Yuto Miyamoto
Nov 3, 2018 · 18 min read

On July 2018, The 2018 Conference on Artificial Life “ALife 2018” was held in Tokyo, and behind the scenes of the team that led this conference to success was a TEDxKids pioneer of Japan, Ryuta Aoki. How did he become familiar with artificial life, and how does he intend to use the technology born from the “operating system of life” to form society?

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On the 21st of September 1987, around 160 scientists gathered at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, located in New Mexico, US. The types of scientists that met each other on the 2nd floor of the Oppenheimer Research Center included computer scientists, physicists, biologists, theoretical biochemists, anthropologists and ethologists. Among them were evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and botanist Aristid Lindenmayer.

At the conference, they had spent five days discussing the research field known as “Artificial Life/ALife”. The immense laboratory, located south of the Rocky Mountains, was once known for its atomic bomb development, but the scientific technology born from ALife “will be the most astounding thing since the development of the nuclear bomb” according to Steven Levy in his book “Artificial Life”.

The history of ALife is also that of the scientists who attempted to elucidate life through the perspective of mathematics and physics. The genius mathematician John von Neumann, popularly known as the inventor of the computer, is also the “father of artificial life”. The dawn of ALife was when in 1951 he announced in his article The General and Logical Theory of Automata that all organisms were a type of automaton, therefore meaning that their behaviors could be accounted for mathematically.

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The “Boid Model” conceived by Craig Reynolds in 1987 is known as the initial stage of artificial life programs. By giving bird-shaped objects on the computer the three simple rules of “keep a distance to not collide with each other”, “face the same direction as each other” and “gather from distant locations”, the objects showed behavior similar to those of a flock of live birds. Photo by James Wainscoat on Unsplash

After Neumann passed away in 1957 his ideas were passed onto various scientists, and 30 years after his death, ALife was recognised as an official research field thanks to computer scientist Christopher Langton. The basic approach of this field is to create “Life-as-it-could-be” rather than just observing “Life-as-we-know-it” in response to the question, “What is life?”

In an announcement piece from the first International Conference on Artificial Life (also known as “A-Life I”), Langton wrote the following:

Artificial life is the study of artificial systems that exhibit behavior characteristic of natural living systems. It is the quest to explain life in any of its possible manifestations, without restriction to the particular examples that have evolved on earth. This includes biological and chemical experiments, computer simulations, and purely theoretical research. Processes occurring on molecular, social, and evolutionary scales are subject to investigation. The ultimate goal is to extract the logical form of living systems.

Microelectronic technology and genetic engineering will soon give us the capability to create new life forms in silico as well as in vitro. This capacity will present humanity with the most far-reaching technical, theoretical and ethical challenges it has ever confronted. (Artificial Life: The Quest for a New Creation by Steven Levy)

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And now, in July 2018, 31 years since the international conference at Los Alamos, the 2018 Conference on Artificial Life “ALife 2018” was held in Tokyo. The institutes in the US and Europe holding the ALife conferences every year in turns since 1987 were integrated last year, and the location chosen for the first conference since this integration was here, in Tokyo.

“It may be possible to create new artificial life.” These were the words of the ALife 2018 executive committee chairman and complex systems science/ALife researcher Takashi Ikegami before the conference. According to Ikegami, since the early 1990s when various new concepts for ALife research were born, there were approximately 20 years of a lack in progress. “At the international conference held in Southampton, UK in 2008, I gave a keynote speech titled ‘Artificial Life is Dead’, and I actually thought so at the time.”

However, since 2008, technology that would change “the state of science” such as big data analytics, blockchain and deep learning have been born. And now, movements have begun where not only are we thinking about the life phenomenon through computer simulations like in the past, but also through, art, web systems, games or ethics that exist in the real world.

“The artificial life which is being born now is completely different to that I have worked with in the past”, Ikegami says pointing at the movement. “I said in 2008 that ‘ALife is dead’, but by absorbing new knowledge and new movements, it is possible to bring about a neogenesis of artificial life; this is the objective which the start of ALife 2018 was based on.”

ALife Lab.”, the group hosting this conference, was created in 2016 to connect researchers and other fields of study through the theme of artificial life. Other than Ikegami, the three core members of the group include the Web Science researcher and Tsukuba University associate professor Mizuki Oka, and Ryuta Aoki, who started the “TedxKids” program in Japan in 2011, a TED franchise event which shares with children ideas worth sharing and runs the design firm “VOLOCITEE Inc.” which specializes in the creation of communities.

