Tag Archives: artificial life

viral symphOny: an electronic soundwork à propos during a pandemic

Artist Joseph Nechvatal has a longstanding interest in viruses, i.e., computer viruses and that work seems strangely apt as we cope with the COVID-19 pandemic. He very kindly sent me some à propos information (received via an April 5, 2020 email),

I wanted to let you know that _viral symphOny_ (2006-2008), my 1 hour 40 minute collaborative electronic noise music symphony, created using custom artificial life C++ software based on the viral phenomenon model, is available to the world for free here:


Before you click the link and dive in you might find these bits of information interesting. BTW, I do provide the link again at the end of this post.

Origin of and concept behind the term ‘computer virus’

As I’ve learned to expect, there are two and possibly more origin stories for the term ‘computer virus’. Refreshingly, there is near universal agreement in the material I’ve consulted about John von Neuman’s role as the originator of the concept. After that, it gets more complicated; Wikipedia credits a writer for christening the term (Note: Links have been removed),

The first academic work on the theory of self-replicating computer programs[17] was done in 1949 by John von Neumann who gave lectures at the University of Illinois about the “Theory and Organization of Complicated Automata”. The work of von Neumann was later published as the “Theory of self-reproducing automata”. In his essay von Neumann described how a computer program could be designed to reproduce itself.[18] Von Neumann’s design for a self-reproducing computer program is considered the world’s first computer virus, and he is considered to be the theoretical “father” of computer virology.[19] In 1972, Veith Risak directly building on von Neumann’s work on self-replication, published his article “Selbstreproduzierende Automaten mit minimaler Informationsübertragung” (Self-reproducing automata with minimal information exchange).[20] The article describes a fully functional virus written in assembler programming language for a SIEMENS 4004/35 computer system. In 1980 Jürgen Kraus wrote his diplom thesis “Selbstreproduktion bei Programmen” (Self-reproduction of programs) at the University of Dortmund.[21] In his work Kraus postulated that computer programs can behave in a way similar to biological viruses.

Science fiction

The first known description of a self-reproducing program in a short story occurs in 1970 in The Scarred Man by Gregory Benford [emphasis mine] which describes a computer program called VIRUS which, when installed on a computer with telephone modem dialing capability, randomly dials phone numbers until it hit a modem that is answered by another computer. It then attempts to program the answering computer with its own program, so that the second computer will also begin dialing random numbers, in search of yet another computer to program. The program rapidly spreads exponentially through susceptible computers and can only be countered by a second program called VACCINE.[22]

The idea was explored further in two 1972 novels, When HARLIE Was One by David Gerrold and The Terminal Man by Michael Crichton, and became a major theme of the 1975 novel The Shockwave Rider by John Brunner.[23]

The 1973 Michael Crichton sci-fi movie Westworld made an early mention of the concept of a computer virus, being a central plot theme that causes androids to run amok.[24] Alan Oppenheimer’s character summarizes the problem by stating that “…there’s a clear pattern here which suggests an analogy to an infectious disease process, spreading from one…area to the next.” To which the replies are stated: “Perhaps there are superficial similarities to disease” and, “I must confess I find it difficult to believe in a disease of machinery.”[25]

Scientific American has an October 19, 2001 article citing four different experts’ answer to the question “When did the term ‘computer virus’ arise?” Three of the experts cite academics as the source for the term (usually Fred Cohen). One of the experts does mention writers (for the most part, not the same writers cited in the Wikipedia entry quotation in the above).

One expert discusses the concept behind the term and confirms what most people will suspect. Interestingly, this expert’s origin story varies somewhat from the other three.

Computer virus concept

From “When did the term ‘computer virus’ arise?” (Joseph Motola response),

The concept behind the first malicious computer programs was described years ago in the Computer Recreations column of Scientific American. The metaphor of the “computer virus” was adopted because of the similarity in form, function and consequence with biological viruses that attack the human system. Computer viruses can insert themselves in another program, taking over control or adversely affecting the function of the program.

Like their biological counterparts, computer viruses can spread rapidly and self-replicate systematically. They also mimic living viruses in the way they must adapt through mutation [emphases mine] to the development of resistance within a system: the author of a computer virus must upgrade his creation in order to overcome the resistance (antiviral programs) or to take advantage of new weakness or loophole within the system.

Computer viruses also act like biologics [emphasis mine] in the way they can be set off: they can be virulent from the outset of the infection, or they can be activated by a specific event (logic bomb). But computer viruses can also be triggered at a specific time (time bomb). Most viruses act innocuous towards a system until their specific condition is met.

The computer industry has expanded the metaphor to now include terms like inoculation, disinfection, quarantine and sanitation [emphases mine]. Now if your system gets infected by a computer virus you can quarantine it until you can call the “virus doctor” who can direct you to the appropriate “virus clinic” where your system can be inoculated and disinfected and an anti-virus program can be prescribed.

More about Joseph Nechvatal and his work on viruses

The similarities between computer and biological viruses are striking and with that in mind, here’s a clip featuring part of viral symphOny,

Before giving you a second link to Nechvatal’s entire viral symphOny, here’s some context about him and his work, from the Joseph Nechvatal Wikipedia entry, (Note: Links have been removed),

He began using computers to make “paintings” in 1986 [11] and later, in his signature work, began to employ computer viruses. These “collaborations” with viral systems positioned his work as an early contribution to what is increasingly referred to as a post-human aesthetic.[12][13]

From 1991–1993 he was artist-in-residence at the Louis Pasteur Atelier in Arbois, France and at the Saline Royale/Ledoux Foundation’s computer lab. There he worked on The Computer Virus Project, which was an artistic experiment with computer viruses and computer animation.[14] He exhibited at Documenta 8 in 1987.[15][16]

In 1999 Nechvatal obtained his Ph.D. in the philosophy of art and new technology concerning immersive virtual reality at Roy Ascott’s Centre for Advanced Inquiry in the Interactive Arts (CAiiA), University of Wales College, Newport, UK (now the Planetary Collegium at the University of Plymouth). There he developed his concept of viractualism, a conceptual art idea that strives “to create an interface between the biological and the technological.”[17] According to Nechvatal, this is a new topological space.[18]

In 2002 he extended his experimentation into viral artificial life through a collaboration with the programmer Stephane Sikora of music2eye in a work called the Computer Virus Project II,[19] inspired by the a-life work of John Horton Conway (particularly Conway’s Game of Life), by the general cellular automata work of John von Neumann, by the genetic programming algorithms of John Koza and the auto-destructive art of Gustav Metzger.[20]

In 2005 he exhibited Computer Virus Project II works (digital paintings, digital prints, a digital audio installation and two live electronic virus-attack art installations)[21] in a solo show called cOntaminatiOns at Château de Linardié in Senouillac, France. In 2006 Nechvatal received a retrospective exhibition entitled Contaminations at the Butler Institute of American Art’s Beecher Center for Arts and Technology.[4]

Dr. Nechvatal has also contributed to digital audio work with his noise music viral symphOny [emphasis mine], a collaborative sound symphony created by using his computer virus software at the Institute for Electronic Arts at Alfred University.[22][23] viral symphOny was presented as a part of nOise anusmOs in New York in 2012.[24]

Here’s a link to the complete viral symphOny with his website here and his blog here.

ETA April 7, 2020 at 1135 PT: Joseph Nechvatal’s book review of Gustav Metzger’s collected writings (1953–2016) has just (April 2020) dropped at The Brooklyn Rail here:  https://brooklynrail.org/2020/04/art_books/Gustav-Metzgers-Writings.

Large Interactive Virtual Environment Laboratory (LIVELab) located in McMaster University’s Institute for Music & the Mind (MIMM) and the MetaCreation Lab at Simon Fraser University

Both of these bits have a music focus but they represent two entirely different science-based approaches to that form of art and one is solely about the music and the other is included as one of the art-making processes being investigated..

Large Interactive Virtual Environment Laboratory (LIVELab) at McMaster University

Laurel Trainor and Dan J. Bosnyak both of McMaster University (Ontario, Canada) have written an October 27, 2019 essay about the LiveLab and their work for The Conversation website (Note: Links have been removed),

The Large Interactive Virtual Environment Laboratory (LIVELab) at McMaster University is a research concert hall. It functions as both a high-tech laboratory and theatre, opening up tremendous opportunities for research and investigation.

As the only facility of its kind in the world, the LIVELab is a 106-seat concert hall equipped with dozens of microphones, speakers and sensors to measure brain responses, physiological responses such as heart rate, breathing rates, perspiration and movements in multiple musicians and audience members at the same time.

Engineers, psychologists and clinician-researchers from many disciplines work alongside musicians, media artists and industry to study performance, perception, neural processing and human interaction.

In the LIVELab, acoustics are digitally controlled so the experience can change instantly from extremely silent with almost no reverberation to a noisy restaurant to a subway platform or to the acoustics of Carnegie Hall.

Real-time physiological data such as heart rate can be synchronized with data from other systems such as motion capture, and monitored and recorded from both performers and audience members. The result is that the reams of data that can now be collected in a few hours in the LIVELab used to take weeks or months to collect in a traditional lab. And having measurements of multiple people simultaneously is pushing forward our understanding of real-time human interactions.

Consider the implications of how music might help people with Parkinson’s disease to walk more smoothly or children with dyslexia to read better.

[…] area of ongoing research is the effectiveness of hearing aids. By the age of 60, nearly 49 per cent of people will suffer from some hearing loss. People who wear hearing aids are often frustrated when listening to music because the hearing aids distort the sound and cannot deal with the dynamic range of the music.

The LIVELab is working with the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra to solve this problem. During a recent concert, researchers evaluated new ways of delivering sound directly to participants’ hearing aids to enhance sounds.

Researchers hope new technologies can not only increase live musical enjoyment but alleviate the social isolation caused by hearing loss.

Imagine the possibilities for understanding music and sound: How it might help to improve cognitive decline, manage social performance anxiety, help children with developmental disorders, aid in treatment of depression or keep the mind focused. Every time we conceive and design a study, we think of new possibilities.

The essay also includes an embedded 12 min. video about LIVELab and details about studies conducted on musicians and live audiences. Apparently, audiences experience live performance differently than recorded performances and musicians use body sway to create cohesive performances. You can find the McMaster Institute for Music & the Mind here and McMaster’s LIVELab here.

Capturing the motions of a string quartet performance. Laurel Trainor, Author provided [McMaster University]

Metacreation Lab at Simon Fraser University (SFU)

I just recently discovered that there’s a Metacreation Lab at Simon Fraser University (Vancouver, Canada), which on its homepage has this ” Metacreation is the idea of endowing machines with creative behavior.” Here’s more from the homepage,

As the contemporary approach to generative art, Metacreation involves using tools and techniques from artificial intelligence, artificial life, and machine learning to develop software that partially or completely automates creative tasks. Through the collaboration between scientists, experts in artificial intelligence, cognitive sciences, designers and artists, the Metacreation Lab for Creative AI is at the forefront of the development of generative systems, be they embedded in interactive experiences or integrated into current creative software. Scientific research in the Metacreation Lab explores how various creative tasks can be automated and enriched. These tasks include music composition [emphasis mine], sound design, video editing, audio/visual effect generation, 3D animation, choreography, and video game design.

Besides scientific research, the team designs interactive and generative artworks that build upon the algorithms and research developed in the Lab. This work often challenges the social and cultural discourse on AI.

Much to my surprise I received the Metacreation Lab’s inaugural email newsletter (received via email on Friday, November 15, 2019),


We decided to start a mailing list for disseminating news, updates, and announcements regarding generative art, creative AI and New Media. In this newsletter: 

  1. ISEA 2020: The International Symposium on Electronic Art. ISEA return to Montreal, check the CFP bellow and contribute!
  2. ISEA 2015: A transcription of Sara Diamond’s keynote address “Action Agenda: Vancouver’s Prescient Media Arts” is now available for download. 
  3. Brain Art, the book: we are happy to announce the release of the first comprehensive volume on Brain Art. Edited by Anton Nijholt, and published by Springer.

Here are more details from the newsletter,

ISEA2020 – 26th International Symposium on Electronic Arts

Montreal, September 24, 2019
Montreal Digital Spring (Printemps numérique) is launching a call for participation as part of ISEA2020 / MTL connect to be held from May 19 to 24, 2020 in Montreal, Canada. Founded in 1990, ISEA is one of the world’s most prominent international arts and technology events, bringing together scholarly, artistic, and scientific domains in an interdisciplinary discussion and showcase of creative productions applying new technologies in art, interactivity, and electronic and digital media. For 2020, ISEA Montreal turns towards the theme of sentience.

