Life, by our current understanding, is the quality which separates organized organic matter from inorganic matter—plants and animals from rocks and dirt. Life includes the capacity of growth, reproduction, functional activity, and continuous change toward death.
But we’ll probably have to redefine life once artificial life is added to the picture.
…Intelligent robots that can repair themselves and create other robots…
…Androids with artificial intelligence who can function within society, performing jobs and earning wages (to buy parts or augmentations), paying taxes, being members at various clubs…
…Disembodied AIs who inhabit entire computer networks, commanding various robots and machines, like the ultimate queen bees…
No doubt that in time, with enough and inevitable technological development, artificial lifeforms will easily cover the prerequisites of growth, reproduction, functional activity and continuous change.
But what about death?
Technically, artificial lifeforms are immortal if given enough material to continue repairing and fueling themselves. They don’t expire like organic life. Their building blocks don’t tire after a certain amount of activity. Their ‘metabolisms’ don’t break down with age. Not if they have access to the resources they need to renew themselves.
They can die if they lack these, however. They can be destroyed, become dysfunctional, obsolete, unable to adapt to the increased demands of their environment. Robots may eventually suffer from mechanical failures too great to self-repair. Intelligent androids may become unfit to keep up the necessary output to be functional members of society, become outcast or discarded and thus unable to fend for themselves, and eventually break down from lack of proper maintenance and necessary updates. Network AIs… well, those might well outlive us.
And the organic component? That could be used to limit the definition of life to us ‘natural’ inhabitants of Earth again. But I think that’s a matter of time as well. What’s to stop intelligent machines from using organic materials to improve themselves? What’s to stop AIs from inhabiting organic brains and commanding organic nervous systems? Tissue is tissue. It’s nothing but a building block. The line between organic and inorganic might get really blurred.
Fact is, we’ll have to change our definition for life if we want to exclude artificial life. And we’ll have to rethink our attitude towards our own life if we are to include it one day, and consider it equally deserving of existence.
In science-fiction, we’re already there and even past it. Countless stories have already dealt with artificial life, its rights and merits, its drawbacks and dangers. Whether reality will become anything like Asimov’s, Dick’s or Banks’ visions, no one can tell. But every book we read and write that touches on the meaning of life and intelligence as we see them now, does a great service to these future friends of ours. Talk about visionary fiction… 😉
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This post is part of the A to Z Blogging Challenge, April 2014.
In 2012, my L post was — Logocracy