In a March 2007 TED talk, Edward O. Wilson, the Harvard University scientist famous for studying ants, took to the stage to plead for what he described as a biological moonshot: a catalogue of all the known life forms on the planet.
“I wish we will work together to help create the key tools that we need to inspire preservation of Earth’s biodiversity,” he said. “And let us call it the ‘Encyclopedia of Life.’” Wilson was not the first to have the idea, but his vision caught on. When the Encyclopedia of Life launched online in 2008, it boasted an impressive 30,000 pages. The encyclopedia has been increasing by the tens of thousands of species per year. The steady march to a goal of 1.8 million known species will take an estimated decade to complete.
Since Tuesday, virtual explorers – unconstrained by grant applications or taxonomic rigor – have been amassing their own version of the encyclopedia in the video game No Man’s Sky. The gamers left Wilson and company in the dust. Overnight, players discovered some 10 million different alien species in the galaxy, Sean Murray, co-founder of the British game developer Hello Games, wrote on Twitter. (If only zoologists could wiggle a cursor at critters they stumbled upon in the field.)
But Murray and his colleagues did not animate video game aliens by the millions – instead, their galaxy is populated via a constantly churning computer program.
Murray tweeted, “For instance over night we hit 10 million species discovered in NMS… that’s more than has been discovered on earth.WHAT IS GOING ON!!!”
The space exploration and survival simulator hosts 18,446,744,073,709,551,616 planets. In the game, playable on the PlayStation 4 and coming to PCs on Friday, the goal is nothing beyond galactic expedition, a la Captain Kirk or Spaceman Spiff. Some of the 18 quintillion worlds in No Man’s Sky are barren. (Boredom is, perhaps, the most damning critique of the days-old game.) Others are toxic. The lushest worlds teem with tentacled dinosaurs, giant worms or aggressive chipmunk-faced goats. The large majority of the planets and creatures inhabiting the digital galaxy will remain sight unseen by humans.
No Man’s Sky marks a watershed moment in video games – a vast galaxy, immense hype and a small team of indie programmers. To make the galaxy tick, at the heart of No Man’s Sky beats a process called procedural generation. The grunt work is done by computer. It is as if Hello Games created a Lego model of the Milky Way, but only by fabricating the bricks and the rules by which the blocks snap together.
“It’s a bit like leaving your game uncompleted, and teaching the software to finish designing itself while someone is playing,” Mike Cook, an expert on the technique at Falmouth University, told Rolling Stone.
To pull off this trick, No Man’s Sky, as the New Yorker reported in 2015, leans on the so-called Superformula, an algorithm discovered by botanist Johan Gielis. (Possibly, to Gielis’s company, it leans too heavily.) The Superformula describes both symmetrical and asymmetrical shapes, like rocks or snowflakes or sheep horns. “It’s a new way of describing nature,” Gielis told Nature in 2003.
The game’s life forms are a series of chimeras, organs remixed over and over by the algorithmic engine. “The engine basically checks certain parameters, asks itself what kind of animal would like the surrounding, and chooses between a variety of types. Fairly often common animals are combined – like they have the body of a lion, but the head of a rhino and the legs of a gazelle,” Murray said in a recent interview with Inverse. “We’ve invented a system that automatically balances out the weight and adjusts the skeleton. So we had to experiment a ton, to get these skeletons right, because an animal with a tiny body can’t have a huge head, otherwise it would constantly fall over.”
Any given interaction between species is unscripted, but life-like scenarios can emerge. Once, Grant Duncan, the art director for Hello Games, began shooting strange birds out of an alien sky. (This being a space game, players in No Man’s Sky have laser guns.) One fried body landed on the surface of a ocean. A shark-like animal, as he recounted to the Atlantic, emerged from the depths of the sea to feed on the corpse.
“The first time it happened,” Duncan said, “it totally blew me away.”
Murray is correct that No Man’s Sky explorers have outpaced real-life biologists – to a point. The total number of species that exist on Earth is a matter of some debate, typically thought to land between 3 million and 100 million. Including microbes, that number may reach to about one trillion, as The Washington Post reported in May. A previous well-regarded estimate in 2011 put animal species at about 7.77 million; if so, some 86 percent of land-dwelling species remain undiscovered. Researchers behind that study suggested that completing such a catalogue would require 300,000 taxonomists, cost billions of dollars and take over a thousand years.
Though specialized taxonomists are dwindling in favor of geneticists – the Smithsonian’s six research entomologists were twice as numerous in 1970, curator Terry Erwin told The Post in 2011 – there is some good news for counting earthly organisms. Accounting for professional biologists as well as amateur naturalists, roughly 50,000 people around the globe are describing new species, more than any point in history.