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Imitators of Life


Omni: “So then, aren’t you artificial life guys playing God?”
Chris Langton: “Well, yeah, in a way I have to admit it.”

The dream of creating life is hard to resist. For many years, artificial intelligence seemed a sure way to this goal. Researchers at universities like MIT would regularly claim that within ten years computers would surpass humans in intelligence. But decades passed, and by the 1980’s researchers widely conceded that these claims were a bit premature.

Then came artificial life. In 1987 a young scientist named Chris Langton, from Los Alamos National Laboratories, put together in Santa Fe, New Mexico, the first conference on artificial life. The essence of life, he said, is organization transforming by rules, so we can study life effectively through computer simulations. Conference speakers offered studies of computer-simulated “organisms” and “ecosystems.” By the widely publicized second conference, in 1990, this new field of scientific study had lots of players.

Their idea was to aim for realistic goals and not have to backpedal like their colleagues in artificial intelligence. As artificial life advocate John Nagle put it, “We need to start low. Where do we get off trying for human-level capabilities when we can’t even build an ant?”2 Of course, ants are formidably complicated. As Nagle admitted, “We just don’t know how ants work.”3

Yet despite the humble start, artificial lifers seem confident that life will one day be embodied in silicon and freed from the constraints of carbon-based wetware. Then evolution will speed along, and human beings will have to confront their evolutionary successors.

At the second artificial life conference some speakers gleefully projected that this might occur within a hundred years. We should accept the inevitable, they said, and give up pride in our ephemeral human body. Others expressed reluctance, or even fear. The reasons for celebrating the replacement of human beings by machines, said conferee Michael Rosenberg, “need to be examined.”4

The idea that humans may be replaced by superintelligent machines is an old one. So instead of trying to analyze the prospects for artificial life, let me relate some stories from past history. For this I turn to a treatise on machines in ancient India written by a Sanskritist named V. Raghavan.5

In Sanskrit a machine is called a yantra. As defined by the Samarangana Sutradhara of King Bhoja, in the twelfth century, a yantra is a device that “controls and directs, according to a plan, the motions of things that act each according to its own nature.”6 This is close to Langton’s definition of life. And in ancient and medieval India mechanical imitations of life were something craftsmen in fact came up with.

Some of their automata were used for divertissements in royal pleasure palaces. These included birds that sang and danced, a dancing elephant, elaborate chronometers with moving ivory figures, and the gola, an astronomical instrument with moving planets. The machines were built from common materials in a readily understandable way: “Male and female figures are designed for various kinds of automatic service. Each part of these figures is made and fitted separately, with holes and pins, so that thighs, eyes, neck, hand, wrist, forearm, and fingers can act according to need. The material used is mainly wood, but a leather cover is given to complete the impression of a human being. The movements are managed by a system of poles, pins, and strings attached to rods controlling each limb. Looking into a mirror, playing a flute, and stretching out the hand to touch, give pan, sprinkle water, and make obeisance are the acts done by these figures.”7

This all sounds quite believable, but other machines described may seem less so. These include robots capable of complex independent action.

Many stories in Indian literature tell of a yantra- purusha, or machine man, that can behave just like a human being. In the Buddhistic Bhaishajya-vastu, for example, a painter goes to the Yavana country and visits the home of a yantracharya, or teacher of mechanical engineering. There he meets a machine girl who washes his feet and seems human, until he finds that she cannot speak.8 In another account, a robot palace guard stands at the gate with a sword, ready to “quickly and quietly kill thieves who break into the palace at night.”9 We even hear of a complete city of mechanical people, presided over by an Oz-like human king who manipulates them from a control center in his palace.10

These stories sound like mere products of the imagination, and quite likely this is just what they are. Once one sees a mechanical figure that imitates some human functions, it’s easy to imagine robots with human or even superhuman capabilities. This is what modern advocates of artificial life or artificial intelligence are doing. But unlike the old Indian storytellers, they are seriously intent on convincing people that human beings are simply machines, awaiting replacement by superhuman machines in the future.

Ancient Indian thinkers compared the body to a machine. But they understood that a completely nonmaterial entity within the body—the jivatma—animates the body, endowing it with sentient behavior. The link between the jivatma and the body was understood to be the Paramatma, a portion of the Supreme that stays with each living being. Thus in Bhagavad-gita (18.61) Krishna says, “The Supreme Lord is situated in everyone’s heart, O Arjuna, and is directing the wanderings of all living entities. They are seated in the body as on a machine [yantra], made of the material energy.”

