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Considering Steven Levy and Artificial Life

In this week’s issue, Natasha Singer reviews “Facebook: The Inside Story,” by Steven Levy. In 1992, William Poundstone wrote for the Book Review about “Artificial Life,” Levy’s book about the science and nuance of life creation in silico.

Can an engineered creation be alive? This centuries-old question is the starting point for Steven Levy’s lucid new book, “Artificial Life: The Quest for a New Creation.” The title refers neither to the products of genetic engineering nor to artificial intelligence’s goal of creating a thinking machine. The subject matter of artificial life is the making of computer programs that reproduce themselves, exhibit unexpected behavior and evolve. The computer virus — a marginal, unfortunately familiar example of artificial life — is nothing compared to what is being conceived.

One of the most striking revelations in Mr. Levy’s book is that, for many working on artificial life, these Faustian fears have been revived. Von Neumann and his colleagues conceived of friendly self-reproducing robots that would share our own world and perform useful tasks like extracting minerals from seawater. But current researchers aren’t so sure. One such researcher, Steen Rasmussen, admitted darkly: “I feel in some way that I am committing sin by the things I am doing.”

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