Should We Re-Engineer the Concept of Life in the Computational Era
The distinction between life and death, between the living and the nonliving, has always been blurred in the spheres of the divine and the imagination. By contrast, biology has offered a distinctive definition that has worked well for many centuries and served research advancements and developments. This simple definition distinguishes the living by its capacity to grow (through metabolism), respond (to stimuli), adapt (through natural selection), and reproduce. A more accurate definition describes life with seven properties: (a) made up of cells; (b) capable of reproduction; (c) based on genetic code; (d) exhibiting growth and development; (e) needing materials and energy; (f) responsive to its environment; and g) maintaining an internal balance. Interestingly, the concept of an inevitable death is not usually included in the properties of life; it is nonetheless implied.
While researchers operate with the above definition, they also often use terms that portray something as if it were alive, even with the knowledge that it may not meet all the above criteria. Researchers do this with a conscious understanding that the distinction is known and that people are aware of it. There are a number of archetypal examples, which we introduce briefly in the next paragraphs.
Are Seeds or DNA Alive? Seeds are made of cells. They can, in principle, develop into living organisms that metabolize and grow; they have a genetic code; and they maintain their internal balance. In many ways, a seed may be considered to be alive. There is a definite period of viability when, if not planted and germinated, a seed will eventually die. Some seeds survive only a few days, whereas seeds recovered from cold peat bogs have germinated after thousands of years. Nonetheless, seeds do not grow and do not respond to stimuli (at least, not in detectable ways). Therefore, they are not alive, as such, but they are potentially alive. In analogous ways, Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), as the code of life, is also only potentially alive because it also does not meet several of the above criteria for living organisms. For example, it does not develop or grow and does not metabolize. Nevertheless, it manages to replicate and propagate and thereby secure the continuation of life. In both cases, these two entities carry life within them, but they are not alive as such. Nevertheless, the recent complete sequencing of the DNA of a horse that has lived 780,000 years ago by Ludovic Orlando and Eske Willerslev (Orlando and Willerslev 2013) opens the door for bringing back to life pre-historic humans therefore challenging the concepts of life and death.
Is Plato Alive Today? Many might argue that Plato (like countless others) is alive today, at least in the minds of the millions of people who have read, internalized, and reproduced his ideas and philosophy. In some sense, he could therefore be considered alive. Speaking more precisely, his ideas are alive but not he himself. His ideas continue to develop and grow in the sense that they “metabolize” ideas coming from contemporary authors and use them to grow. His ideas respond in undeniable ways when confronted with present-day challenges; some of his ideas adapt to contemporary realities and therefore survive longer, and they are continually being reproduced. One could argue that they could be coded and that they manage to maintain their internal cohesion. Where, then, is the line drawn in the distinction between alive and dead? Even though his ideas meet many of the conditions of life, they cannot be regarded as a living organism, because they are not constrained within a finite body made out of cells, among other reasons. It is not in Plato's mind that his ideas continue to live. Instead, they evolve and propagate only in the minds of so many others.
The distinction implicitly made above is that whatever processes are the objects of study, they must take place within the original entity (in the above case, in Plato's mind). Is this a necessary requirement in our era, however? Clark and Chalmers, advocates of the extended mind hypothesis (Clark and Chalmers 1998), would argue that the container of Plato's ideas (i.e., his mind) has simply changed (to the minds of many). What, then, if technology allows a person's mind to work while inside a different host (e.g., a constrained silicon circuit or a distributed network) after the body of that person dies? Would that entity meet the criteria used to describe something as being alive? It would be the same mind, and for all practical considerations
capable of learning, reacting, developing, and adapting eternally. It will, however, violate the requirement that a living organism is made up of cells. If we choose to stick to this requirement, we can postpone the need to re-engineer our concepts.
Computer technology and ICT in particular have created conditions for digital as well as physical artifacts to not only remain “alive” for very long (virtually indefinite) periods, but also, more importantly, to be able to express many of the properties previously reserved only for the living. The invention of the internet has kindled irreversible transformations in at least two dimensions. In one dimension, it created a grid that connects people, knowledge, and machines. The internet of things added the nonliving, the environment, and even nature at large to this grid. In another dimension, the internet facilitated the development of new technologies and new spaces. Virtually unlimited data, information, and knowledge, as well as the products of thoughts (e.g., digital footprints) and actions (e.g., traces of actions while browsing through or interacting in cyberspace), are, for all practical purposes, immortal. Sooner than many imagine, rudimentary versions of “human minds” will be capable of continuing their own lives, “interacting” with other people or beings and environments and learning from their actions. These developments invite humanity to rethink many of the concepts previously considered invariable, as summarized in the following questions and discussed in some more detail in the following sections:
• What does it mean to be alive? (Does the concept of life need to be revisited?)
• What does it mean to be human? (Is the human really something more than just
information? If yes, then what?)
• If the processes responsible for the emergence of the mind become immortal, can
the mind then be separated from its container?
• If humans become immortal, what are the consequences for sustainability?