What might you get by crossing SETI@Home with the movie Saturn 3? Quite possibly Bruce Damer’s new distributed computing effort EvoGrid, which strives to create a plausible simulation of the chemical origins of life on Earth by replicating these origins in a digital environment. Damer is a Silicon Valley computer scientist and the creator of the Biota.org web site, which is dedicated to the engineering of artificial life.
Damer’s objective is to create a digital replication of early Earth’s “primordial soup.” From this he believes it possible to learn about the actual evolution of life on Earth, as well as gain insight into the possible creation of artificial life. Damer’s project will make use of Bionic, the National Science Foundation’s system that makes available free computing cycles on Internet networked computers, and Gromacs, software developed by the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, which will model the molecular interactions. According to John Markoff of The New York Times, “The EvoGrid goal is to detect evidence of self-organizing behavior in computerized simulations that have been constructed to model the first emergence of life in the physical world.”
Damer’s efforts are not unique. The idea of digital artificial life was developed in the 1940s by John von Neumann and Stanislaw Ulam at the Lost Alamos Laboratory. An early effort was ecologist Thomas Ray’s Tierra, which made use of 1000 networked workstations to simulate the mutation of digital forms. What makes Damer’s efforts different is the high powered computing environment at his disposal. The Bionic system connects more than a half million computers, and averages 2.45 petaflops of computing power.