Provenance of life: Chemical autonomous agents surviving through associative learning

Stuart Bartlett and David Louapre

Phys. Rev. E 106, 034401

We present a benchmark study of autonomous, chemical agents exhibiting associative learning of an environmental feature. Associative learning systems have been widely studied in cognitive science and artificial intelligence but are most commonly implemented in highly complex or carefully engineered systems, such as animal brains, artificial neural networks, DNA computing systems, and gene regulatory networks, among others. The ability to encode environmental information and use it to make simple predictions is a benchmark of biological resilience and underpins a plethora of adaptive responses in the living hierarchy, spanning prey animal species anticipating the arrival of predators to epigenetic systems in microorganisms learning environmental correlations. Given the ubiquitous and essential presence of learning behaviors in the biosphere, we aimed to explore whether simple, nonliving dissipative structures could also exhibit associative learning. Inspired by previous modeling of associative learning in chemical networks, we simulated simple systems composed of long- and short-term memory chemical species that could encode the presence or absence of temporal correlations between two external species. The ability to learn this association was implemented in Gray-Scott reaction-diffusion spots, emergent chemical patterns that exhibit self-replication and homeostasis. With the novel ability of associative learning, we demonstrate that simple chemical patterns can exhibit a broad repertoire of lifelike behavior, paving the way for in vitro studies of autonomous chemical learning systems, with potential relevance to artificial life, origins of life, and systems chemistry. The experimental realization of these learning behaviors in protocell or coacervate systems could advance a new research direction in astrobiology, since our system significantly reduces the lower bound on the required complexity for autonomous chemical learning.

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