On the books of Michael Crichton

Artificial Life in Michael Crichton's Prey

By Larry Yaeger

It’s the process, not the substrate.

That’s essentially the claim, and might as well be the slogan, of so-called “strong” Artificial Life (ALife). The idea is simple: Life is best defined, both functionally and logically, by the processes that give rise to it, not by the materials in which those processes are implemented or embedded. The consequences of this insight are profound: Life—real life, be it naturally occurring or man-made—can be found or implemented in any system capable of sustaining those processes. (“Weak” ALife just says our computer algorithms can learn a lot from biology and would prefer to leave it at that.) Though many others, including charles darwin, Erwin Schödinger, John von Neumann, Alan Turing, and John holland, undoubtedly laid the groundwork, chris Langton is the “father” of Artificial Life. He gave the field its name and made the clear, bold statement:

The big claim is that a properly organized set of artificial primitives carrying out the same functional roles as the biomolecules in natural living systems will support a process that will be “alive” in the same way that natural organisms are alive. Artificial Life will therefore be genuine life—it will simply be made of different stuff than the life that has evolved here on Earth.

This is the core and perhaps most significant premise Michael Crichton posits to develop the deadly adversary in his novel Prey: evolving, self-reproducing swarms of nanoparticles that get cleverer and more dangerous—more alive—with each generation. Though not all scientists would agree,  …

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