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Out of Control

The most powerful computer made in 1993, the Connection Machine 5 (CM5), can effortlessly generate Borges's Library of books. But the CM5 can also generate equally vast and mysterious Borgian Libraries of complex things other than books.

Karl Sims, who works for Thinking Machines, the maker of the CM5, has made a Borgian Library of art and pictures. Sims first wrote special software for the Connection Machine and then constructed a universe (which others call a Library) of all possible pictures. The same machinery that can generate a possible book can generate a possible picture. In the former case the output are letters printed in linear sequence; in the latter, a rectangle of pixels displayed on a screen. Sims hunts for patterns of pixels instead of patterns of letters.

I visit Sims in his dark office cubicle at Thinking Machines's Cambridge, Massachusetts, offices. Two extra-large, bright monitors sit on Sims's desk. His largest monitor is divided into a matrix of 20 small projected rectangles, 4 down and 5 across. Each rectangle is a window that at the moment shows a realistically marbled doughnut. Each of the 20 pictures is slightly varied in patterns.

Sims uses his mouse to click on the lower right corner rectangle. In a blink all 20 rectangles are refreshed with newly marbled doughnuts, each new image a slight variation of the formerly selected corner pattern. By clicking on a sequence of images, Sims can walk through a Borgian Library of visual patterns using the Method. Instead of bodily running ahead seven yards (in many directions) to reach a stored pattern, Sims's software calculates what the pattern would logically be seven yards away (since it turns out the Borgian Library is extremely ordered). He then paints the newfound pattern on the screen. The Connection Machine does this in milliseconds, simultaneously figuring the new patterns in 20 different directions away from the last selection.

There is no limit to what picture could possibly appear from the Library. In true Borgian fashion, this total universe contains all shades of rose, all stripes; it contains the Mona Lisa, and all Mona Lisa parodies; every swirl, the blueprints of the Pentagon, all of Van Gogh's sketches, every frame from Gone With the Wind, all speckled scallop shells. These are desires, though; on whimsical rambles through this Library, Sims harvests chiefly windows filled with amorphous blotches, streaks, and psychedelic swirls of color.

The Method -- as evolution -- can be conceived of not as traveling but as breeding. Sims describes the twenty new images as twenty children of an original parent. The twenty pictures vary just as offspring do. Then he selects the "best" offspring, which in turn immediately sires twenty new variations. He'll pick the best of that lot, and that best will sire twenty more variations. He can begin with a simple sphere and by cumulative selection end with a cathedral.

Watching the forms appear, multiply in variation, get selected, ramify in form, winnow again, and begin to drift over generations to ever more complicated shapes, neither mind nor gut can escape the impression that Sims is really breeding images. Richer, wilder, more esthetically fit images unfold over generations. Sims and fellow computationalists call it artificial evolution.

The mathematical logic of breeding pictures is indistinguishable from the mathematical logic of breeding pigeons. Conceptually the two processes are equivalent. Although we may call it artificial evolution, there is nothing about it that is more or less artificial than breeding dachshunds. Both methods are equally artificial (of the art) and natural (true to nature).

In Sims's universe evolution has been yanked from the living world and left naked in mathematics. Stripped of its cloak of tissue and hair, stolen from its womb of moist wet flesh, and then spirited into circuits, the vital essence of evolution has moved from the world of the born to the world of the made, from its former sole domain of carbon ring to the manufactured silicon world of algorithmic chips.

The shock is not that evolution has been transported from carbon to silicon; silicon and carbon are actually very similar elements. The shock of artificial evolution is that it is fundamentally natural to computers.

Within ten cycles, Sims's artificial breeding will produce something that is "interesting." Often as few as five hops will land Sims someplace that is greater than mere chaotic splatters. While he clicks from picture to picture, Sims talks, as Borges did, of "traveling through the Library," or "exploring the space." The pictures exist "out there" even though they are not rendered into visual form until found or selected.

The electronic version of Borges's Library of books can be considered in the same way. The book texts exist abstractly, independent of form. Each sleeps in its assigned spot on a virtual shelf in the virtual Library. When selected, the cabalistic silicon chip breathes form into a book's virtual self to awaken the text onto the screen. A conjurer travels to a place in the space (which is ordered) and there awakens the particular book that must rest there. Every coordinate has a book; every book a coordinate. Just as for the traveler, one vista opens up many new possible locations for yet more vistas; in the Library one coordinate begets many subsequent related coordinates. An initiated librarian travels through the space in sequential hops; the path is a chain of selections.

Thus the six texts derived from the original text are six relatives; they share a familial form and informational seed. In the scale of the Library their variation is on the order of siblings. Since they are relatives derived in a following generation, they can thus be called offspring. The single chosen "best" offspring text becomes the parent in the next round; one of its six grand-offspring variations will become the parent in that generation.

While I was within Borges's Library, I saw myself hunting for a readable book over a trail that began at gibberish. But another looking in would see me breeding a nonsense book into a viable book, just as one might domesticate a disorganized wildflower into the elegant cup of a rose through many generations of selection.

Karl Sims breeds gray noise into jubilant images of plant life on the CM5. "There is no limitation to what evolution can come up with. It can surpass the design capabilities of humans," he claims. He devised a way to rope off the immense Library so that his wanderings would stay within the range of all possible plant forms. As he evolved his way through this space, he copied "seeds" of those forms he found most intriguing. Later Sims reconstituted his harvest and rendered them into fantastical three-dimensional plant shapes that he could animate. His domesticated forest included a giant unrolling fern frond, spindly pine things with a Christmas ball on top, grass with crab-claw blades, and twisty oak trees. Eventually these bizarre, evolved plants populated a video of his creations called Panspermia. In this animation, alien trees and strange giant grasses sprouted from seeds, eventually carpeting a barren planet with an unearthly jungle of rooted things. The evolved (now animated) plants produced their own seeds which were blasted from a bulbous cannon of a plant into space and onto the next barren world (the process of Panspermia).