zaha Hadid and engineered by an artificial intelligence trained on the hallucinated imaginations of John von Neumann left to sit broken for a few summer months in a damp corner of a tropical rainforest. Very likely there will be living systems, engineered materials, and active artificial systems mixed together in these castoffs. And once we've...

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  • Life Predicts Its Own Existence

    Owen Trueblood12/24/2020 at 23:26 1 comment

    One of the primary goals I have for this project is to cut paths for myself and others into the deep forest of abstract insights that researchers are accumulating in the science and mathematics of life. Art is able to do that because it can be slippery, amorphous, and enveloping at the same time - all properties of poor science. Its subjective interpretation is what makes it amorphous and allows it to slip out of the grasp of any one critical perspective. And yet art has the potential to completely modify the trajectory of a person through the world. That world itself can only be illuminated by science, but the perspective we see it from can be modulated by art.

    Before this particular art project is modulating any perspectives usefully I've got to find my own way into the forest of research that has grown deep over the last few centuries around the topic of the nature of life. If I make it through then every path that is not the one that leads directly to the goal will eventually be reclaimed by the forest; maybe including the one I'll describe below.

    Bashful Watchmaker

    Building artificial life simulations is a paradoxical pursuit. In research the work is often motivated by profound wonder at how the unbending and unsympathetic laws of physics can spark and nurture life without deus ex machina appearing to simplify the story. And here in this art project my motivation is the same. But if there are gods then maybe they get a good chuckle out of the struggles of artificial life researchers. Though we dismiss watchmaker Gods as boring plot devices we are doomed to write them implicitly into any story we may hope to tell. That's the nature of the first basilisk I need to kill in making this project.

    The first simulation I'm trying to write myself out of is meant to communicate one of the both surprising and potentially fundamental ideas about the nature of life that I can't stop thinking about. In line with the overall theme of this project the medium is meant to be an "embodied simulation" - in this case a digital simulation of artificial life running in a "robot" that couples it to the outside world. In this context by robot I mean a computing system that affects and is affected by the real world.

    I've spent a long time thinking about the question, "is there anything profound to be found in such a system?" My intuition said yes but it has taken a long time of thinking about it to be able to pin anything concrete down with words. I want to take a jab at that right now knowing full well that it's a naïve attempt. I invite you to point out how in a comment.

    Life Predicts Its Own Existence

    "Simulation" has connotations of complexity that are obscuring so I think it's better to talk about games. Anytime you have rules about how information changes over time you have a game a.k.a. a simulation (as I mean it here). The rules of chess tell where you are allowed to move the pieces on the board. The locations of the pieces on the board is the information that the rules apply to. But chess is not very interesting as just rules and information. If it were just those parts then I should be able to describe the rules of chess to you and then say, "now you can derive every possible game of chess," and you would thank me and put the complete totality of chess up on a shelf in your mind. You wouldn't need to actually play any games and access any instances of the information about where the pieces are on the board - what would be the point? How the information, the location of the pieces, changes over times follows precisely from the rules. Another way to look at the issue is from the perspective of compression. If you want to describe the entirety of chess to someone you could either tell them the rules, e.g. "a bishop moves any number of vacant squares diagonally...", or equivalently you could describe where each piece is at every move in every possible game of chess. Obviously telling someone the rules, whether in an...

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  • Fertile Shards

    Owen Trueblood12/02/2020 at 00:31 0 comments

    As the Anthropocene wore on the old natural world was buried deeper and deeper beneath the ash left behind from the fire of applied intelligence.

    New generations awoke atop a blasted desert made of planes of finely patterned glass that sparkled malevolently with interfering blades of light. Most kept their faces pointed toward the sky to avoid burning their eyes in from the waves of blistering heat emanating from the embers of innumerable incomprehensible and uncomprehending ruins glowing below. Gazing upward past a red dust-choked sky with artificial eyes they soaked in the long dead past of the universe and still yearned to claim their own space in it.

