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Out of Control

Back in the 18th century, Benjamin Franklin had a hard time convincing his friends that the mild electrical currents produced in his lab were identical in their essence to the thundering lightning that struck in the wild. The difference in scale between his artificially produced microsparks and the sky-splitting, tree-shattering, monstrous bolts generated in the heavens was only part of the problem. Primarily, observers found it unnatural that Franklin could re-create nature, as he claimed.

Today, Tom Ray has trouble convincing his colleagues that the evolution he has synthesized in his lab is identical in essence to the evolution shaping the animals and plants in nature. The difference in time scale between the few hours his world has evolved and the billions of years wild nature has evolved is only part of the problem. Primarily, skeptics find it unnatural that Ray can re-create such an intangible and natural process as he claims.

Two hundred years after Franklin, artificially generated lightning -- tamed, measured, and piped through wires into buildings and tools -- is the primary organizing force in our society, particularly our digital society. Two hundred years from now, artificial adaptation -- tamed, measured and piped into every type of mechanical apparatus we have -- will become the central organizing force in our society.

No computer scientist has yet synthesized an artificial intelligence -- as desirable and immensely powerful and life-changing as that would be. Nor has any biochemist created an artificial life. But evolution captured, as Ray and others have done, and re-created on demand, is now seen by many technicians as the subtle spark that can create both our dreams of artificial life and artificial intelligence, unleashing their awesome potential. We can grow rather than make them.

We have built machines as complicated as is possible with unassisted engineering. The kind of projects we now have on the drawing boards -- software programs reckoned in tens of millions of lines of code, communication systems spanning the planet, factories that must adapt to rapidly shifting global buying habits and retool in days, cheap Robbie the Robots -- all demand a degree of complexity that only evolution can coordinate.

Because it is slow, invisible, and diffuse, evolution has the air of a hardly believable ghost in this fast-paced, in-your-face world of humanmade machines. But I prefer to think of evolution as a natural technology that is easily moved into computer code. It is this supercompatibility between evolution and computers that will propel artificial evolution into our digital lives.