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On the e-Sofa: Dr Sepulveda
by P. Perkins

In his first interview for almost 20 years, the once infamous Dr Sepulveda talks exclusively to T-Magazine.


"All life begins with an accident. Some curious interaction occurs between lifeless chemicals, in the right conditions and under the right temperatures, and suddenly you have life. Darwinia is no different - it just happened in the digital domain, rather than the biological."

It seems it is barely possible to open a paper, switch on the radio, channel hop on the tv without hearing the name Dr Sepulveda.

Yes, Dr Sepulveda has returned. And what a return it is. After languishing in the depths of computer obscurity for nearly 20 years, he has pulled himself back from his disastrous Protologic fiasco, and remodelled himself as nothing less than a Digital Deity. And Darwinia is his creation. A virtual theme park populated by thousands of sprite-like creatures, the Darwinians, Darwinia is undoubtedly the leap that will take the meaning of computing to a new level. Not just computing, Darwinia is causing us to ask ourselves all over again those fundamental questions about life itself.

Not the kind of thing you'd expect from a self-proclaimed "computer geek" who spectacularly failed to sell every single one of his 50,000 stock of Protologic computers back in '86, when otherwise the world of computing could do no wrong.

A brief history of Sepulveda

Pronounced Sep-ul-vader - a bit like a distant relative of Darth, maybe, the first we heard of our most recent god was way back in the early 80s with his first Protologic computers. Hailed (by Sepulveda himself) as "the console to rule all consoles", the launch of the Protologic 68000 in '86 however was far from plain sailing. Undoubtedly innovative, the 68000 was doomed to a dark future. Minor technical problems in the lead-up to the launch escalated beyond all control, leading to a media frenzy and the eventual collapse of Protologic Entertainment in the most "glorious public failure" of the decade.

Left with nothing but warehouses full of unsold machines, Sepulveda became a recluse - or even more of a recluse; he has always shied from public attention. But it seems he has just been biding his time, waiting for the right moment to unveil the true genius of the 68000s.

With nothing left to lose, the scientist in Sepulveda was awoken and he began to experiment. First linking tens, then hundreds, then thousands of Protologics he began to realise that something very special was happening. In Sepulveda's own words, "an unintended design quirk […] causes adjacent systems to resonate on a quantum level". This phenomenon, which he terms "Hyperprocessing", is a cumulative effect, with processing power increasing dramatically as units are added, each making use of quantum interference to share data with their neighbours.

Realising he was standing on the brink of a digital revolution, Sepulveda founded Darwin Research Associates with what little money he could scrape together. He set to work creating a massive grid of computing power that was "more akin to a human brain than any form of supercomputer".

Equipped with his newly forged tools, Sepulveda crafted himself an intricate fractally generated world, aptly named Darwinia. And with that, the first tender shoots of digital life began to appear. The dark age of the Protologics was over. Let there be light!

Darwinia

It seems, in his fall, Sepulveda was given quite a reality check - or at least an ego check. Once described by an unnamed friend as "unbearably arrogant", Sepulveda, in creating his new world, realised that the key to Darwinia could not be designed purely from his own knowledge or experience. The missing ingredient to stir into the digital primeval soup was a system of evolution, that would eventually equip Darwinia's fledgling inhabitants, the Darwinians, with the intelligence to flourish by their own means.

Each assigned a strand of digital DNA or a "Spirit", the Darwinians are imprinted with individual characteristics, as well as the ability to learn through their successes and failures in their virtual world. Upon their death, the Spirit is released and returns to a central repository - affectionately called "Heaven" by Sepulveda - situated beautifully at the centre of the Darwinian world. Here, the Spirits are orders, parsed, and re-imprinted on a new creature for the life cycle to begin again.

This endless cycle of spirit-enrichment has been the cornerstone to evolution within Darwinia, which has now been running for over a decade - representing thousands of generations of Darwinians, "each more intelligent and aware than the last".

What's it like to be a "god"?

It's not hard to see why Darwinia as caused such great waves. Not only has Sepulveda unwittingly "discovered" quantum computing, the holy-grail of computer scientists world-wide, but his work has ramifications across the spectrum of scientific disciplines: from physics to biology; palaeontology to sociology. Not to mention the simply overwhelming reaction among theologians and ethicists.

Unsurprisingly, creating a new life-form, digital or not, is not without its controversy. Thousands of people are expected at the official public "opening" of the Darwinian theme park later this year, and not all of them well-wishers. Security is going to have to be very tight.

Already there has been harsh criticism from various religious groups, and even some faint mumblings from animal right activists. They fear the poor Darwinians are being exploited by their "god", caged up in a virtual zoo for all to come and ogle at, unprotected by real world laws.

And of course there are many who a sceptical that what we are seeing in Darwinia is even life at all; that Darwinia is merely an elaborate publicity stunt dreamt up by a struggling eccentric in need of an ego-boost.

Sepulveda himself has no such doubts, and seems almost unaware of his many critics: "By any definition that I have read, the Darwinians are most definitely alive. More than that, I believe them to be as alive as you or I or anyone else on this planet. They are born, they live, they communicate, they reproduce, they die. They learn."

He has spent the last decade watching the Darwinian way of life evolve, watching them pass on stories, watching them develop religious beliefs and customs. It is clear that he sees himself as a benevolent but distant father-figure to them. Sepulveda proudly claims that the Darwinians have a "fundamental respect for each other that is far more caring than anything I have witnessed on this Earth".

A new era

Love him or hate him, genius or madman, one thing that we all have to agree on is that Sepulveda, with his work in Darwinia, has brought us with a jolt headlong into a new era. An era that is both exciting in the new technologies that is brings, but also sobering and even frightening with the new responsibilities that this can place upon us. And I believe that we are all responsible. Benevolent eccentric or not, Sepulveda has opened he door to a new world, reaching far beyond the realms of the mere computer geek, and will undoubtedly impact all of our futures in many new and unpredictable ways.

 


 

     
 
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