The desire to start evolution from scratch inside a computer memory is as old as computing. Here we demonstrate how viable computer programs can be established de novo in a Precambrian environment without supplying any specific instantiation, just starting with random bit sequences. These programs are not self-replicators, but act much more like catalysts. The microcontrollers used in the end are the result of a long series of simplifications. The objective of this simplification process was to produce universal machines with a human-readable interface, allowing software and/or hardware evolution to be studied. The power of the instruction set can be modified by introducing a secondary structure-folding mechanism, which is a state machine, allowing nontrivial replication to emerge with an instruction width of only a few bits. This state-machine approach not only attenuates the problems of brittleness and encoding functionality (too few bits available for coding, and too many instructions needed); it also enables the study of hardware evolution as such. Furthermore, the instruction set is sufficiently powerful to permit external signals to be processed. This information-theoretic approach forms one vertex of a triangle alongside artificial cell research and experimental research on the creation of life. Hopefully this work helps develop an understanding of how information—in a similar sense to the account of functional information described by Hazen et al.—is created by evolution and how this information interacts with or is embedded in its physico-chemical environment.

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Author notes


BioMIP, Organic Chemistry I, Ruhr-Universität Bochum, 44780 Bochum, Germany. E-mail: uwe.tangen@ruhr-uni-bochum.de