Dylan Cope and Alex Jackson, PhD students in the UKRI Centre of Doctoral Training in Safe and Trusted AI (the STAI CDT), presented papers at the Conference on Artificial Life (ALIFE 2023) in Sapporo, Japan.
Dylan presented the paper, ‘Real-time Evolution of Multicellularity with Artificial Gene Regulation’. The paper is about a simulation in which cell-like entities evolve by natural selection. These cells can mutate to develop different functions, such as flagella to improve movement or receptors to engulf other cells. The main subject of the paper is how the cells can evolve to bind together into multicellular systems. More specifically, Dylan demonstrated how modelling a ‘gene regulation’ allows the evolution of cells in those groups to specialise their functions.
In terms of wider uses of this work, Dylan explains, “The aim is to study the dynamics of the evolutionary process and investigate what kind of complexity can emerge. This might be used to help devise hypotheses about real biological systems, or to inspire algorithms for building complex systems”.
Alex presented a poster at the conference of the paper, ‘Finding Sparse Initialisations using Neuroevolutionary Ticket Search (NeTS)’. This work is a collaboration with fellow STAI CDT PhD student, Nandi Schoots. Alex said, “Our poster overviewed our work applying biologically-inspired approach to deep learning. Our algorithm, Neuroevolutionary Ticket Search (NeTS) seeks to find highly sparse but still trainable deep neural network initialisations (referred to as winning lottery tickets)”.
Both Alex and Dylan really enjoyed the opportunity to attend the conference in person and network with peers. Alex said, “ALIFE was my first in-person conference, and my first opportunity to present my work in person. I really enjoyed meeting a diversity of researchers in different fields from all over the world. The atmosphere and constant presentation of new ideas was a really inspiring and motivating environment that has continued to energise me since my return”.
Dylan said, “I found the conference really fun! There was a lot of socialising and the organisers used a tool to match people together with similar interests and provided time for us to connect. Everyone I met was working on fascinating things”. Dylan found the presentations on Neural Cellular Automata (NCAs) particularly interesting and enjoyed the special talk, ‘Ted Chiang (Science fiction writer) x Anil Seth (Neuroscientist; University of Sussex): Life and Consciousness, Artificial and Natural’.
Both Dylan and Alex also took advantage of the opportunity to travel around Japan and take in the local cuisine and sights. As well as exploring the great Japanese restaurants and beer gardens of Sapporo with their fellow conference attendees, Dylan and Alex travelled to Tokyo and the mountain rage of Nikko national park (known as the Japanese Alps) where they enjoyed visiting preserved traditional villages and Onsen towns and trying Waygu steak.
Being able to attend the conference together was a positive aspect of being part of the CDT and made the conference more sociable for Dylan and Alex. This sociable element of the CDT is something Alex finds particularly unique about his PhD experience. He said, “Being part of the CDT is great because we are an ever-growing group of highly collegiate, engaged, and interesting people. My PhD experience would have been drastically and negatively different had I not had the cohort-based experience that the STAI CDT offers”.