This creature is not a character from Disney’s Finding Nemo, nor a refugee from the film Avatar. It is The Protospone Mex: a “semi-autonomous software entity” created by renowned artist and biologist Louis Bec.
It was made as part of the EU-funded Alterne Project, which brings together artists, scientists and computer programmers to investigate how virtual reality technology can help improve our understanding of both human and artificial life.
Bec, who was born in Algiers in 1936 and now lives in France, started researching new life forms several decades ago. The Protospone Mex, and many others like it, is in essence a software program that has been endowed with the ability to change its own code—to rewrite itself—as it encounters other systems. A 3D image of it is projected from a computer into an “immersive, virtual reality environment,” building upon techniques not dissimilar to those employed in films like Alice in Wonderland. When human beings move around in the space into which the image has been projected, the program alters and adapts its code in reaction to them—often in ways in which its creators are unable to predict. The same happens when it comes across other software entities projected into the same space. Artist Stephen Wilson, author of the new book Art + Science Now (from which Bec’s image is taken), says that such innovations are challenging our conception of life itself: what level of autonomy must a software entity possess for it to be considered “living”?
Ethical questions aside, experiments conducted in these virtual worlds can offer many practical benefits to the real one: already they have aided the development of nanotechnologies which can be used for everything from treating cancer to building lighter, smarter computers. But for Wilson what’s most exciting are not the improvements this might bring to areas like agriculture or industry, but how artificial life can “expand our possibilities as human beings.”