reed magazine logospring2006

life in venice title

Reedies on the
Artificial Life Trail

The work of Mark Bedau and Norman Packard on artificial life over the years has seeded a crop of Reedies in the field. Nelson Minar ’91, for instance, now on leave from Google, studied with Bedau at Reed and later worked at the Santa Fe Institute developing computer simulations. (Packard has long been involved with the Institute.) Mark Triant ’05 worked with Bedau researching the social and ethical implications of making life from scratch.

The latest recruits are Andy Buchanan ’07, a senior on extended leave, and Emily Parke ’04.
The two philosophy majors moved (almost) directly from classes at Reed to workstations at ProtoLife in Venice.


emily and andy image

Emily Parke ’04 and Andy Buchanan ’07 now work in Venice, pushing the boundaries of science and bioethics.

Buchanan is now the firm’s scientific software developer. He credits various Reed classes with helping him master lab methodology and philosophical techniques that aid in determining viable research avenues. With a background in computer science, Buchanan says Reed also provided him with the foundation for designing computer simulations and efficient algorithms. Buchanan earns his keep by working on nearly every aspect of ProtoLife that depends on computers, including the use of a specialized software program to analyze microscopic lab samples at a rate that would be impossible using human analysis alone. With Bedau and others, he is developing new artificial intelligence (AI) software for automated intelligent design of complex chemical systems.

At Reed, Parke took classes and worked on projects that prepared her for her current work at ProtoLife. Bedau supervised her senior thesis, which began as a general analysis of decision making and ended up concentrating on the precautionary principle. This, Parke writes, “is a policy standard based on the general premise of desire to reduce risks posed by potentially harmful activities or technologies, even in the face of scientific uncertainty regarding this potential harm.”

Now working as ProtoLife’s business manager, Parke conducts market research, with the goal of turning the company’s discoveries into income-producing products, techniques, and formulae. She
also grapples with the ethical issues surrounding artificial life. She’s currently assisting Bedau with a collection of essays on proto-cell ethics, about bridging the divide between living and nonliving matter, which will be published by MIT Press. Bedau in turn is planning a course on the topic at Reed next fall.
Buchanan and Parke say they’ve faced some skepticism from fellow-Reedies as they’ve moved from academia to the private sector. “This is a very Reed concern, that it’s a company doing [the research],” says Buchanan. “I’ve definitely had people say it makes them feel leery.” Buchanan isn’t fazed, though. If anyone is going to push the boundaries of human knowledge and create life in the laboratory, he says, it might as well be a group of Reedies, who he says are willing to ask difficult questions about the societal implications of the new technologies they develop.

Plus, says Parke, ProtoLife’s work doesn’t pose any dangers, at least in the near-term. “One of the biggest concerns people have is that there’ll be some point of no return, that you’ll be messing with [artificial life] and all of a sudden you’ll be unleashing something on the world,” she says. “It’s very much like a slippery slope, not falling off a cliff. It’s happening slowly, with lots of chances to stop and evaluate and see where things are. And I think it’ll continue that way.”

Buchanan is most excited about what’s yet to come. “One thing that will clearly come from all this is that we’ll have a better understanding of evolution and life,” he says. “No matter what happens, we’ll gain that.”

—Rachel Fredericks ’04

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