Tuesday, 5 September 2017

ECAL 2018, Tuesday

Day two of the European Conference of Artificial Life, in Lyon, was the start of the conference proper.  The proceedings for the conference are open access.

We started with a fascinating keynote from philosopher Viola Schiaffonati, on Experimenting with computing and in computing: Stretching the traditional notion of experimentation.  As an ex-physicist, currently computer scientist, with a strong interest in computer simulation of biological and other complex systems, I found this a very useful exploration of the uses of simulation.  Physics-like subjects tend to have strong clear theories, and here “simulation” is more of “prediction without needing to run the experiment”, as in a virtual wind-tunnel, say.  Biology-like subjects, on the other hand, have less well-defined theories: they are more models comprising a “nest” of concepts, results and techniques from a range of sources, and simulations are more “does this nest hang together in correspondence with reality?”, or even “what tweaks do I need to make this nest hang together?”  The talk examined these concepts, put them together in an interesting way, and also had lots of useful references (not least to the “nest metaphor” paper which I need to read in detail).

After coffee I went to the Complex Dynamical Systems track.  Locating critical regions by the Relevance Index introduced a new measure useful for spotting systems at, or moving towards the “edge of chaos”.  Criticality as it could be demonstrated how agents who learn a structure that allows them to exhibit critical behaviour can exploit that learning to explore solutions to complex tasks in different environments.  Reservoir computing with a chaotic circuit was a neat demonstration of how even a (relatively) simple device can perform the complex computations of a reservoir computer.  Finally Signatures of criticality in a maximum entropy model of the C. elegans brain during free behaviour looked at potential critical behaviour in the “brain” of a (relatively!) simple biological organism.

smooth evolvable path surrounded by
rugged unevolvable peaks
After lunch I went to the Evolutionary Dynamics track.  Lineage selection leads to evolvability at large population sizes was a very nice talk demonstrating that the far ago ancestor of today’s creatures was not necessarily the fittest at the time: in a large population some groups can scamper up sharp fitness peaks and get stuck, whereas others trudge slowly up a smooth shallow incline of fitness, and survive to be even fitter in the long term. A 4-base model for the Aevol in-silico experimental evolution platform described the move from the classical binary representation to a four-base representation in the Aevol system, allowing degeneracy in the decoding.    MABE (Modular Agent Based Evolver): a framework for digital evolution research described a new modular architecture that should allow in silico evolution experiments to be set up much more straightforwardly.  Finally Gene duplications drive the evolution of complex traits and regulation described a series of experiments to investigate to various facets of gene duplication in Avida: is it the genetic material in order, or just the material, or just the increase in genome size, that’s important?

Then after another coffee break (hydration is very important at these events!) there was the second  keynote of the day: a fine double act from Andreas Wessel-Therhorn and Laurent Pujo-Menjouet speaking on The Illusion of Life, or the history and principles of animation.  They demon-strated the “12 principles of animation” with simple examples and then how they are realised in actual films.  They showed the clip of the death of Bambi’s mother that traumatised generations of children (myself included), showing that the actual death is never shown, despite the fact that many people remember it vividly. (I am not one of those who falsely recall it being depicted: I was traumatised by the fact of the death, not its depiction!) They also demonstrated how some of these animation principles have been used in the design of the Jibo robot’s movements, to give it “the illusion of life”.

The final event of the day was the poster session, including our Tuning Jordan algebra artificial chemistries with probability spawning functions.  I looked at all the posters quickly, but I then had to go off to the ISAL board meeting, where we reviewed the society’s activities, learned lessons from this year’s organisers, and brought next year’s organisers into the fold.





Monday, 4 September 2017

ECAL 2018, Monday

Day one of the European Conference of Artificial Life, in Lyon, was dedicated to Workshops and the Summer School.

All the workshops running in parallel meant a tricky choice.  In the morning I went to the (half day) Morphogenetic Engineering Workshop. First we had three plant-inspired talks: on simulating complex ecosystems to investigate the evolution of diversity; on guiding the growth of a system by being inspired by plant growth mechanisms; on real-time interactive systems for biological investigations, based on game engines.  After the break there were three more talks, on using the NEAT encoding scheme to evolve cellular automata rulesets; an investigation into criticality in gene regulatory networks modelled using Random Boolean Networks; a multi-level model of autopoiesis to investigate self-organisation.  So the conference was off to a great start!

After lunch I gave a talk on Open-Endedness in Simulations at the ISAL Summer School.  My very brief abstract: Open-ended behaviour in simulated systems is one goal of artificial life, yet the term “open-ended” is rarely defined. Here I discuss a recent definition in terms of models and meta-models, its consequences for discovering multi-scale open-endedness in computer simulations, and some suggested ways forward.  The talk was based on findings/rants from four recent-ish papers: Reflecting on Open-Ended Evolution (ECAL 2011), Bio-Reflective Architectures for Evolutionary Innovation (ALife 2016), Defining and Simulating Open-Ended Novelty: Requirements, Guidelines, and Challenges (2016), and Semantic closure demonstrated by the evolution of a universal constructor architecture in an artificial chemistry (2017).  Later, a colleague said “I heard you talk on this in Cancun, and thought you were mad.  This time, I think I can see what you are getting at.  Maybe next time I will believe you!”  I suspect this might be partly due to me having had 30 minutes for a highly compressed summary last year, and 90 minutes for a more relaxed approach this time.

I then had the opportunity to drop into the final session of the Living Architectures Workshop. The presentation about the HyperCell project was given via skype, and covered a lot of ground, from a design for the flexible, magnetically connecting “cells” that looked wonderful, to large scale applications for “growing” buildings.

The formal part of the day was completed with a fascinating keynote by AndrĂ© Brack,  Honorary Research Director, CNRS, Center for molecular biophysics, Orleans, France.  The topic was on the origin of life, from Miller & Urey’s now over 60-year-old experiment, to today’s explorations of the solar system, and the possibility of life on exoplanets.  Lots of fascinating chemistry, and delightful anecdotes from a life in science (including, how to get your name on a Science paper by saying “add copper chloride”).

Then it was off to dinner with the other Associate Editors of the Artificial Life journal, for strategy and planning discussions.  I’ve been banging on for years about how important good review articles are to any discipline, so I am now responsible for the reviews part of the journal!




Sunday, 3 September 2017

view from two hotel windows

The view from my hotel window at Gatwick airport didn't look quite so interestingly techno-noirish in the cold light of dawn.


One of the advantages for staying at this particular airport hotel: I left hotel reception at 6:45, walked to the automated bag drop area, used the machine to check my suitcase, walked up to departures, was processed through security, and was in the departure lounge by 7:00.  I could have had another 15 minutes sleep!  (But there would have probably been longer queues by then.)

Then we spent 45 minutes sitting in the plane at the gate, while they fixed a dodgy-looking seal.  Sitting on the tarmac at Gatwick on my way to an Artificial Life conference is getting to be a tradition.

We landed at Lyon, and I got the express tram to the city centre, then another tram to my hotel.  As I walked up to it I realised I had been there before.  Same strange decor; same helpful friendly staff; same lack of a hotel restaurant because it's Sunday.  The view from this window is a little more typical than this morning's:


The conference starts tomorrow: I'm looking forward to it!

Saturday, 2 September 2017

view from a hotel window

At Gatwick Airport, ready to catch an early flight to Lyon tomorrow, where I will be attending the European Conference on Artificial Life.  This is the techno-thriller-like view from my hotel room window: