It Quacks Like a Duck

Today, in my genetic programming class, we had a guest lecturer talk about artificial life. I'd already read about most of what he presented, and it is interesting, but the best part was when he showed us some animations of some of Karl Sims' creatures.

Each one was an ungainly strand of simple geometric solids, and each one was shown for a few seconds as it did its best at locomoting around the open plane or through a fluid.

Many looked like simplistic renditions of real creatures, like a student animator's geometry homework. It's neat that the arrangement of shapes and the behavior that caused them to walk, crawl, swim, and scamper around were evolved computationally and semi-deliberately.

What's more interesting to me though is how easy it was to see them as creatures. They weren't very expressive (though it's possible to evolve creatures that are), but things that move as though they were legs are legs, and a thing that uses legs to move around sure seems creature-like.

But what really struck me, and what inspired me to write this, was that one of the walkers was funny. It was on screen for maybe half a second before the whole class burst into laughter. It was just a visualization of the results of an optimization problem, and we all thought it was funny. We all thought it was funny! It was a big bulky mess running around in circles by moving one tiny flipper at a frantic pace. It was funny.

I don't think this says much about what computational optimization is capable of; humor wasn't the goal of this system, it was an accidental byproduct. I believe we're capable of creating systems that do reliably produce funny things, but this isn't it.

But it says a lot about people and how we see the world. We see ourselves and what we're used to seeing. We see what we expect to see. How much of those biases come from experience and how much come from wiring is an open and fascinating issue. Either way, we tend to cram everything into the narrow framework of our expectations. Sometimes that leads to regrettable behavior, usually it leads to functional people, and every now and then it leads to a room full of people having a good laugh.

It also teaches us that big ungainly things frantically flippering around in circles are funny looking, but we already knew that.