I shouldn’t do this. I really should leave the definition of life to the biologists.
But if I were to restrict myself only to subjects in which I have expertise, I wouldn’t have a blog. So let’s go. What is the difference between a living being and an unliving but active creation, such as a computer?
One key definition is that in the biological world, dead is dead. If you dismember a rose, a cow or a human being, or simply deprive it of water and food, it will die. And once it’s dead, it’ll stay dead, even if you reassemble it and fill it with juicy nutrition.
But let’s say you try to kill a computer the same way that you would kill a living being. First, cut it off from the nutrient that keeps it running — that is, electricity. Then dismantle it to its component parts. You could put the computer back together, plug it into a wall socket, and suddenly it’s alive again.
By that example, you might argue that a computer is not just alive but a superior form of life: one that can defeat death.
But there’s more to life than the ability to stay dead.
Bury a steel road plate under a tree, and the tree’s roots will go around the plate to find substances more nutritious. Put a strong light source near an amoeba, and the little cell will escape to an environment that it finds more comfortable.
These entities have no consciousness, as far as we can tell. Still, they try to get nourishment and live in a healthy habitat.
And so it goes with other living creatures. You can’t stop a dog from wanting to eat your steak; the most you can do is train him not to try. You can’t make migrating birds decide to fly north for the winter. You can’t stop a thirsty six-year-old from wanting to pour endless sodas down his throat. Their drives and needs are ingrained down to the cellular level.
If you could remove these drives from a kid or dog or bird, you would end up with a thing that doesn’t want to eat or drink or find a safe place to stay. In other words, it wouldn’t want to live. In short order, it would probably die. Take away its needs and drives, and a living creature won’t be a living creature anymore.
A computer doesn’t work that way.
Computers can do a lot of things that living creatures can do, and a lot that the living can’t do; but they have no volition. Living things follow their own internal needs, but the unliving follow nothing more than basic laws of physics.
We can program needs into computers, of course. Via Google, we tell our computer FIND NAKED PICTURES OF DICK CHENEY, and our computer does it. NASA scientists tell the Mars rovers to explore the red planet, and the rovers won’t quit trying until they conk out or their programmers tell them to stop.
But whether the computer is searching for smut or exploring Mars, they’re obeying our desires, not their own. We can change or remove the desires at will — our will. Take those desires away, and the machines are just as functional as they were before anyone put those desires into them.
Some day, machines may evolve needs that humanity won’t have programmed into them. But that’s not the case yet.
Sorry, machine world. That’s life.