Can the map be the territory? Visualization and realisation in artificial life. (Abstract).
Kampis, George (ed.)
Proceedings of the Tenth European Conference on Artificial Life.
In the continuing absence of a formal, consensual, definition of what it is to be a living system, artificial life has learned to make do with a mantra of “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it”. An under-appreciated consequence of this position is the attendant epistemological load placed on seeing and therefore visualization. This paper considers the role of visualization within science and artificial life, specifically, reviewing its multiple distinct uses and exploring the possibility that it might sometimes play a role that is unique to the field: visualizations as realisations. Scientific visualizations are typically taken to re-present the target phenomena of interest: a graph or chart presents data on some target system; an image from a confocal microscope is an image of some target system. Like any representation, they are typically understood to stand in some rather impoverished relation to the target system, representing it just so, capturing only a fragment of its reality—attenuating, idealising, clipping, focusing, highlighting, or otherwise differing from the real thing in itself. By contrast, when we view Craig Reynolds’ Boids or Karl Sims’ Blockies, we are not expected to consider the images as partial representations of some prior thing (the code, the algorithm?). They are the thing. Indeed, where typically the image offers only a glimpse of the “real” system, here the relationship is reversed. The underlying code is impenetrable, offering only a glimpse of the flocking that it gives rise to. However, is it true to claim that the flock of Boids is simply not present in the lines of code in the same way that it is present in the image sequence? Surely there may be creatures for which viewing the image sequence, like studying the code, fails to produce the perception of a flock. Where is the locus of the “emergence” of flocking, or life, or some other complex organisational phenomena? In the code? On the screen? Within an observer’s mind? What has been termed the “synthetic methodology” offers us the promise of a new route to understanding organisational phenomena and answering systems questions through construction rather than reduction. However, where we attempt to synthesize truly new phenomena (e.g., “life-as-it-could-be”) without the safety net of agreed formal category definitions, we must run the risk of relying on our (possibly raw unanalysed) visuocognitive apparatus to guide us, and will consequently be subject to its biases and idiosyncrasies. From this perspective, Ikegami and Hanczyc’s oil droplets, Grey Walter’s Elsie and Elmer, Langton’s loops, and Ray’s Tierran replicators must be regarded as denizens of the realm of ideas as much as (or perhaps more than) the realm of physical reality. They are constructs in the psychological sense as much as the engineering sense, and just as models teach us about the world only indirectly by shedding light on our ideas about the world, these artificial life systems may only change what we know of life by changing the way that we see it.
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