The flexible definition of LIFE

Android Legacy 4

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… 😉

* * *

          This post is part of the A to Z Blogging Challenge, April 2014.         

   In 2012, my L post was — Logocracy

Published by Veronica Sicoe

Science Fiction Author — I deliver the aliens.

14 thoughts on “The flexible definition of LIFE

  1. What a great post. And yes, it’s hard to think what the future will be, and how life will be defined. I imagine, like a real computer now, that really does become obsolete after time, does have its own life cycle. It goes through the bumbling ‘beta’ baby phase, and then enters its prime, and then hangs on as long as it can while systems around it advance. In a sense, I think all technology has to deal with death–tech perhaps even faster than people. It’s a good thing to think about, and relevant to what I’m writing on the side right now. Thanks for the thought-worm!

    Alex ~ From A-Z Challenge


  2. The definition of life… Every time I think of this–usually prompted by one of those countless sci-fi stories you mention, whether on page or screen–I have to think, too, of slavery, racism, discrimination, and the birth of human rights. In a few hundred years (less, even), I can totally see the same quandaries, the same prejudices, being translated to Orgs and In-Orgs. We’re so good at this Us vs. Them thing, aren’t we?

    Great points, Vero. And great post.
    Guilie @ Quiet Laughter


    1. We certainly are. We could win awards for believing we’re entitled to everything on Earth, including the right to belittle all other creatures.


  3. Interesting post! We watch and read a lot of sci-fi in our house, so these are conversations we’ve definitely had.. When thinking about combining organic and inorganic matter, I always think about Battlestar Galactica and the conundrums they faced. Especially when you throw in reproduction. Yikes!

    AJ @ Naturally Sweet
    an A-Z Co-host blog
    Tweet me! @ayjaylauer


  4. I think that your post is wonderful and inspired. I wanted to add that I think you have touched on what defines life with your comment about death. All living things, whether it is a 3000 years Red Sequoia or short lived fruit fly. We are all defined by the end, death. For me as I have worked on my book over the last year, I have discussed this and struggle to understand it myself and what it means. Today we are on the edge of making the first true AI. I don’t think it will be too long and we will have to amp up the discussion defining not only artificial life but the very soul itself. For I believe it is the soul that sets us (humans & animals) a part from other life forms.


    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comment, John. The birth of the first AI will most certainly change life on Earth forever, and we’ll have to redefine not just ourselves and what we believe of life and intelligence, but also redefine existence, death and immortality. 🙂


  5. When I was in 6th grade, we spent some time on the definition of life. I probably still have those notes somewhere. I think, at the time, being carbon-based was included in that, but I don’t remember if that was part of the actual definition or just something we talked about in class.


    1. Life doesn’t need to be carbon based. There could be entire planets out there populated by non-carbon based organisms & creatures, and they’d still be “alive”. I think it’s more complicated than this, or than the definition I started the post with. And the more we learn, the more blurry the margins of that definition become.


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