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Out of Control

Karl Sims is not the only explorer of the architecture of the Borgian universe (which some call the Library), nor was he the first. As far as I can tell, the first librarian of a synthetic Borgian world was the British zoologist Richard Dawkins. In 1985, Dawkins invented a universe he called "Biomorph Land." Biomorph Land is the space of possible biological shapes constructed with short straight lines and branches. It was the first computer-generated library of possible forms that could be searched by breeding.

Dawkins wrote Biomorph Land as an educational program to illustrate how designed things could be created without a designer. He wanted to demonstrate visually that while random selection and aimless wandering would never produce a coherent design, cumulative selection (the Method) could.

Despite a prestigious reputation in biology, Dawkins was experienced in programming mainframe computers. Biomorph is a fairly sophisticated computer program. It draws a stick of a certain length, and in a growthlike pattern, adds branches to it, and branches to the branches. How the branches fork, how many are added, and at what length they are added are all values that can vary independently by small amounts from form to form. In Dawkins's program these values also "mutate" at random. Every form it draws differs by one mutation of nine possible variables.

Dawkins hoped to traverse a library of tree shapes by artificial selection and breeding. A form was born in Biomorph Land as a line so short it was a dot. Dawkins's program generated eight offspring of the dot, much as Sims's later program would do. The dot's children varied in length depending on what value the random mutation assigned. The computer projected each offspring, plus the parent, in a nine-square display. In the now familiar style of selective breeding Dawkins selected the most pleasing form (his choice) and evolved a succession of ever more complex variant forms. By the seventh generation, offspring were accelerating in filigreed detail.

That was Dawkins's hope as he began writing the code in BASIC. If he was lucky in his programming he'd get a universe of wonderfully diverse branching trees.

The first day he got the program running, Dawkins spent an exhilarating hour rummaging through the nearest shelves of his Borgian Library. Progressing a mutation at a time, he came upon unexpected arrangements of stem, stick, and trunk. Here were odd trees nature had never claimed. And line drawings of bushes, grass, and flowers that never were. Echoing the dual metaphor of evolution and libraries, Dawkins wrote in The Blind Watchmaker, "When you first evolve a new creature by artificial selection in the computer model, it feels like a creative process. So it is, indeed. But what you are really doing is finding the creature, for it is, in a mathematical sense, already sitting in its own place in the genetic space of Biomorph Land."

As the hours passed, he noticed he was entering a space in the Library where the branching structures of his trees began to cross back upon themselves, filling in areas with crisscrossing lines until they congealed into a solid mass. The recursive branches closed upon themselves forming little bodies rather than trunks. Auxiliary branches still sprouting from these bodies looked surprisingly like legs and wings. He had entered the part of the Library where insects dwelled (despite the fact that he as God had not intended there be such a country!). He discovered all sorts of weird bugs and butterflies.

Dawkins was astonished: "When I wrote the program I never imagined it would evolve anything but treelike shapes. I had hoped for weeping willows, poplars, and cedars of Lebanon."

Now there were insects everywhere. Dawkins was too excited to eat that evening. He spent more hours discovering amazingly complex creatures looking like scorpions and water spiders and even frogs. He said later, "I was almost feverish with excitement. I cannot convey the exaltation I felt of exploring a land which I had supposedly made. Nothing in my biologist's background, nothing in my 20 years of programming computers, and nothing in my wildest dreams, prepared me for what actually emerged on the screen."

That night he couldn't sleep. He kept pressing on, dying to survey the extent of his universe. What other surprises did this supposedly simple world contain? When he finally fell asleep in the early morning, images of "his" insects swarmed in his dreams.

Over the following months, Dawkins tramped the backwaters of Biomorph Land hunting for nonplant and abstract shapes. The short list of forms he encountered included: "fairy shrimps, Aztec temples, Gothic church windows, and aboriginal drawings of kangaroos." Making the best use of an idle minute here and there, Dawkins eventually used the evolutionary method to locate many letters of the alphabet. (These letters were bred into visibility, not drawn.) His goal was to capture the letters in his name, but he never could find a passable D or a decent K. (On the wall of my office I have a wonderful poster of the 26 letters and 10 numerals found shimmering on living butterfly wings -- including a marvelous D and K. But although these letters evolved, they were not found by the Method. The photographer, Kjell Sandved, told me he inspected more than a million wings to gather all 36 symbols.)