In an approximately 7000-letter column published at “Biz/Zine” in November 2017 titled “What is artificial life — the difference from AI and biology, and the application of artificial life towards urban design and organizations”, Aoki explains artificial life while comparing it to biology and artificial intelligence and writes about its possibilities. There would have been plenty of people that had found out that he is currently involved in activities based on the theme of artificial life, when in the past he had been active with the field of community management and TEDx (the author was one of these people).

However, one thing that could not be found in that article was the reason for him getting involved in artificial life.

A video with the theme “What is Life?” was played at the beginning of the ALife 2018 pre-conference.
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came across TED was based on two occasions regarding “death” which he had experienced at the age of 30. One of them was when he was diagnosed with cancer and being told by the doctor that there was a possibility he would only live for a few more months. The other was his close friend committing suicide.

Aoki grew up completely absorbed in “Discovery Channel” and computers, and aged 20 he decided to start a business with his friends from his part-time work at an IT class, and afterwards spent the rest of his twenties working as a software programmer for several businesses. Marrying in his early twenties, by the time he was 30 he had two children, but at the time he had crammed in so much work every day that he hardly had any time to spend with his family. It was at that time when he experienced the two “deaths”, leading to him revaluating his own way of living.

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Social sculptor/concept designer born in 1979. As a programmer he worked on the development of software platforms at numerous businesses, before participating in “TEDxTokyo” in 2009 as a volunteer. In 2011 he started “TEDxKids@Chiyoda”, which was the first TEDx focused on children, and established the design firm “VOLOCITEE Inc.”, which specialises in community creation. He has also worked on community creation and management through projects such as “Art Hack Day”, “The TEA-ROOM” and “TAICOLAB”. In 2016, together with complex systems science/artificial life researcher Takashi Ikegami and Web Science researcher Mizuki Oka, he started up “ALIFE Lab.”, a group which intends to promote the co-creation by researchers of artificial life and other fields. In 2017 he cofounded the business “Alternative Machine”, which aims to socially apply the technology and perspective of artificial life.

“The situation with my disease overlapped with my friend’s suicide, and I became very conscious of ‘death’. I realized that we don’t have unlimited time” said Aoki in his “greenz.jp” interview in 2012. “Being unable to make use of the talent you have, like my friend [who had killed himself], is a real waste. I thought that there should be a platform for many people to have a go at various things.”

After undergoing surgery and completely recovering from cancer, Aoki quit his job and started volunteering with “TEDxTokyo” which had arrived in Japan in 2009. After a year of activity at TEDxTokyo, in 2011 he set up the first TEDx conference aimed at children in Japan, “TEDxKids”. His wish to communicating the things that he thought were important to children, something that he had felt while spending time with his own children for the first time in a while after being diagnosed with cancer and taking a leave from work, was made a reality through the TEDx platform.

At the same time in 2011, he founded the design firm VOLOCITEE Inc. that focuses on the community creation and management Aoki had cultivated in TEDx. Its mission is “Prototype People’s Creativity”. Through the management of communities in various projects including TEDx, he continued to gain experience in creating teams by drawing out the initiative and creativity within people.

“Ryuta-san is an ideal leader who makes you wish you were working alongside him” were the words of Aya Omoto, who was involved in event management with Aoki as one of the volunteers for the TEDx Conference aimed at younger adults in their twenties and thirties, “TEDxTokyo yz”.

“He presents us with a vision and a direction to move towards, but instead of deciding on everything himself, he trusts the people around him and creates an environment in which every member can materialize their ideas. Through this process, he brings out the potential in people which they themselves had not even noticed; such was the style of his leadership” said Omoto, who after volunteering with TEDx studied abroad at the Danish business design school “KAOSPILOT”, and is now working as a representative for Laere, an education design firm which links Denmark and Japan.

“Beyond that, the best thing about Ryuta-san is that no matter what age or standpoint you are at, he interacts with you politely. He is modest towards everyone, but at the same time he has an overwhelming presence to him. Like so, I think he is a person who has a wondrous charm to him.”

At the TEDxKobeSalon held in 2014, Aoki took to the stage with the theme “5 lessons in community management”. “1: enjoyment should be your motivation 2: uncontrolled design 3: networking through involvement 4: leadership is an action not a status 5: designing breaks”. These were the 5 teachings shared there, cultivated in him in his management of TEDx.

Through his activity at TEDxKids, Aoki states he started to feel motivated to support children who have aspirations but were coming up against the issue of “common sense”.

“There are people who are unable to do the things they want because of social structures, atmosphere and common sense; to create a system I could support and in which this situation would change — it’s a cool thing to do, and it would lead to changing society” said Aoki, sitting for the first interview of this article on a rainy April morning in the meeting space of the shared office “HalfHalf” in Koishikawa, his workplace at the time. His desk, surrounded by things such as computers, books, manga and decoration used for TEDxKids@Chiyoda, resembled a hideout. “It would be interesting to change the awareness of society like that. I started to think that this was the type of work I liked.”

Aoki had started “Art Hack Day”, a hackathon specific to art, in 2014 with the aim to maximize opportunities for artists, who struggle to find approval in society despite doing valuable work. Much like Joseph Beuys once advocated, providing society with new perspectives and ideas by changing people’s approaches to things was also what Aoki wanted to engage in, and thus in 2017 he changed his title to “social sculptor”.

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that came to Mizuki Oka’s mind when she met Aoki was that he had a very nice voice. The two had met in January 2016 while rehearsing the “COI (Center of Innovation) 2021 Conference”, held at the National Olympic Memorial Youth Center in Yoyogi by the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology with the aim of interaction between scientists of different fields.

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Born in 1980. Associate professor, Graduate School of Systems and Information Engineering, University of Tsukuba. After reading Computer Science at Tsukuba University, she obtained her doctorate in engineering there in 2008. She had previously worked as a project researcher for iSchool at the University of Tokyo and as a research associate at University of Tsukuba before landing at her current job in 2015. She specializes in Web Science and artificial life. Together with Takashi Ikegami and Ryuta Aoki she set up “ALife Lab” in July 2016 and works to promote co-creation between artificial life researchers and those of other fields. She co-wrote “ALife which we create and move”, with ALife Lab. members and Dominick Chen. Other than working as the chief of Web Science Research Group at the Artificial Intelligence Society, she has also lectured at TEDxTokyo 2012 and TEDxTsukuba 2013. http://websci.cs.tsukuba.ac.jp/

Oka, who had been doing cooperative research on artificial life with Ikegami from 2010, said that the situation that would be 2 years later came to her mind after seeing Aoki, who was working as the art director at the COI conference she was chairing, coach researchers on presentation skills. At the time, Japanese artificial life researchers including Oka and Ikegami were deciding on whether to come forward as a candidate to host the 2018 artificial life conference. They wanted to do it, but Japan did not have many artificial life researchers. They were worried that if they hosted the conference, it would be too much for them.

“I was aware of the issue that Japan did not have an artificial life community”, Oka recalls. For someone like her, Aoki, who had set up and cultivated communities such as TEDx and Art Hack Day seemed like a vital figure for opening Japan’s artificial life circle up to various fields. “I took an interest in the fact that Aoki was engaged in creating communities and thought that together we would maybe be able to invigorate the artificial life community in holding ALife 2018 in Japan” Oka says. She had asked Aoki if he wanted to participate in ALife activities together at the convivial party for the COI.

After a few weeks, through Oka’s introduction, Aoki visited Ikegami’s office at the University of Tokyo. Takashi Ikegami is a scientist who resembles a rock musician on both the outside and inside. Being slender and tall, he somewhat resembles the appearance of Kiyoshiro Imawano, a famous Japanese rock singer, or Mick Jagger. Once he opens his mouth, he mumbles though passionately and quickly. After visiting Ikegami’s office, located in the Komaba campus of the university, and seeing numerous posters at the entrance of the office, Aoki recalls that “at first glance it resembled a band’s clubroom”. It was then that Ikegami told Aoki that he wanted to make the 2018 ALife conference “something TED-Like” where not just researchers but people from other fields could participate as well. “He looked like someone with a strong ego but did not appear to be bossy, so I thought that I would be able to do it with him” Aoki recalls.

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Professor at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Tokyo. Doctor in physics. While researching complex systems and artificial life, he also participates in art activity with Keiichiro Shibuya, evala, and Kenshu Shintsubo. Ikegami has written/co-written “Life Emerges in Motion”, “The Sandwich Theory of Life” and “Between Humans and Machines”, while he has produced numerous artworks including “Mind Time Machine” and “Bird Song Diamond”. In 2016 together with Hiroshi Ishiguro, professor at the University of Osaka, he developed the android “Alter”. http://sacral.c.u-tokyo.ac.jp/

When people talk about artificial life, one thing many of them agree on is that this study will bring about “a new perspective of the world”. Artificial life is the antithesis to the 20th century biology which believed “genetic material=life” and aims to construct intellect which starts bottom-up as opposed to artificial intelligence, which creates intellect top-down. By capturing the structure that becomes visible as you overlook abundant amounts of data, artificial life provides a perspective which one would be ignorant to if one were to purely focus on the micro state. Above all, if we were able to discover the “operating system of life” and create life artificially, our understanding of “life” and the values of mankind would change drastically.

