Much of the work that goes under the broad name of "Artificial Life" is essentially modelling of biological or quasi-biological systems, aiming to understand evolutionary and multi-agent processes by extending the boundaries of conceptual experiment.
More ambitious work explores models far removed from biological systems, which nevertheless share interesting features that might arguably merit the name of "life". In this way our conceptual understanding of life can be enhanced, by exploring a range of possibilities beyond our experience. Thus, for example, we are enabled to discuss whether life requires a biochemical or organic basis, a possibility which can be hard to grasp without the focus provided by alternative models. Freed from the unique known paradigm of life on Earth, we can then consider what features are best taken to be definitive of life in the abstract: obvious candidates include reproduction, adaptive evolution, functional organization, autonomy, metabolism, growth, and responsiveness to the environment. Whether it could be appropriate even in principle for a computerised artifact, or entities in a virtual environment, to be considered as genuinely living is highly controversial; these debates being reminiscent of similar discussions about the possibility of genuine artificial intelligence. Clearly there is plenty here to interest the philosopher, but most of the work that goes on under the general umbrella of "Artificial Life" has a value quite independent of the outcome of these debates.
Particularly interesting or well-known examples of Artificial Life research include:
- John Conway's Game of Life (the most famous example of a cellular automaton, though too simple to be a plausible model of genuine life)
- Tom Ray's Tierra (which involves an ecology of computer programs competing for CPU resources etc.)
- The Avida Project (inspired by Tierra, but with digital organisms in distinct memory spaces and running at independent speeds)
- Framsticks (a three-dimensional life simulator, modelling both mechanical structures and control systems)
An evolved creature (from The Golem Project)