Why I Wrote Life As It Could Be

It has to do with my previous career as a bioinformatician. I was squeezed in between biology and computer science—exciting, but also daunting as both are incredibly complex, far too complex for any individual to understand them as a whole. Another shared feature is that they are very dynamic. Computers evolve incredibly fast. Nature doesn’t in itself, but our understanding of it certainly does. And there are differences. Computers are more top down, machine-like (they are machines!) orderly and controlled. Nature, while we understand many of its parts, has a more 'alien' way of ‘thinking’. It is bottom up, seemingly chaotic, creative and emergent.

mutations based on a flower shape, in "The Ontological Status of Artificial Life" ( by Jaap Bax)

Being fascinated by both, I became interested in the connections between them, and there are many—computer viruses and worms are examples. A more interesting and less annoying one is that many scientists thought—at least in the last century—that with the help of computers it would be straightforward to build artificial intelligence and artificial life. Philosophers and scientists like Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins worked hard to formulate the ‘algorithms’ (the set of rules) of life and its evolution. They thought these rules could be lifted from the world of carbon chemistry and placed into computers to let them do their magic there.

When I started my studies for the book in 2007, I became aware that research on artificial life had already peaked around 2000. Back then, quite a few scientists had made claims of having achieved great advances in building artificial life forms.

That was over ten years ago. How do we view these efforts today? It is almost as if they have quietly disappeared. Today, for many of us, artificial intelligence is mostly Siri on the iPhone, a gimmick that is possibly more annoying than useful.

So, what happened? Have all these bright people been wrong?

What if they were right and only something small is missing, like some catalytic event. We don’t know how life was created on earth, but we do think that much of it was down to a few improbable yet pivotal events that took a long time to occur. And then, in my research for the book, I came across another kind of pivotal event that was (and still is) often mentioned: the Singularity, a term coined in the early nineties.

What is the Singularity? We tend to think of science and technology of something that gets gradually better, that grows organically like a pumpkin, sometimes slower, sometimes faster. The concept of the Singularity says that this process is more closely related to an explosion. And the reasoning behind this makes sense. For instance, if you do computer research and invent new tools, you can feed them back into your research to build even better tools and do even better research and so on. The more you’ve got, the faster you get more. The prediction is that science and technology grow at an accelerating rate and that this process will heat up so much that a single event of an unknown nature, the Singularity, will be enough to disrupt it, prompting everything to spin out of control.

Here is a simple example for such an event: If we can invent a computer that is as intelligent as we are, it would be the last invention we ever need to make. Now that would certainly be disruptive. While there is broad agreement on the principle, predictions vary as to when and how the Singularity will happen.

So what if this Singularity can be that pivotal event I mentioned earlier, the ‘missing ingredient’ for the creation of artificial life? In real life we can’t force this event to happen, especially since we don’t know its nature, but in a novel, if it’s my novel, I can, and therefore I wrote it.

The main character of “Life As It Could Be” is Bruno Haslop, a software tester who is in a personal crisis, who suffers from paranoia and who has a secret that deeply affects his life. And there is an institute in Cambridge—not a famous institute but a failing one with failing scientist who have difficulties to get funding. And there are mysterious events on the internet which bring the two together. Not a winning team you think? Again, it’s about probability, about something happening against the odds. That these people don’t look like a winning team doesn’t mean they cannot win.

Win against whom you ask? And we are back to the ‘catalytic event’. If I can make it up, where would I place it? For life on earth, we think it happened in what is called the primeval or primordial soup. And where in the world of computers would that soup be? What part of it is mysterious, rapidly changing, immensely creative, not burdened by categories like morality, utility or even sense. Well, that’s an easy one. It’s cybercrime, the world of computer worms, viruses and botnets, where we have an arms race between hackers and defenders.

There is a quite a bit of science and computer technology in the book, but it’s nothing scary and all is well explained. You don’t need to be armed with special knowledge to understand the book, but if you are brave, you will be rewarded.