If we were to borrow Aoki’s words, artificial life possesses an element which resembles “the counter-culture of the scientific world”, and this was the reason why he was drawn to artificial life.

Aoki further states, “It’s all about how much change you can bring to what people think is common sense, and how much you can do to create new actions for people — at TEDx, Art Hack Day or ALife, this is what I think I want to do. When someone is trying to accomplish something, and there exists something that obstructs their action, you remove that and by facilitating their action, you create a new world together; in the end this is a concept I genuinely enjoy. These elements, sure enough, are also present in the artificial life movement. With my unique set of skills, it would be thoroughly enjoyable if I were able to spread the values of artificial life in society, and I think it may be possible to create a new world.”

In July 2016, right after it was decided the conference in 2 years’ time will be held in Japan, the trio of Ikegami, Oka and Aoki started “ALife Lab.” as a platform to unite researchers with other fields using the theme of artificial life. Not only did they take the lead in this year’s conference, but they have also, through the “School of Alife” program teaching the theory and technology of artificial life and “Art Hack Day” which Aoki had been hosting, created platforms to think about artificial life together with scientists, artists and engineers.

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In 2017, the three founded Alternative Machine Inc. as a business for joint research and entrusted development using the knowledge of artificial life. It is a research group with the mission of “installing life into everything” and “finding life in everything”, and in addition to Ikegami and Oka’s laboratories, 13 artificial life researchers from the Earth-Life Science Institute of the Tokyo Institute of Technology, Hokkaido University, Nagoya University, Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology, University of Sussex, University of Toronto and Binghamton University are also participating as partners. There is no other business in the world which comes parallel with the number of artificial life researchers according to Aoki. They are currently advancing joint research and development with universities and businesses in the fields of architecture and urban design, logistics, organization design and such.

“Hearing that Ryuta-san is involved in artificial life was not that surprising for me”, said Jun Kamei, who in 2011 set up “TEDxTohoku” and currently works as a biomimicry designer and a material scientist.

“If you watch Ryuta-san, for every project although the details he approaches are different, the methods of his approach are always similar I think. He is very skilled in manifesting futuristic themes while creating communities, all the while involving people with various skills.” These were the words of Kamei, who consulted Aoki, a veteran of TEDx, while setting up TEDxTohoku, and has been helping Aoki’s projects ever since.

“Right now, artificial intelligence-like approaches are mainstream socially, but in the future ideas which are artificial life-like will be required, and we need to consider how this will affect the ethics of society and humans. In that sense, to handle the theme of artificial life not only do you need to capture the various domains of technology, but of society as well. I think this coincided with the multifaceted approach Ryuta-san enjoys.”

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held on the 22nd of July on the 7th floor hall of The National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation in Japan was an exactly “TED Like” event. The stage was decorated with blue acrylic objects with the motif of “cell division”, and in the fan shaped hall which surrounded it were approximately 250 participating audiences including researchers, entrepreneurs, engineers and creators.

At 10am, the pair of Ikegami and Oka, who were working as the MCs, appeared on stage equipped with headset microphones. “The theme [of the conference] is ‘Beyond AI’. AI is slowly, slowly ending, and its next stage is artificial life”, Ikegami speaks, before Oka states “We look forward to new and unpredictable collaborations happening from this conference”, explaining that they decided to hold the pre-conference with the aim of spreading artificial life research and its perspective to various fields. Excluding some of the panel discussions, the MC and presentations were all done in English.

Taking to the stage as speakers were 17 scientists, artists and entrepreneurs. These included the likes of: Kenneth Stanley, a founding member of the Uber AI Labs; Norman Packard, a physicist known for founding an investment business which uses the chaos theory to predict stock prices; Alexandra Penn who works as a visiting researcher at the Earth-Life Science Institute of the Tokyo Institute of Technology; neuroscientist Kenichiro Mogi; scientist/media artist Yoichi Ochiai; entrepreneur/investor Taizo Son of “Mistletoe”; game creator David O’Reilly who in 2017 won the Golden Nica (the highest prize) at the Prix Ars Electronica with “Everything”. “The perspective of artificial life worth spreading” was discussed, including social issues considered through artificial life, the influence of Twitter in the US presidential elections, evolution and creativity, life and consciousness, and the relationship between art and science.