ISEA2020 will be fully dedicated to examining the resurgence of sentience—feeling-sensing-making sense—in recent art and design, media studies, science and technology studies, philosophy, anthropology, history of science and the natural scientific realm—notably biology, neuroscience and computing. We ask: why sentience? Why and how does sentience matter? Why have artists and scholars become interested in sensing and feeling beyond, with and around our strictly human bodies and selves? Why has this notion been brought to the fore in an array of disciplines in the 21st century?
CALL FOR PARTICIPATION: WHY SENTIENCE? ISEA2020 invites artists, designers, scholars, researchers, innovators and creators to participate in the various activities deployed from May 19 to 24, 2020. To complete an application, please fill in the forms and follow the instructions.

The final submissions deadline is NOVEMBER 25, 2019. Submit your application for WORKSHOP and TUTORIAL Submit your application for ARTISTIC WORK Submit your application for FULL / SHORT PAPER Submit your application for PANEL Submit your application for POSTER Submit your application for ARTIST TALK Submit your application for INSTITUTIONAL PRESENTATION
Find Out More
You can apply for several categories. All profiles are welcome. Notifications of acceptance will be sent around January 13, 2020.

Important: please note that the Call for participation for MTL connect is not yet launched, but you can also apply to participate in the programming of the other Pavilions (4 other themes) when registrations are open (coming soon): mtlconnecte.ca/en TICKETS

Registration is now available to assist to ISEA2020 / MTL connect, from May 19 to 24, 2020. Book today your Full Pass and get the early-bird rate!
Buy Now

More from the newsletter,

ISEA 2015 was in Vancouver, Canada, and the proceedings and art catalog are still online. The news is that Sara Diamond released her 2015 keynote address as a paper: Action Agenda: Vancouver’s Prescient Media Arts. It is never too late so we thought we would let you know about this great read. See The 2015 Proceedings Here

The last item from the inaugural newsletter,

The first book that surveys how brain activity can be monitored and manipulated for artistic purposes, with contributions by interactive media artists, brain-computer interface researchers, and neuroscientists. View the Book Here

As per the Leonardo review from Cristina Albu:

“Another seminal contribution of the volume is the presentation of multiple taxonomies of “brain art,” which can help art critics develop better criteria for assessing this genre. Mirjana Prpa and Philippe Pasquier’s meticulous classification shows how diverse such works have become as artists consider a whole range of variables of neurofeedback.” Read the Review

For anyone not familiar with the ‘Leonardo’ cited in the above, it’s Leonardo; the International Society for the Arts, Sciences and Technology.

Should this kind of information excite and motivate you do start metacreating, you can get in touch with the lab,

Our mailing address is:
Metacreation Lab for Creative AI
School of Interactive Arts & Technology
Simon Fraser University
250-13450 102 Ave.
Surrey, BC V3T 0A3
Web: http://metacreation.net/
Email: metacreation_admin (at) sfu (dot) ca

Self-organizing nanotubes and nonequilibrium systems provide insights into evolution and artificial life

If you’re interested in the second law of thermodynamics, this Feb. 10, 2015 news item on ScienceDaily provides some insight into the second law, self-organized systems, and evolution,

The second law of thermodynamics tells us that all systems evolve toward a state of maximum entropy, wherein all energy is dissipated as heat, and no available energy remains to do work. Since the mid-20th century, research has pointed to an extension of the second law for nonequilibrium systems: the Maximum Entropy Production Principle (MEPP) states that a system away from equilibrium evolves in such a way as to maximize entropy production, given present constraints.

Now, physicists Alexey Bezryadin, Alfred Hubler, and Andrey Belkin from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, have demonstrated the emergence of self-organized structures that drive the evolution of a non-equilibrium system to a state of maximum entropy production. The authors suggest MEPP underlies the evolution of the artificial system’s self-organization, in the same way that it underlies the evolution of ordered systems (biological life) on Earth. …

A Feb. 10, 2015 University of Illinois College of Engineering news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more detail about the theory and the research,

MEPP may have profound implications for our understanding of the evolution of biological life on Earth and of the underlying rules that govern the behavior and evolution of all nonequilibrium systems. Life emerged on Earth from the strongly nonequilibrium energy distribution created by the Sun’s hot photons striking a cooler planet. Plants evolved to capture high energy photons and produce heat, generating entropy. Then animals evolved to eat plants increasing the dissipation of heat energy and maximizing entropy production.

