Kevin Kelly, creator of Wired magazine, explains how computers can mimic the process of evolution. Cooper James reports
Kevin Kelly is best known for Wired, the style magazine for the on-line world. Now he has put his own name on the line with a book, Out of Control, which lays out the beliefs of a man who others call a guru, but who describes himself as a "science groupie". His task, he says, is to make as much information as possible visible to as many people as possible.

The book is subtitled The New Biology of Machines, and argues that the line between machine and living organism is rapidly being eroded. "As we make machines more complicated, their level of complexity approaches that of living organisms and systems such as a butterfly or tundra. Machines and living organisms are really two sides of the same coin."

A computer model can now mimic the way a colony of termites with no central control can build a perfectly air-conditioned "skyscraper", or how life might spontaneously emerge from a protoplasmic soup.

Random, but active, groups of comparatively unintelligent agents - atoms, termites, neurons, even nodes in an electronic network - can show coherent behaviour of a higher level than any individual among them. Kelly calls this the "hive mind", because he sees the collective behaviour of hiving and swarming bees as the most ready example of the phenomenon.

"The whole 50lb hive organ emerges with its own identity from the tiny bee parts. The hive possesses much that none of its parts possess. One speck of a honey-bee brain operates with a memory of six days; the hive as a whole operates with a memory of three months, twice as long as the average bee lives."

Kelly calls such systems "vivisystems", whether they contain biological or mechanical matter. The Ebola disease virus and the Michelangelo computer virus are both vivisystems. All it takes is an environment with a plentiful energy supply, inhabited by a collection of "units". These must be capable of behaving independently but must also be connected to their peers in such a way that there is a web of non-linear, rather than linear, interaction. (Balls on a billiard table show linear reaction: if the red is struck by the white at the correct angle, it must drop into the pocket. The National Lottery machine produces non-linear reaction, because it is impossible to predict which ball will emerge out of a rotating drum with a blast of air on it.) There must also be no centralised control, except perhaps the instruction: "survive".

This is a seductive view of systems, because it can be applied on many different levels. Kelly uses it to examine our highly connected information age. "The best metaphor for this new economy is to think of it as a vivisystem. An example of how that works would be what I call the 'fax effect'. If I have the first fax machine, it's worth nothing. If you have the second fax machine and I own the first, suddenly my machine is more valuable [that is, it has greater utility to the owner]. And every other fax machine that's manufactured increases the value of my machine. It's the same with computers and e-mail." The "fax-effect" fits a law of increasing returns - a law that is not supposed to exist.

Non-linear interaction could also have enormous effects. Early efforts in artificial intelligence tried to build single, super-informed machines which in theory could do anything. In practice, they were always disoriented by data that did not fit their internal rules. Kelly argues that instead we should try to build machines that operate like an ant colony, and is excited at the thought that we are close to creating vivisystems that inhabit computers.

Out of Control explores examples of "communities" of computer code which have managed to evolve symbiotic and parasitic relationships, and, in one example, a version of "gene-swapping" akin to primitive sex. Solutions to difficult software problems are now routinely "bred" in such environments, using a technique called genetic algorithms.

Ultimately, Kelly's book aims at a better understanding of the processes of evolution. "The book at one time was subtitled The Rise of Artificial Evolution," he says. "What it was trying to do was to recast evolution: take it from being the quintessential biological thought, and show that it can be moved into computers." He believes evolution itself is a kind of hive-mind computation. But this gives rise to the most intriguing thought of all: if evolution is itself a massive vivisystem, might other processes besides Darwinian natural selection be at work within it?

'Out of Control', by Kevin Kelly, is published by Fourth Estate (pounds 8.99).