From Back to Godhead magazine, March/April 1992 IMITATORS OF LIFE by Sadaputa Dasa (c) 199
From Back to Godhead magazine, March/April 1992
IMITATORS OF LIFE
by Sadaputa Dasa
(c) 1992 The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust
Used by permission.
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?" Of course,
ants are formidably complicated. As Nagle admitted, "We just don't know
how ants work."
Yet despite the humble start, artificial lifers seem confident that one
day life will 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."
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.
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." 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
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, amd 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 lute, and
stretching out the hand to touch, give pan, sprinkle water, and make
obeisance are the acts done by these figures."
This all sounds quite believable, but other machines described may sound
less so. These include robots capable of complex independent action.
Many stories in Indian literature tell of a yantra-purusa, or machine
man, that can behave just like a human being. In the Buddhistic
Bhaisajya-vastu, for example, a painter goes to the Yavana country and
visits the home of a yantracarya, 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. 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." We even hear of a
complete city of mechanical people, presided over by an Oz-like human
being who manipulates them from a control center in his palace.
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 actions, 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) Krsna 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."
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 Krsna and Salva, for example, Salva'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.
Krsna 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."
These arrows seem similar to modern missiles with infrared sensors and
onboard computers that seek out the heat of a jet engine. How did they
We can get some idea by considering the weapons used by Arjuna. He got
these weapons from various devas, 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.'"
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 Krsna 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 superhuman
 Christopher Langton, "Interview," Omni, Oct., 1991, p. 134.
 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,
 Michael Rosenberg, "Future Imbalance between Man and Machine,"
submitted to the Second Conference on Artificial Life, Feb., 1990,
 Raghavan, V., 1956, "Yantras or Mechanical Contrivances in Ancient
India," Transaction No. 10, Bangalore: The Indian Institute of
 Ibid., p. 21.
 Ibid., p. 25
 Ibid., p. 4.
 Ibid., p. 26.
 Ibid., p. 19.
 Ibid., p. 32.
 van Buitenen, J.A.B., trans., 1975, The Mahabharata, Books 2 and 3,
Chicago: The Univ. of Chicago Press, p. 264.
 Ganguli, K.M., trans., 1976, The Mahabharata, Vol. IV, New Delhi:
Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd., p. 78.
END OF ARTICLE
Sadaputa Dasa (Richard L. Thompson) earned his Ph.D. in mathematics from
Cornell University. He is the author of several books, of which the most
recent is Vedic Cosmography and Astronomy.
E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank