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Biology 103
2000 Second Web Report
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The Stone Age, the Ice Age, the Bronze Age...

Rachel Hochberg

The Computing Age-that's what the rapid progression of technology in the last few decades has been dubbed. The Internet is connecting people all over the world, computer graphics are changing the film industry, and of course, hi-tech computer games are on the rise. Most of these games involve either solving mysteries or ripping the heads off of monsters, but one in particular claims more: "When you play Creatures, the future of a civilization is in your hands. All that remains of the unique Norn species are six eggs. The Norns are an endearing, peaceful and playful race but without help, they're sure to die.... Creatures 2 provides a fun and engaging experience as you watch the Norns hatch, grow, and live inside your computer" (2). Norns, artificial life organisms that reside in a computer-generated world called Albia, have swept other A-life technology off its feet. But can Norns really be considered alive?

To address this question, it's first necessary to understand the concept which made Norns possible-artificial life, commonly called A-life, and its precursor, artificial intelligence. Artificial intelligence, or AI, is usually described as a technology which tries to create machines with capabilities like "...perception, learning, reasoning, remembering, motivation, emotions, self-awareness, communication, etc." (3). These "intelligent" machines are then used to gain a better understanding of human intelligence. However, these AI creations only re-create the thinking and reasoning parts of a human being-they have no biology at all, only a brain. A-life, on the other hand, is most commonly described as a technology which takes biological systems and re-creates them in an "artificial" environment, such as a computer. This attempt to create systems that behave like real organisms provides a way for biologists to study lifeforms other than the carbon-based organisms on Earth (4). Most A-life, however, is only biological systems, without the abilities of AI. The two technologies are like the mind and body of a sentient living being, except they are not merged into one. They were not merged into one, until Creature Labs created the Norns.

The scientists at Creature Labs made a small hop in logic, and a giant leap in technology, by developing intelligent A-life, through a process which is described on the Creature Labs website: "[They] modeled large numbers of cells in the brain (neurons), and connected them up and sent signals between them, in a way similar to natural cells. [They] modeled blood streams and chemical reactions. [They] modeled a world for the creature to inhabit, and objects for the creature to interact with. Finally, [they] modeled diseases, hunger, emotions, needs and the ability for the creature to grow, breed and evolve" (1). All of these factors put together create the growing sensation that is Creatures, the epitome of today's A-life technology. The Norns each have their own distinct genetic code, which the owner can get details on through the Science Kit in the game. This kit also provides graphs pertaining to biochemistry (for example, levels of everything from specific antibodies in the Norn's system to levels of alcohol in the Norn's blood). The owner can also view the brain scanner through this kit, and see what areas of the brain are exhibiting the most activity. There are other kits as well; the Health Kit allows the owner to view the Norn's vital signs and body temperature, their drives and needs (such as boredom, hunger, and exhaustion) and their brain activity (different from the brain scanner in that it shows what function of the brain is being used, rather than what area). The Breeder's Kit keeps track of sex drive, levels of estrogen and progesterone in females, and testosterone in males, and when a pregnant female is due. Norns are also capable of rudimentary speech, and can learn the names of objects in their world from their owners. They can also learn basic commands, such as "come," "no," "drop" and "run." Also, the owners can interact with their creatures by speaking to them, petting them, moving objects in their world around, and keeping them healthy using the medicinal herbs and medicines found in the Medical Kit. Armed with this detailed biology, emotions and intelligence, the Norns and their owners can then explore Albia, a world which grows more complex in each new version of the Creatures game. The latest version of Creatures boasts an environment with its own weather patterns, as well as a day/night cycle. In this world the Norns can interact with the other A-life beings in Albia, objects like food and toys, and the owners themselves, just as young children do in real life (5).

But are Norns real life? According to our class discussions at the beginning of the year, life is defined as "an improbable assembly which is energy dependant, reproduces with variation, and is both homeostatic and autonomous." Well, Norns can be considered improbable assemblies-they have definite structure, but are not all exactly the same. There are different breeds, distinguished by characteristics like hair color and skin color, but they are all the same race and are fundamentally similar, proving them to be not just random, one-of-a-kind objects but highly improbable assemblies of computer-generated cells and neurons. Norns are also energy dependant; they rely on foods and herbs within their world for sustenance, and without these energy sources they waste away and die prematurely (5). In addition, they assuredly reproduce with variation; in fact, one of the mail objectives of the game is to selectively breed new Norns. DNA is passed down from mother and father to the baby, and many Norn owners have bred creatures with skin colors or features that were never included or anticipated in the original program (7). As for being homeostatic and autonomous, the answer is a firm "yes" on both counts. The Norns visibly react to stimuli, such as the hand-shaped icon which represents the owner of the game. Through this hand the owner provides ample stimuli for the Norns; they learn to respond to the hand's commands. They also react to the other types of creatures in their world, including ugly green monsters called Grendels, and cute little beings called Ettins. They also react to each other, and to objects in their world. Sometimes, however, they just decide to pick up and go somewhere else, for no apparent reason at all-therefore, they are also autonomous (5).

There is other proof in favor of the theory that Norns are alive, that doesn't come directly from the game itself-in numerous Creatures communities on the Internet, the question of ethics in relation to Norns has been raised. There are numerous Internet sites dedicated to ending the mistreatment and torture of Norns and other Creatures lifeforms, sites run by people of the persuasion that their Norns are alive. Akin to animal rights, Norn torture protestors fight against those consumers who purchase Creatures just to check it out, then decide to beat their Norns, or starve them, or overdose them with chemicals from the Medical Kit in the program. Perhaps one or two Norn owners advocating Norn rights wouldn't prove much in the face of all the skeptics out there. However, the fact is that the majority of Norn owners in online Creatures communities believe their Norns deserve humane treatment(6). The efforts of these devoted owners, when coupled with the previous evidence in the Norn's favor, makes the argument that the creatures are really alive that much stronger.

Therefore, by our class's definition of life, Norns really are living organisms, in the same way the any human being is. They have distinct biological systems, intelligence and emotions, and an environment in which to grow and thrive. They are highly improbable assemblies which are energy dependant, reproduce with variation, and are both homeostatic and autonomous. Best of all, they can be found in electronics stores for anyone to own and enjoy, and hopefully, everyone who purchases Creatures or its later versions will treat the Norns as what they really are-living beings.

WWW Sources

1) Creature Labs , the home site of Creature Labs, creators of Norns.

2) Welcome to Creatures 2, the home site of the second version of the Creatures game.

3) AI Spec for QAA Benchmaking Panel , good introduction to A-life.

4) Alife , another good introduction to A-life.

5) Homecreatures: Creatures 1 , an introduction to the original Creatures game.

6) Homecreatures: Forum , a Creatures forum, including comments about Norn torture.

7) Homecreatures: Relics , a site including past Norn news and breakthroughs.

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