At the start of each session were powerful performances by artists such as Ei Wada and evala, and at the end of each presentation Ikegami took to the stage and just like Chris Anderson, enjoyed short talks with the presenters. Each of these renditions made the event something which was literally “alive” (I later heard that this event was mainly managed by TEDx members assembled by Aoki).

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The person who eloquently explained the meaning behind the tag line “Beyond AI” was SmartNews Co-CEO Ken Suzuki, who took to the stage during the panel discussion of the third session (he was a member of Ikegami’s laboratory). “We can’t help but think of artificial life with humans at its center. Everyone is constantly wondering how it is compared to human intelligence. In all honesty, who cares if an Go program becomes better than humans at the game. After all, it was already better than most humans” Suzuki stated at the end of the panel.

“[Compared to that,] artificial life has the mindset of ‘not having to be centered on humans’. Rather than thinking with humans at the center, we should consider ourselves a part of the ecosystem. Life is more expansive, more than humans. In that sense, I think it [artificial life] is quite an ethical idea.”

Unlike the pair of Ikegami and Oka who worked as MCs onstage, that day Aoki did not go onstage, and sitting at the left end of the front row equipped with a headset microphone, he devoted himself to giving stage directions such as cues to presenters and directions to the two MCs the whole time. “At the start people told me they wanted me to MC, but since it was also a platform for presentations on artificial life research, I decided to devote myself backstage” he said when asked about the day after the conference had ended.

However, during the conference there was one moment at the end where Aoki appeared in front of the audience after being called on by the lead presenter of the day. “Trying to have this pre-conference is a bad idea. It’s my responsibility [for suggesting it], right? (laughs). But of course this kind of interesting event cannot be done by myself [researchers]”, Ikegami stated when he took to the stage for the closing formalities after all the sessions spanning over approximately 8 hours had ended. The name he had called on to represent the management team and receive its praise was Aoki.

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the end; rather it is the beginning” were the words of Oka, and like so, this year’s conference can be seen as the starting point for spreading the technology and perspectives born from what Ikegami calls “new artificial life”.

Of course, it is not certain whether the “age of winter” artificial intelligence research had so often gone through will once again visit artificial life research or not, and even if the technology and ideas of artificial life take root in society (as artificial intelligence has done), if the technology of artificial life is misused it can, like every type of technology, become something with a negative impact. For example, the dystopia presented in artificial intelligence takeover theories can also be established as an artificial life takeover theory. “It is easy to imagine nightmare scenarios in which cold, malevolent machines or vicious genetically engineered creatures overwhelm humanity,” an American physicist Doyne Farmer once wrote.

It is for this reason that ALife Lab. creates an interdisciplinary community which includes philosophers, sociologists and artists, so they can spread artificial life whilst debating its ethics and its common ground with society. Borrowing Oka’s words, this is also an effort to create a “common language” for people to talk about artificial life.

Aoki explains that the current objectives of ALife Lab. and Alternative Machine are to create the following three platforms: the “platform of enlightenment” to spread awareness of artificial life (they plan to establish a media vehicle elucidating the perspectives of artificial life researchers across the world); the “platform of learning” (School for ALife) to increase the number of engineers able to handle artificial life; and the “platform of presentation” (ALife Art Award) which aims to present to the world the thinking of artificial life through the form of art. They also aim to socially apply the technology of artificial life by creating new services and products with businesses.

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What will the appearance of a “society which has become intertwined with artificial life” be like, where life-like nature has been installed in everything? Ikegami says that “a bird minus airplane” is the type of technology artificial life will make possible. “I don’t know what that will become, or how society will change because of it. But when it does become a reality, instead of planes flying in the sky, bird-like things may come to exist there.”

What Aoki hopes to sculpt from now onwards through such ideas of “living technology” is a society created from the values contrary to the human-centered and efficiency-prioritizing ones created by technology up until now. This is something maybe only Aoki can portray, as he pursued change through technology in his twenties, and the magical moment born from the creativity and communities of people in his thirties. One could say that it is a society born as a hybrid of these two forces.

“If you only pursue efficiency and convenience, I think that the world would become an insipid place”, Aoki states. “Things that were artificial up until now will be given life-like nature, and by embracing it, it may be possible that the mind will retain its resilience and sensitiveness, or that communities will become more vibrant — living technology is a kind of technology which will create such a situation in my opinion. It is not technology existing purely for the efficiency of humans, but rather it is something that will induce new ways of understanding for humans and will make it possible for humans to gain new perspectives of the world.”

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