We can’t resist mentioning that Raghavan, the authority on Indian yantras, finds the metaphor used in this verse regrettable. He laments that in other countries machines led to a materially focused civilization but in India they only reinforced the idea of God and spirit. Thus, “Even writers who actually dealt with the yantras, like Somadeva and Bhoja, saw in the machine operated by an agent an appropriate analogy for the mundane body and senses presided over by the soul.” Or an alternative analogy: “the wonderful mechanism of the universe, with its constituent elements and planetary systems, requiring a divine master to keep it in constant revolution.”11

Sentient Robots

In ancient India, people entertained ideas about advanced mechanical control systems quite different from our modern computerized devices. Let us examine some of these ideas to see if they have any relevance for modern technological thought.

It may come as no surprise that control systems in ancient India were used in military applications, where competition is always intense. In the battle between Krishna and Shalva, for example, Shalva’s airplane, flown by Danava soldiers, suddenly became invisible. The technique for invisibility seems not to have blocked the transmission of sound, for the soldiers could still be heard screaming taunts and insults.

Krishna then dealt with them as follows: “I quickly laid on an arrow, which killed by seeking out sound, to kill them, and the screeching subsided. All the Danavas who had been screeching lay dead, killed by the blazing sunlike arrows that were triggered by sound.”12

These arrows seem similar to modern missiles with infrared sensors and onboard microcomputers that seek out the heat of a jet engine. How did they work?

We can get some idea by considering the weapons used by Arjuna. He got these weapons from various devas (higher beings), so they were known as celestial weapons. They worked through the action of subtly embodied living beings whom Arjuna could directly order from within his mind. Here is a description of how Arjuna prepared himself to use these weapons: “And seated on that excellent car with face turned to the east, the mighty-armed hero, purifying his body and concentrating his soul, recalled to his mind all his weapons. And all the weapons came, and addressing the royal son of Partha, said, ‘We are here, O illustrious one. We are thy servants, O son of Indra.’ And bowing unto them, Partha received them into his hands and replied unto them, saying, ‘Dwell ye all in my memory.’ ”13

This suggests how the sound-seeking arrows could have worked. They could have been guided by sentient living beings linked to controllable mechanisms built into the arrows. This would mean that the arrows would be examples of artificial life. They would in effect be cyborgs, cybernetic organisms—a fusing of living organisms and machines. But unlike today’s hypothetical cyborgs, they would have used features of life that go beyond the realm of gross matter.

According to Bhagavad-gita, the body of a living being consists of two components: the gross body, made of earth, water, fire, air, and ether, and the subtle body, made of mind, intelligence, and false ego. The three components of the subtle body are material elements finer than the gross matter we perceive with our ordinary senses. The jivatma interacts directly with the subtle body through the agency of the Paramatma. The subtle body in turn interacts with the gross body through ether, the finest of the gross elements.

If this is true, it should be possible to create a technology of artificial life that directly takes advantage of the properties of the subtle body and the jivatma. We suggest that this is the kind of technology used in the celestial weapons of Krishna and Arjuna. Just as modern computers make cam-and-gearwheel devices old-fashioned, this Vedic technology would leave silicon chips in the dust. Once developed, it would render gross physical technology—with its imagined super-human robots—obsolete.


  1. Christopher Langton, “Interview,” Omni, Oct., 1991, p. 134.
  2. John Nagle, “Animation, Artificial Life, and Artificial Intelligence from the Bottom, or Some Things to Do with 100 to 1000 MIPS,” submitted to the Second Conference on Artificial Life, Feb., 1990, p. 4.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Michael Rosenberg, “Future Imbalance between Man and Machine,” submitted to the Second Conference on Artificial Life, Feb., 1990, abstract.
  5. Raghavan, V., 1956, “yantras or Mechanical Contrivances in Ancient India,” Transaction No. 10, Bangalore: The Indian Institute of Culture.
  6. Ibid., p. 21.
  7. Ibid., p. 25.
  8. Ibid., p. 5.
  9. Ibid., p. 26.
  10. Ibid., p. 19.
  11. Ibid., p. 32.
  12. van Buitenen, J.A.B., trans., 1975, The Mahabharata, Books 2 and 3, Chicago: The Univ. of Chicago Press, p. 264.
  13. Ganguli, K.M., trans., 1976, The Mahabharata, Vol. IV, New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd., p. 78.