In their experiment, the researchers suspended a large number of carbon nanotubes in a non-conducting non-polar fluid and drove the system out of equilibrium by applying a strong electric field. Once electrically charged, the system evolved toward maximum entropy through two distinct intermediate states, with the spontaneous emergence of self-assembled conducting nanotube chains.

In the first state, the “avalanche” regime, the conductive chains aligned themselves according to the polarity of the applied voltage, allowing the system to carry current and thus to dissipate heat and produce entropy. The chains appeared to sprout appendages as nanotubes aligned themselves so as to adjoin adjacent parallel chains, effectively increasing entropy production. But frequently, this self-organization was destroyed through avalanches triggered by the heating and charging that emanates from the emerging electric current streams. (…)

“The avalanches were apparent in the changes of the electric current over time,” said Bezryadin.

“Toward the final stages of this regime, the appendages were not destroyed during the avalanches, but rather retracted until the avalanche ended, then reformed their connection. So it was obvious that the avalanches correspond to the ‘feeding cycle’ of the ‘nanotube inset’,” comments Bezryadin.

In the second relatively stable stage of evolution, the entropy production rate reached maximum or near maximum. This state is quasi-stable in that there were no destructive avalanches.

The study points to a possible classification scheme for evolutionary stages and a criterium for the point at which evolution of the system is irreversible—wherein entropy production in the self-organizing subsystem reaches its maximum possible value. Further experimentation on a larger scale is necessary to affirm these underlying principals, but if they hold true, they will prove a great advantage in predicting behavioral and evolutionary trends in nonequilibrium systems.

The authors draw an analogy between the evolution of intelligent life forms on Earth and the emergence of the wiggling bugs in their experiment. The researchers note that further quantitative studies are needed to round out this comparison. In particular, they would need to demonstrate that their “wiggling bugs” can multiply, which would require the experiment be reproduced on a significantly larger scale.

Such a study, if successful, would have implications for the eventual development of technologies that feature self-organized artificial intelligence, an idea explored elsewhere by co-author Alfred Hubler, funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency [DARPA]. [emphasis mine]

“The general trend of the evolution of biological systems seems to be this: more advanced life forms tend to dissipate more energy by broadening their access to various forms of stored energy,” Bezryadin proposes. “Thus a common underlying principle can be suggested between our self-organized clouds of nanotubes, which generate more and more heat by reducing their electrical resistance and thus allow more current to flow, and the biological systems which look for new means to find food, either through biological adaptation or by inventing more technologies.

“Extended sources of food allow biological forms to further grow, multiply, consume more food and thus produce more heat and generate entropy. It seems reasonable to say that real life organisms are still far from the absolute maximum of the entropy production rate. In both cases, there are ‘avalanches’ or ‘extinction events’, which set back this evolution. Only if all free energy given by the Sun is consumed, by building a Dyson sphere for example, and converted into heat then a definitely stable phase of the evolution can be expected.”

“Intelligence, as far as we know, is inseparable from life,” he adds. “Thus, to achieve artificial life or artificial intelligence, our recommendation would be to study systems which are far from equilibrium, with many degrees of freedom—many building blocks—so that they can self-organize and participate in some evolution. The entropy production criterium appears to be the guiding principle of the evolution efficiency.”

I am fascinated

  • (a) because this piece took an unexpected turn onto the topic of artificial life/artificial intelligence,
  • (b) because of my longstanding interest in artificial life/artificial intelligence,
  • (c) because of the military connection, and
  • (d) because this is the first time I’ve come across something that provides a bridge from fundamental particles to nanoparticles.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Self-Assembled Wiggling Nano-Structures and the Principle of Maximum Entropy Production by A. Belkin, A. Hubler, & A. Bezryadin. Scientific Reports 5, Article number: 8323 doi:10.1038/srep08323 Published 09 February 2015

Adding to my delight, this paper is open access.