Cellular Automata at Work

(Rudy Rucker is a guestblogger. His latest novel, Hylozoic, describes a postsingular world in which everything is alive.

I've been interested in cellular automata (CA) for many years, and I helped program two different free, downloadable CA software packages for Windows: Cellab and Capow.

If you just want a peek at these scuttling graphics, try Mirek Wójtowicz's Java-based MJCell program, viewable in your browser.


In the 1980s, my fellow cellular-automatist John Walker and I used to believe that CAs were poised to take over the worlds of video, fabric, and game effects. But the revolution is a little slow in coming...

At least, as I discussed in a "Gnarly CAs" article in Make magazine last year, my former student Alan Borecky indeed managed to make a CA dress for his wife, Donna. And I keep noticing that a lot of the fabrics that I see people wearing these days could easily be designed by CAs.


Nosing around for further evidence for the advance of CAs, I found some mildly heartening signs. The blog Code-Spot has a tutorial on using CAs in games.

The book Core Techniques and Algorithms in Game Programming has a little bit about using CAs to generate fire.

And cellular automata have played a role in both SimCity and Spore.


I've long thought that digital musicians should lean more heavily on chaotic effects so as to avoid roboticity. Audio Damage has released a CA-based device called Automaton:

A glitch plug-in that uses a unique game of life style sequencer...capable of adding subtle, seemingly random fills and humanizing effects, but if you like, you can crank the sequencer up to eleven, and watch as your digital audio workstation becomes a petri dish while Automaton makes complete hay of the track you've inserted it to.


  1. Some years ago (10ish?) there was an article in a knitting magazine about knitting cellular automata…

    I tried it once but never made anything other than a swatch of it. I don’t remember which magazine it was in. Probably Knitter’s Magazine, IIRC.

  2. Roboticity. Roboticity. Roboticity.

    My vocabulary expands by one.

    I’m not sure why one would characterize the effects of cellular automata as “chaotic” though. They are rule-based, after all, even if the effect can’t easily be traced back to the rule that produced it.

    Hey! How about CA-based crypto?

  3. This is actually not the first mention of using The Game of Life as a method for sequencing computer sequenced music. Native Instruments Reaktor has Newscool, a really nifty and entirely procedural groove box that is sequenced by the Game of Life. Native Instruments actually makes some really awesome stuff that is hinged on the notion that chaos makes interesting sounds. They have three other noteworthy entries that you all should check YouTube for; Spiral, Metaphysical Function, and Skrewell.

  4. It is “Audio Damage”, not “KVR Audio Damage”. KVR is just the website that reviewed the CA sequencer.

  5. Didn’t clothing designer Jhane Barnes use cellular automata for some of her fabric designs a few years ago?

  6. I think KVR and Audio Damage are two different entities. KVR being a news site about audio plug-ins and Audio Damage being one of the featured plug-in developers. I just checked out the Audio Damage site and their slogan is apparently “We’re in your DAW murderin’ your bitz”.

  7. Let’s not forget that Stephen Wolfram’s New Kind Of Science is really an attempt on some levels to build an entire science out of cellular automata.

    I remember reading about Life back in the 70s as a kid and being absolutely fascinated by the variety of stuff that popped out of such simple rules.

    Recently, my 11 year old and I built that Life kit from Ada and it was quite fascinating.

  8. Unusual Suspect @2: the term “chaotic” has a mathematical meaning not quite the same as its colloquial meaning. A chaotic system can be rule-based (the Mandelbrot set is generated by a very simple rule, and it’s the poster child for chaotic attractors) and even reversible. The key element is sensitivity to slight changes in initial conditions, which implies unpredictability.

    Many cellular automata exhibit chaotic behavior. In the game of Life, for instance, four cells in the shape of a “T” quickly stabilize to a period-2 oscillating state, but adding a single cell to the initial “T” creates the “R pentomino”, which doesn’t stabilize for 1103 generations.

  9. If you’ve got a Nintendo DS and a flash cart, you can play with glitchDS, a free cellular-automata-based music sequencer.

  10. jere7my, thanks!

    I confess that the notion of deterministic chaos makes me a little dizzy.

  11. Thanks for the CAs-in-games link Rudy. I have wanted to build a CA game since 1995. In recent years I have mused on some of the “basic laws of physics” you might want to build into a massively multiplayer, online, user-content-contributed, stochastic CA game: laws like conservation of energy & momentum, rate at which cells are stochastically updated, etc.

    I also want to build a simulation of RNA folding using cellular automata and compare it to programs like Vienna and Kinefold, both of which simulate RNA thermodynamics and kinetics in other ways…

    Ah, CA. Poised to take over the world, you say? But isn’t the world already BUILT out of a giant CA? ;)

    (Hoping to redeem myself after snippy criticism of Wolfram in earlier thread….)

