Even a chimp can write code

Tuesday, May 25, 2004

A new kind of music

Stephen Wolfram’s "A New Kind of Science" beings cellular automata to the forefront of science. Anyone who’s read the book knows it carries some weight [both literally and figuratively]. In the 1197-page thesis, Wolfram asserts that cellular automata operations govern the world as we know it. Step aside McNealy, it isn't the network! Wolfram states that the Universe is one large cellular automaton computer! Through a seemingly unending set of diagrams and evolution states, he comes to a simple conclusion: that there exists a simple computational rule that generates all existence. I must admit here, I knew some general concepts of cellular automata before I read the book [multiple evolutions away from being an authority], but I have never quite seen things this way. The book can uproot existing beliefs and introduce new ones in their place.

Simply put, here’s what he does: starting with a simple initial state (a black or a white cell in a grid of cells), and repetitively applying a simple rule, one would expect a repetitive and deterministic pattern. Amazing though, the results are apparently random. But being random doesn’t make it interesting. What does is that there are discernable features that evolve in the design over successive iterations. Almost like the appearance of a semblance of order and intelligence amid chaos. His discovery is that simple programs can produce great complexity. This goes against the grain of conventional thought, as he puts it, "Whenever a phenomenon is encountered that seems complex it is taken almost for granted that the phenomenon must be the result of some underlying mechanism that is itself complex".

Using cellular automata algorithms, the open-source jMusic framework and a whole lot of ingenuity, Paul Reiners has created Automatous Monk, a Java program that generates melodies from cellular automata evolutions. The Automatous Monk project is hosted on Sourceforge. The project website lists several works that I have readily come to appreciate. My personal favorite is the oldie but goodie Tall Girl from the Mountains using Rule 208, performed by the Mad String Quartet. It may be an acquired taste, but like a tropical fruit, it stays with you. A new kind of music, no?

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