Bruce Damer - Burning Man, NASA, & artificial life

Bruce Damer is a technologist,
virtual world pioneer, and computer historian. He is the CEO and
founder of The Digital Space
, director of the Contact
, 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

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
? What is your role and what is the goal of the

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

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.