  12. All chaos is deterministic (that’s the point). But technically if it stabilizes after 1103 generations it isn’t chaotic. (OK I’ll get my coat)

    The Game of Life is the best (and first) model CA out there. I like the Turing Machine and the Unit Life cell (Life implemented within Life!)

    More patterns at ibiblio.org

  13. I have Automaton, and don’t use it very much.

    The fact that it uses CA has very little practical advantage over simple randomized triggers, other than being somewhat harder to control and predict.

    The result is that it sounds more-or-less random, and more-or-less random things sound robotic.

    Automated “humanization” in music involves very controlled, limited amounts of random variation (usually in rhythm) to simulate our imperfections. A gaussian distribution is best.

  14. Good point crashproof about the degree of randomness.

    I think continuous valued CA can be more useful in this regard. This instrument I made in processing last year plays different pitched notes depending on the smoothly varying value at a point.

    Because the system has a fixed modulus it keeps a certain rhythm, but with some chaotic variation (and if you use the up/down arrows you can adjust how chaotic).

    Unfortunately I don’t have much experience programming with sound so I just linked cell values to a simple rising string of notes on the default midi piano which sounds absolutely awful.

    What I’d really like to do is link it to a drum machine so that you can build a beat and the chaos will create the breaks and fills.
    Anyone out there want to help me make this happen? get in touch

  15. I see #3 has already mentioned Reaktor’s Newscool – I’ve tried a few CA/Life-based music tools, and Newscool is definitely the most useful because it combines the (pontentially) ‘random’ results of Life with a loop-based approach. So you can set up a starting pattern on the grid, define what sounds are played in what circumstances, and then tell the sequencer to reset that pattern after, say, 32 steps. Use percussion sounds and you get the unpredictable rhythmic results you might expect but looping over and over to form a regular rhythm. Then you can add pixels here and there to mutate a bar temporarily. It’s very rewarding when it works well, which it usually does.

    There’s a 59p app on the iPhone that has a Life sequencer mode, but without the loop option it’s not as useful – though of course it can be still be very interesting, often more so because you can watch and hear the chaos settle down, swell back up and eventually fall into a few oscillating blinkers and the occasional glider drifting off to oblivion.

    I was quite disappointed that the Tenori-On hardware sequencer didn’t have a Life mode, as its 16*16 button grid would have been an interesting playground. If you can find one I’m sure there are plenty of Life apps for the Monome.

    Great topic!

  16. “What I’d really like to do is link it to a drum machine so that you can build a beat and the chaos will create the breaks and fills.
    Anyone out there want to help me make this happen? get in touch”

    automaton will do this, just automate it in your DAW to come on when you want a fill and it’ll give you some random fill.. works pretty well at the end of every 4 bars or so.

  17. As others have said, KVR is a review site, not connected to Audio Damage. Its like talking about a ‘Boingboing gadgets Apple iphone’ or something.

    Audio Damage make excellent products all round, always very well reviewed, and the direct link is http://www.audiodamage.com/effects/product.php?pid=AD020, and they are a very small scale operation (a 2 person development team) that sells very professional products at a very reasonable price. Go on, edit to fix this and send Audio Damage the linkage they deserve.

    And yeah, the Reaktor stuff is pretty nice too.

  18. See also the recent column by Steven Strogatz in the NYTimes, Math and the City, where the processes of biological growth within a single organism is compared to the overall development of large cities. Interestingly, growth tracks according to Zipf’s law, which has to do with the frequency rates of words used in a given lexicon. Basically, human activity on the scale of building cities, and biological activity on the scale of growing bodies, has a mathematical pattern as predictable as Mandelbrot sets. We are probably all just cosmic zeroes and ones in a huge cellular automata.

  19. @5 You’re right, the Automaton product is from Audio Damage, and was only reviewed on the KVR site. I edited the post to reflect this.

  20. @8 and @22. Ditto for you guys, I now understand it’s an Audio Damage product that was reviewed on KVR. I changed the link to go to Audio Damage now, too.

  21. “In the 1980s, my fellow cellular-automatist John Walker and I used to believe that CAs were poised to take over the worlds of video, fabric, and game effects. But the revolution is a little slow in coming…”

    I was inspired by your articles and books in the 1980s (and later) to try implementing my own little CA-based art, music, and games. This is what I’ve done so far:

    * http://www.ibm.com/developerworks/library/j-j2d/index.html
    * http://www.automatous-monk.com/artapps/seurat/caconvolutions.html
    * http://www.ibm.com/developerworks/java/library/j-camusic/
    * http://www.pygame.org/projects/20/489/

  22. inkadinka12 asked about Jhane Barnes using cellular automata in her designs. Currently on display in her website is Contour Map which comes from a cellular automata.

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