Ideas about the transfer of agency are a recurring theme in human stories, from sacred religious texts to popular works of science fiction. But does this deep human intuition, now a narrative archetype among our species, have a basis in reality? And, if so, can we capture such a transfer in progress? The answer to these questions has profound implications, as any indication of agency transfer would suggest that agency (like the organism that harbors it) has an aspect of self-reproduction or autocatalysis, given the right conditions. But which conditions should we consider?
This project addresses these questions head-on by coupling a population of bacteria (B-Life) to a population of artificial organisms (A-Life) to form a ‘hybrid community’ based on mutual cooperation. The guiding hypothesis of this work is that community structure can serve as a ‘substrate’ for agency transfer. No population will control the other, and the emergence of cooperation can benefit both populations by reshaping their respective environments to promote growth – ultimately driving changes within the populations themselves. This goal will be achieved experimentally by endowing each population with embodiment in the environment of the other: a physical embodiment for artificial organisms and a digital embodiment for bacteria. To this end, a cutting-edge coupling platform will be constructed. Signatures of goal directness (a proxy for agency), individuality, and evolvability will be rigorously evaluated to detect changes in agential character upon community formation.
The likely impact of this project is twofold: First, to break ground on a fundamentally new approach to the study of agency (hybrid communities), setting the tone for future studies of its kind. Second, to engage scientists and the public on the nature of agency, our intuition about it, and the ways these questions can be rigorously studied.