Dawkins was on a quest. He later wrote, "There are computer games on the market in which the player has the illusion that he is wandering about in an underground labyrinth, which has a definite if complex geography and in which he encounters dragons, minotaurs or other mythic adversaries. In these games the monsters are rather few in number. They are all designed by a human programmer, and so is the geography of the labyrinth. In the evolution game, whether the computer version or the real thing, the player (or observer) obtains the same feeling of wandering metaphorically through a labyrinth of branching passages, but the number of possible pathways is all but infinite, and the monsters that one encounters are undesigned and unpredictable."

Most magically the monsters in this space were seen once and then were lost. The earliest versions of Biomorph Land did not have a function for saving the coordinates of every biomorph. The shapes appeared on the screen, roused from their shelf in the Library, and when the computer was turned off, they returned to their mathematical place. The probability of encountering them again was infinitesimal.

When Dawkins first arrived in the district of insects he desperately wanted to keep one so he could find it again. He printed out a picture of it, and a picture of all the 28 ancestral forms he evolved along the way to get to it, but at that time his prototype program would not let him save the underlying numbers enabling him to reconstruct the form. He knew that once he flicked his computer off that night, the insect biomorphs would be gone except for the wisp of their souls held by their portraits. Could he ever reevolve identical forms? He killed the power. He had proof, at least, that they existed somewhere in his Library. Knowing they were there haunted him.

Despite the fact that Dawkins had both the starting point and the sequence of 28 "fossils" leading up to the specific insect he was trying to recapture, the biomorphs remained elusive. Karl Sims, too, once bred a dazzling, luminescent image of colorful loopy strings on his CM5 -- very reminiscent of a painting by Jackson Pollock -- before he wrote a coordinate-saving feature; he too was never able to rediscover the image, although he owns a slide of it to serve as a trophy.

Borgian space is vast. Deliberately relocating a point in this space is as difficult as replaying an identical game of chess. A tiny, almost undetectable error of choice at any turn can carry one to a destination miles from one's aim. In Biomorph space the complexity of the forms, the complexity of choices at each juncture, and the subtlety of their differences, guarantees that every evolved form is probably the first and last visit.

Perhaps in the Library of Borges there is a book called Labyrinths that holds the following miraculous story (not contained in the book Labyrinths found on the shelf in the university library). In this book Jorge Luis Borges tells how his father, who was a traveler in the universe of all possible books, once came upon a sensible book in this confusing vastness. All four hundred and ten pages of the tome, including the table of contents, were filled with two sentence palindromes. The first 33 palindromes were both riddles and profound. That's all his father had time to read before an unusual fire in the basement forced the evacuation of the librarians working in this section. In the semi-orderly panic of exit, his father forgot the location of this volume. Out of shame the existence of the Book of Palindromes has never been mentioned outside the Library. For eight generations, a somewhat secretive association of exlibrarians has been meeting regularly to methodically retrace the old traveler's steps so that they might rediscover this book in the Library's enormity. There is little hope they will ever find their holy grail.

To demonstrate how vast such Borgian spaces are, Dawkins offered a prize to anyone who could rebreed (or find by hit or miss!) an image of a chalice that Dawkins had come upon by chance on one of his rambles in Biomorph Land. He called it the Holy Grail. So sure was Dawkins of its deep concealment that he offered $1,000 to the first person presenting him with the genes to the Holy Grail. "Offering my own money," said Dawkins, "was my way of saying nobody was going to find it." Much to his astonishment, within one year of his challenge, Thomas Reed, a software engineer in California, reencountered the cup. This appears akin to retracing the elder Borges's steps to locate the lost palindrome book, or the feat of finding Out of Control in the Library of Borges.

But Biomorph Land supplies assistance. Because its genesis reflects Dawkins's professional interests as a biologist, it was built on organic principles in addition to evolution. The secondary biological nature of biomorphs permitted Reed to find the chalice.

