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Tangles with Teleology

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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. Read more.

Concocting life in a laboratory is not exactly typical work for a philosopher and a physicist. But it was a logical step in the journey Bedau and Packard began as students at Reed.

In graduate school and beyond, Packard became an expert in chaos theory, complex systems, and computer simulation. After a stint teaching physics at the University of Illinois, he and two partners founded the Prediction Company in Santa Fe in 1991 to provide financial firms with sophisticated automated systems in arenas such as derivatives trading. The company made a big splash and was purchased by Swiss investment bank UBS for an undisclosed sum in 2005 (The Predictors: How a Band of Maverick Physicists Used Chaos Theory to Trade Their Way to a Fortune on Wall Street, by Thomas A. Bass, chronicles the Prediction Company’s success).

In philosophy, meanwhile, Bedau was tangling with problems of teleology, seeking to explain the goal-directedness, or purpose, of living things. He went on to become editor of the journal Artificial Life and organized a conference on the topic in 2000 at Reed.

By then, the two Reedies were looking for bigger challenges.They started meeting with McCaskill and Rasmussen, both of whom were already working in the field. The group chose inspirational settings: Bedau’s favorite swimming hole on the Wilson River in Oregon’s Coast Range; Cannobio, Italy, on the banks of Lago Maggiore in the Italian Alps (Packard’s wife, Grazia Peduzzi, is from nearby Milan); Ghost Ranch in New Mexico, where the group hiked in the moonlight to the top of Petranos Peak.

And that’s where they hatched the idea of shifting from theories and computer simulations to experiments and real-world applications. “It would be absolutely concrete and real, in test tubes—not just theories, even though all of our backgrounds were in theory,” Bedau remembers thinking.

The European Commission liked their ideas enough to award a grant totaling $10.5 million to a project the four developed with several other partners in 2004. Called “Programmable Artificial Cell Evolution,” or PACE, it now includes a dozen partners and cooperating groups from across Europe, as well as three from the United States: Reed College, Los Alamos National Laboratory, and Argonne National Laboratory.

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