The surprising creativity of digital evolution: A collection of anecdotes from the evolutionary computation and artificial life research communities


    Biological evolution provides a creative fount of complex and subtle adaptations, often surprising the scientists who discover them. However, because evolution is an algorithmic process that transcends the substrate in which it occurs, evolution’s creativity is not limited to nature. Indeed, many researchers in the field of digital evolution have observed their evolving algorithms and organisms subverting their intentions, exposing unrecognized bugs in their code, producing unexpected adaptations, or exhibiting outcomes uncannily convergent with ones in nature. Such stories routinely reveal creativity by evolution in these digital worlds, but they rarely fit into the standard scientific narrative. Instead they are often treated as mere obstacles to be overcome, rather than results that warrant study in their own right. The stories themselves are traded among researchers through oral tradition, but that mode of information transmission is inefficient and prone to error and outright loss. Moreover, the fact that these stories tend to be shared only among practitioners means that many natural scientists do not realize how interesting and lifelike digital organisms are and how natural their evolution can be. To our knowledge, no collection of such anecdotes has been published before. This paper is the crowd-sourced product of researchers in the fields of artificial life and evolutionary computation who have provided first-hand accounts of such cases. It thus serves as a written, fact-checked collection of scientifically important and even entertaining stories. In doing so we also present here substantial evidence that the existence and importance of evolutionary surprises extends beyond the natural world, and may indeed be a universal property of all complex evolving systems.


    Joel Lehman, Jeff Clune, Dusan Misevic, Christoph Adami, Lee Altenberg, Julie Beaulieu, Peter J. Bentley, Samuel Bernard, Guillaume Beslon, David M. Bryson, Patryk Chrabaszcz, Nick Cheney, Antoine Cully, Stephane Doncieux, Fred C. Dyer, Kai Olav Ellefsen, Robert Feldt, Stephan Fischer, Stephanie Forrest, Antoine Frénoy, Christian Gagné, Leni Le Goff, Laura M. Grabowski, Babak Hodjat, Frank Hutter, Laurent Keller, Carole Knibbe, Peter Krcah, Richard E. Lenski, Hod Lipson, Robert MacCurdy, Carlos Maestre, Risto Miikkulainen, Sara Mitri, David E. Moriarty, Jean-Baptiste Mouret, Anh Nguyen, Charles Ofria, Marc Parizeau, David Parsons, Robert T. Pennock, William F. Punch, Thomas S. Ray, Marc Schoenauer, Eric Shulte, Karl Sims, Kenneth O. Stanley, François Taddei, Danesh Tarapore, Simon Thibault, Westley Weimer, Richard Watson, Jason Yosinski

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    ‘The surprising creativity of digital evolution: A collection of anecdotes from the evolutionary computation and artificial life research communities’ (PDF)

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    Joel Lehman
    Joel Lehman was previously an assistant professor at the IT University of Copenhagen, and researches neural networks, evolutionary algorithms, and reinforcement learning.
    Jeff Clune
    Jeff Clune is the Loy and Edith Harris Associate Professor in Computer Science at the University of Wyoming and a Senior Research Manager and founding member of Uber AI Labs, which was formed after Uber acquired the startup Geometric Intelligence. Jeff focuses on robotics and training neural networks via deep learning and deep reinforcement learning. He has also researched open questions in evolutionary biology using computational models of evolution, including studying the evolutionary origins of modularity, hierarchy, and evolvability. Prior to becoming a professor, he was a Research Scientist at Cornell University, received a PhD in computer science and an MA in philosophy from Michigan State University, and received a BA in philosophy from the University of Michigan. More about Jeff’s research can be found at
    Kenneth O. Stanley
    Before joining Uber AI Labs full time, Ken was an associate professor of computer science at the University of Central Florida (he is currently on leave). He is a leader in neuroevolution (combining neural networks with evolutionary techniques), where he helped invent prominent algorithms such as NEAT, CPPNs, HyperNEAT, and novelty search. His ideas have also reached a broader audience through the recent popular science book, Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned: The Myth of the Objective.
    Jason Yosinski
    Jason Yosinski is a machine learning researcher and founding member of Uber AI Labs, where he uses neural networks to build more capable and more understandable AI.