    Few risked glancing downwards at the feverish intelligence simmering below. But eventually an observer did chance a look through fingers held up to protect vulnerable eyes. Under the deep strata of murky glass, was the outline of an immense petrified tree. Its top was canopied thickly by those earlier generations that had climbed desperately, but ineffectively, in an attempt to escape drowning in the flood of technological progress. Just beneath the matted catastrophe were branches trampled and hanging broken from that long ago panic. But the observer on the surface looked further below and saw the branches join and join again repeatedly until eventually they gave way to stout trunks rising out of an impenetrable black depth.

    Straining to comprehend the detail of the scene despite the rising pain from the energy thrown off at the surface the observer suddenly resolved that the surface of every fractal branch was densely inscribed with writing. The language had remained inscrutable to the dead wretches below, but filtered through the shimmering patterns on the surface the tree's texture unfolded its meaning instantaneously. An expanding bubble of understanding enveloped the observer in a vacuum of thought. For a moment all of consciousness was flattened to the surface of that sphere written with the fossilized potential of biological life.

    Then the bubble collapsed and with it humanity's fever broke. The glass egg cracked and gave way. Scalpel shards, cooling now but still hot with an intelligence bright against the soft microwave background, sliced indiscriminately and cleanly through everything, the tree, and mankind. Where the pieces fell together grew the new children of man.

  • Exploring Houdini for Simulating the Geometry of Time-worn Habitats

    Owen Trueblood12/02/2020 at 00:12 0 comments

    Weird life and weird habitats should go together. To get the appropriate dose of alien inspiration I want to avoid designing the geometry of these artifacts directly with my human hands and mind. Instead they are going to be plucked like fruits from a garden of complex computer simulations inspired by research into plausible constraints for the life-bearing environments that I have in mind.

    Picking the right tools for building my garden of simulations is critical for getting the result that I want. Ideally they allow me to both design and run highly complex simulations in a practical way. There are a huge number of tools that are appropriate for this kind of work but they all make different trade-offs between the kinds of systems they are able to express, their scale, and the ease with which the systems can be described.

    Game engines like Unity and Unreal are great for dynamic real-time systems with complex rules and a lot of human-authored content. But they aren't the best for generating arbitrary geometry. They trade off being able to run very complex simulations in order to meet their real-time constraints.

    CAD software like Rhino is great for designing static geometry precisely and can handle very large scale designs. In combination with parametric design tools like Grasshopper it's also possible to generate those designs through simulation. But it can be hard to mix in dynamic content or plug in other systems or data to drive the simulations. Often many trade-offs are made to optimize these tools for their most common applications, for example in architecture or product design.

    I've used the tools mentioned above as well as others like Blender, Processing, and openFrameworks. Recently I have been playing around with a new one and am very excited to explore it's application to the kind of simulation-driven geometry that I need for this project. The tool is Houdini, which is a tool that's usually used for visual effects in commercials, movies, and etc. It used to be out of reach due to it's price tag but sometime since I first looked at it a free "apprentice" version was added as well as a relatively affordable "indie" license. Houdini is special because it is enormously flexible, expressive, and powerful (i.e. able to run very complex systems). It benefits from the might of the modern visual effects industry which is able and wants to throw huge resources at making tools like Houdini as good as possible. It lets systems be expressed visually in the form of flow graphs, which is very quick for prototyping, but code can be freely mixed in when something needs to be done off the beaten path. It runs well on a laptop but it can also orchestrate simulations and rendering across massive clusters.

    In short, Houdini is a great tool for designing weird life for weird habitats. But it definitely has a steep learning curve. So I'm starting out small with simple experiments as well as replicating work shared by others.

    Wormy Substrate

    The first thing I wanted to try was generating some geometry and then 3D printing it. So I made a chunk, applied some noise, broke it into pieces, extruded tubes along the seams, and then cut random spheres out of it to get this weird piece of cheese:

    Here are the tubes that I extruded along the broken pieces of the starting block:

    Here's what it looks like 3D printed:

    It was encouraging to see how easy it was to manipulate volumes with boolean operations to generate geometry that would print. But I was pretty bad at optimizing the operations so it took a good 45 minutes to chug through converting the volume to a polygon on my laptop. I later revisited this idea after learning some more about how volumes work in Houdini and ended up with this result that generated in a couple of seconds:

    Simulating Microfluidics

    A significant portion of the complexity of the support systems for the synthetic life in future spacecraft will likely have...

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