Can you imagine the day when turning off your computer is considered murder?
In the context of our lifetimes evolution is a very slow process. Mutations occur infrequently, and rarely is evolution noticeable within small numbers of generations. In comparison to the lifetime of the solar system, evolution can seem quite fast. Consider that more than 99% of all the Earth's life forms are already extinct. Human evolution is only a small percentage of all the evolution that has already occurred here on Earth.
Now consider the speed at which we can control evolution in a simulation environment. We can create a program (virtual organism) and give it some basic intelligence features, then allow it to function in an environment that we control. Then we can spin off as many simulations as we like and measure how the virtual organism performs across the environments we create. The organisms that do well are allowed to procreate. Organisms combine themselves, mutate, and the process begins again. After several generations the organisms begin to adapt to the environment and the other organisms in the environment. Some become highly optimized.
We can use virtual organisms to optimize all kinds of things like traffic systems, manufacturing, medical procedures, or even non-player characters (NPC's) in virtual worlds. Mike Sellers wrote an interesting piece a few weeks back in May about AI for NPC's. I have been thinking about this type of intelligence for a while now, so it struck a nerve. We could evolve NPC's to inhabit and participate in our virtual worlds.
One of the areas I have been studying recently is the affects of emotion on our behavior and our physiology, and how to induce those behaviors into virtual organisms. How do you write a program that can sense fear, or be afraid? (Answer: You don't, you let it learn fear all by itself.)
Lets take a small virtual world and place some of our intelligent NPC's in that world. We give them goals, food, some predators, and lots of stimulus in the environment for them to experiment with. We give each NPC a neural brain with emotion capabilities, the ability to build relationships, and the potential to reproduce, and we let them grow. We also give them the ability to remember, and learn from previous generations. As we let them all live and die over multiple generations, groups of virtual organisms optimize with other groups and, to the environment. The ones that become stable and interesting are selected to appear as NPC's in a virtual world that we can interact with.
Once the intelligent NPC's can interact with humans, they can evolve based on what they learn from us, and the decisions they make interacting with us. We, as players or participants, now become a stimulus for the virtual life. We can observe the NPC, help it with its goals, alter its food source, reproduction, start relationships, make NPC's jealous, and start fights, even wars. They would remember you from the last time you visited. They would have real experiences, real relationships, and real intelligence, and if the power happens to go off or memory gets corrupted... they cease to exist.
Consider the near future as we begin to develop virtual life. The life forms we develop will become more and more real, and more alive. Virtual worlds are the Petri dish of this intelligence. There are already evolving organisms growing in SecondLife, on Terminus and Svarga. Semi-intelligent virtual pets are right around the corner. Virtual friends and virtual enemies are not far off either. Who lives and dies, thats another matter.