Bruce Damer - Burning Man, NASA, & artificial life

Brucedamerrrrrr Bruce Damer is a technologist, virtual world pioneer, and computer historian. He is the CEO and founder of The Digital Space Commons, director of the Contact Consortium, and author of the book "Avatars".

I talked with him about Burning Man & Katrina, NASA & near-earth-objects, artificial life & his EvoGrid project, and the legacy of psychedelic visionaries...

At the end of August, 2005, you were at Burning Man in a heavily-outfitted RV. News quickly spread of the Katrina disaster. How did you respond from the middle of the Nevada desert?

At Burning Man in 2005 our camp was among other things, running the webcast and helping maintain the playa wifi network, so we knew about Katrina while other burners were in their glorious offline world. One of our camp-mates, who worked for the Pentagon devising "extreme communications" disaster relief hardware and deploying it in places such as for the Asian Tsunami that year, pointed our dishes skyward and tracked the incoming hurricane via some super high-res satellite. He phoned the Pentagon to order up some blackhawk helicopters to take his crew down to New Orleans to help the citizenry but due to government red tape that order was denied. I said at the time "whew, those scary loud black things buzzing the playa would have caused some serious kind of mass panic about a bust by the Bushies or a belief amongst burners that the UFO invasion had chosen Black Rock as its landing pad".

Instead, our camp took quick action by setting up a Katrina Information Center and people came in to see the satellite views and get the latest disturbing info about their neighborhoods. Then the Reverend Billy of the Church of Stop Shopping stopped by and rapidly organized a Dixie Land band, recruited folk singer Joen Baez who was there that year, and hosted a phenomenal prayer and concert at the Temple. Andie Grace, Burning Man Community Manager, state that this concert was the finest moment in the history of the festival. After collecting tens of thousands of dollars in water jugs, organizers determined to give this money directly to stranded residents of the gulf states and New Orleans, who were gathering in a state of shock at the Katrina Information Center. Later the spark that was set off at the Katrina Information Center grew into the Temple to Temple initiative, various Burning Man direct volunteer relief and Mississippi Delta reconstruction efforts, and ultimately Burners without Borders. This year a documentary film was launched on the whole wonderful drama.

I have to say that serving as minor support agents in this Katrina effort were the finest moments Galen and I ever experienced at Burning Man. We still have the sign "Bring Jazz, Concert for New Orleans" in our living room.


Reverend Billy leading thousands in prayer for New Orleans, at the Temple, Burning Man 2005.

You've been a NASA contractor and group leader of your own research and development company for many years. What is the most interesting project you've worked on with them? How did this work inform your own life?

Yes indeed, since 1999 I've been leading a team here at DigitalSpace, which does 3D virtual worlds with high powered physics. NASA funded us for years to develop an open source platform to help them model rovers on the moon and mars, space station construction, the Hubble Telescope servicing mission and more. In the most exciting project, a team approached us in 2007 with a really novel challenge, how to visualize a human crewed mission to a near earth object (ie: an asteroid). I said to them "yes we can do that but have you guys thought of how to put the crew down on the surface". They hadn't and so I offered to lead a design exercise, which resulted in one of the first actual studies and spacecraft designs for going to another body in the solar system sine Von Braun and his team conceived of the Saturn architecture and the Lunar Module in the early 1960s. The study was controversial so the information was embargoed for a while. I was given the go ahead to release our part of it, the design of how the multi-ton spacecraft would dock and "tether" itself to the low-gravity asteroid surface allowing the crew to exit and explore with handholds and jet-packs. On July 31, 2007 I did a talk at Industrial Light & Magic in San Francisco in a room next to where the costume of Darth Vader stood. I then went on to an official NASA talk in the city where a real life Darth Vader, NASA Ames Center Director General Pete Worden, was in attendance. This was the first public release of the design concept mission. All over the net the image of this mission concept appeared, from to AOL, and it appeared on the cover of Popular Science. This was a high point in my "NASA career" and a real thrill for an outsider. [See video of the asteroid mission here.] This work has connected me in in with the whole space exploration and development (those who dream of colonies) community. I was also given a dose of cold water to sober up the reality of what is actually possible in sustainable human space exploration and longer stays. I am now a realist in those terms (a lunar colony is not even remotely a possibility with our current technology and approach to this enterprise). So in a real way this decade working with Space directed me back toward studying evolution in software, which I had been interested keenly in since about 1982.

Would you describe your current PhD work on evolutionary computation and artificial life? What do you hope this "EvoGrid" effort will enable for future researchers and the future of humanity?

I started my PhD work at the University of Southern California in 1985. At the time I was trying to use computers (a VAX 11/750 on the ARPANET) to model gazillions of small entities that would reproduce, adapt and be able to solve problems. The problem I came up with was the "brilliant pebbles" challenge posed by the old "Star Wars" missile defense program. Its basically how to build a computer that can process gazillions of radar returns from a lot of warheads streaming through space during an all-out nuclear war, and then target those warheads. I developed what today might be called an "artificial life" approach to the problem with little software critters that would "eat" the signals and rapidly work out where everything was going. This didn't get implemented beyond a demonstration stage and a display of laser optics setup on a big fat Tektronix color display. Our group got 300K or so from the "Strategic Defense Initiative" about the time I left the group. Later in the early 1990s my ideas got communicated to a black-ops program, and supposedly implemented and flown (after one booster failure) out of Vandenburg Airforce Base to do a rapid fly-by of a clump of small asteroids. I was told the algorithmic approach worked like a charm but not permitted to know specific results. Given the trajectory I calculated that this spacecraft must be one of the most distant objects in the solar system by now, out with the Voyagers and Pioneer 10 in the Ooort cloud. I hope the aliens find it before they pick up on JPL's craft with their linear go-to programming or else its the giant yellow galactic bulldozers for us!

Back on the PhD track, throughout the 1990s I kept the dream alive of creating software that could show biology, evolution or at least something life-like in action. I established in 1996 to serve as a catalyst between the communities of paleontologists, biochemists, computer scientists, artists and writers thinking about origins of life, evolution and life as it could be here or elsewhere. I started a conference series (Digital Biota) that went to the famous Burgess Shale fossil quarry, and involved many luminary thinkers such as Karl Sims, Tom Ray, Richard Dawkins, Douglas Adams, Rudy Rucker and Bruce Sterling. In 2007 a full 20 years after the original USC PhD work I worked out that not only was computing power probably up to the task (in my remaining lifetime) of doing the job, but that I was hitting 45 years of age and I better get going. I took a pilgrimage to see Freeman Dyson about the newly reborn project, which I conceived with my collaborators as a kind of "origin of artificial life" and Freeman found it delightful and said "look, I am forty years older than you, you can get a lot done in forty years".

Thus inspired, our tiny team is powering forward into the extremely challenging worlds of simulating chemical reality, with the hopes one day of the larger EvoGrid simulation showing some interesting signs of artificial biological emergence, or better still, Darwinian natural selection leading to the first all-digital artificial life cell, perhaps within my lifetime! [You can see an animated overview of EvoGrid here.]

How did you get involved with the Timothy Leary Archives? What is your role and what is the goal of the organization?

I met Denis Berry, the trustee of Dr. Leary's archives, several years ago and pledged to help in any way I could to find a home for these 400 boxes of Tim's stuff. Its amazing stuff, perhaps the biggest collection of counterculture artifacts in the world, including letters to and from Allen Ginsberg, John Lennon and many more notables of the time. An effort supported by Brewster Khale of the Internet Archive, and lead by Lisa Rein, has led to the scanning of all of Tim's books, movies, rare reel to reel audio, and a start on key documents and photographs. , and the audio is being put out into the Psychedelic Salon podcast run by Lorenzo Hagerty. This whole effort has provided the world, especially the up and coming younger generation, a re-introduction to Dr. Timothy Leary way beyond the typical excoriation and one dimensional villain portrayal by the media.

How has the psychedelic experience informed your work, your art, and your life?

As I am a virtual worlds aficionado and I see parallels between the worlds of the elevated mind and our development of 3D digital spaces where we clothe ourselves as weird alter-beings known as avatars, and interact with any number of weird humanoid and non-humanoid entities such as in-world AIs and other people. Back in 1999 the late Terence McKenna (the mushroom bard) and I engaged in some explorations of virtual worlds, with him experiencing these spaces for the first time. Our shared commentary about the experience reveals that trip-spaces and trips into cyberspace may not be that unrelated! As Terence's archives were destroyed by fire some years ago, I have been working with a group of dedicated people to bring some of Terence's thought back to life.

 Images Mckennavw

Terence McKenna inside a virtual world, 1999.

You've collected an incredible array of hardware chronicling the history of personal computing at your DigiBarn Computer Museum project. With that as a background what is the one big techno intervention you hope to see developed in the next decade or two?

Like all shy and geeky teenagers of the 1970s I had my eye on the hottest personal computers of the day (Commodore PET 2001 anyone!) and in the 1980s I had the golden opportunity to work on early innovative user interfaces with Xerox (who invented the modern concept of networked personal computers with GUIs, mice at their Xerox PARC laboratory). So in the late 1990s after having "bought the farm" I found that I could fill our large barn here with my own collection and donations from around the world. The DigiBarn Computer Museum now features the sweep of the history of PCs from the 1960s on up and has a few big systems (Cray supercomputers) thrown in.

What I see next is a grand convergence between the ever shrinking, ever more powerful format of the PC, now embodied as a smartphone, the growth of alter-selves as avatars, social network identities, and the ubiquity of spatial data in the guise of Google Maps & Street View. This convergence will pump up the growth of Augmeted Reality (AR) seen first on your smartphone and then down the road on some kind of glasses or stylish retinal display. In 10 or 20 years we (or our kids) will be walking around seeing all kinds of data, images, media, avatars, game play elements and social networks mapped onto the world all around us. An inevitable yet frightening vision? A great description of this future is available in Vernor Vinge's novel, Rainbows End.