The Game of Life is a cellular automation first devised in 1970 by mathematician John Conway. It's played by setting simple rules and then watching how the cells live, die, interact, and form complex patterns that evolve over time. Last month, Canadian computer programmer Andrew Wade managed to spur the emergence of the game's very first self-replicating mathematical creature. It's named Gemini. From New Scientist:
Gemini's implications extend to the real world. "There's a fascination with the complexity that is coming out of these incredibly simple rules," says Susan Stepney, a computer scientist at the University of York, UK, who ran Gemini inside Life, at New Scientist's behest. "Eventually that leads on to biology, putting simple atoms together to make complex life."
Because Wade's replicator copies itself piece by piece, it is analogous to a photocopier rather than a living cell, she says. But it still has implications for understanding life. "The fact that it's doing it differently from biology is in itself interesting, because it shows there are multiple ways of solving the same problem. It's a very impressive technical achievement."
It's doing it differently from biology, showing there are multiple ways of solving the same problem
Stephen Wolfram, famous for championing cellular automata as a replacement for scientific equations, disputes Gemini's relevance to living cells. He says that feeding a program to a universal constructor merely to create a self-replicating creature – Wade's approach, and Von Neumann's original suggestion – is overkill. He points to a much simpler example, a one-dimensional cellular automaton known as "rule 90" that will duplicate any starting line of cells after a certain number of steps.
Rather than contributing to our understanding of life, Wolfram says Wade's discovery could help devise ways to build a molecular-scale computer, starting from tiny components like the cells in Life. "This discovery is helping us understand the world of constructing things from dumb components," he says.
UPDATE: Lots of debate in the comments here, and also at New Scientist, about whether this is really as much of a novelty in the Game of Life as the article suggests. It'll be interesting to see how the discussion evolves. Get it? EVOLVES!!! Hahahahah….