Dawkins saw that in order to make a practical biological universe, he would have to restrict the possibilities of forms to those that held some biological sense. Otherwise, the sheer vastness of all shapes would overwhelm any ordinary chance of finding enough biological morphs to play with -- even using the cumulative selection method. After all, he reasoned, the embryonic development of living creatures limits the possibilities of what they can mutate into. For instance, most biological creatures display left-right symmetry; by instituting left-right symmetry as a fundamental element of every biomorph, Dawkins could reduce the overall size of the Library, thus making it easier to find a biomorph. He called this reduction a "constrained embryology." The task he set for himself was to design an embryology that was restricted, but in "biologically interesting directions."

"Very early I had a strong intuitive conviction that the embryology I wanted should be recursive. My intuition was based partly upon the fact that embryology in real life can be thought of as recursive," Dawkins told me. By recursive embryology, Dawkins meant that simple rules iterated over and over again (including rules that play upon their own results) would furnish much of the complexity of the final form. For instance, as the recursive rule "grow one unit then fork into two" is applied over successive generations to a starting stick, it will produce a bushy many-forked thing after about five iterations.

Secondly, Dawkins introduced the idea of gene and body into the Library. He saw that a string of letters (as in a book) is directly analogous to biological genes. (A gene is even represented as a string of letters in the formal notation of biochemistry.) The genes produce the tissues of the body. "But," says Dawkins, "biological genes don't control small fragments of the body, which would be the equivalent of controlling pixels on monitor. Instead, genes control growing rules -- embryological developmental processes -- or in Biomorph Land, drawing algorithms." Thus, a string of numbers or text acts as string of genes (a chromosome), which represents a formula, which then draws the image (body) in pixels.

The consequences of this indirect way of generating forms was that almost any random place in the Library -- that is, almost any genes -- produced a coherent biological shape. By having genes control algorithms rather than pixels, Dawkins built an inherent grammar into his universe which prevented any old nonsense from appearing. Even a wild mutation would not arrive at a flat gray blob. The same transformation could be done to the Library of Borges. Rather than each shelf place in the Library representing a possible arrangement of letters, each place could represent a possible arrangement of words, or even of possible sentences. Then, any book you picked out would at least be close to readable. This enhanced space of word strings is much smaller than the space of letter strings, but also, as Dawkins suggested, restricted in a more interesting direction: you are more likely to come across something comprehensible.

Dawkins's introduction of genes that behaved in a biological manner -- each mutation affecting many pixels in a structured way -- not only shrunk the biomorph library's size, distilling it to functional forms, but also provided an alternative way for human breeders to find a form. Any subtle shift made in the biomorph gene space would amplify into a noticeable and dependable shift in graphic image.

This gave Thomas Reed, freelance knight of the Holy Grail, a second way of breeding. Reed repeatedly altered genes of a parent form while observing the visual changes in forms the genes produced in order to learn how to steer a shape by altering individual genes. In this way he could steer to various biomorph forms by twiddling the gene dial. In an obvious analogy, Dawkins called this mode in his program "genetic engineering." As in the real world, it holds uncanny power.

In effect, Dawkins lost his $1,000 to the first genetic engineer of artificial life. Thomas Reed spent his lunch hours at work hunting for the chalice in Dawkins's program. Six months after Dawkins announced his contest, Reed converged upon the lost treasure by a combination of breeding images and genetically engineering their genes. Breeding is a way to brainstorm fast and loose; engineering is a way to fine-tune and control. Of the forty hours Reed estimated he spent hunting for the cup, he spent 38 of them engineering. "There is no way I could have found it by breeding," he said. As he closed in on the cup, Reed couldn't get the last pixel to budge without getting everything else to move. He spent many hours trying to control that single pixel in the penultimate form.

In a coincidence that completely astonished Dawkins, two other finders independently submitted correct gene solutions to the Holy Grail within weeks after Reed. They too were able to pinpoint his chalice in an astronomically large space of possibilities, not by breeding alone, but primarily by genetic engineering and, in one case, by reverse engineering.