Artificial life, culture, and evolution

June 10, 2009

As the school year comes to a close, so too does my affiliation with Human Complex Systems Society. I was the vice president this year, in a healthy position to take over as president. So why quit?

I’m out of touch with the HCS program at UCLA. I picked up the minor at the end of my freshman year because I didn’t know what I’d be majoring in, and HCS classes seemed like an interesting way to pass the time; I finished the requirements by junior year. My first class, Artificial Culture, was difficult. Every week there was a new 4-6 page reading response, programming assignment (C++), and a writeup on that. I felt like it was jolting me out of high-school slacker mode and into the college academic life.

But now that the professor who taught it has departed UCLA for Duke, I haven’t felt myself quite as challenged or as invigorated by any of my classes. Sure, geography is cool, but if HCS were a major I’d probably opt for that instead (or too—would it be overachieving of me to have three majors?). And despite the Society’s best efforts, I don’t foresee the program making that crucial step anytime soon.

That’s why someone’s suggestion to “just teach it yourself” has been pulling at me for the past couple of days. The thought is taking over my brain, energizing me to the point of frenzy. It’s why I’ve been up since 5: because I’m thinking about the readings I would use. Yeah, why not do an undergrad-led seminar? Wasn’t I thinking about going into academia after college?

As hat-tips to that professor I admired so much, I’d have to include “A New Cosmogony” or “Finite Nature” by Edward Fredkin, Permutation City by Greg Egan, and Society of Mind by Marvin Minsky.

But the majority would probably be popular pieces, such as this Wired article. I’d likely include selections from Robert J. Sawyer’s Wake, the first in a trilogy about the emergence of consciousness in the World Wide Web. I’ve yet to read it, but it sounds like it’d be up my alley. That’s sort of the focus I would want to take—less theoretical, more real world… at least in imagination. Realizations of artificial intelligence or environmental modeling (not really HCS?) in popular culture and media: Jennifer Steinkamp’s interactional artwork (above); 200,000 CG extras in the Helm’s Deep battle sequence in The Two Towers (made possible by a program called MASSiVE); even video games. Is my nerd showing yet…?

Anyway, it’s just a think project for now, and it may implode under the pressures of self-doubt, but this is something I’d truly like to embark on. Suggestions would be welcomed.

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