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Feb 19, 2006


christopher baus

One thing I find odd about these types of searches is that the criteria always matches our own environment. I think that's a pretty egotistical approach. Why shouldn't we expect life to occur under different conditions?

Graham Glass

Hi Chris, I couldn't agree more! Indeed, my posting hypothesizes that the most advanced lifeforms won't be biological and therefore won't want to live on planets.

christopher baus

Just backup up what you are saying there, although I won't profess what intelligent life my look like. For all I know I might be surrounded by it right now. :)

Graham Glass

Hi Chris, what do you mean by "backup what you are saying"? Are you asking for more evidence or reasoning behind a particular belief I expressed? If so, which part of my post are you referring to?

Patrick Logan

Until now I've never thought of digital-life as "life" or as being interesting. Your post has changed that for me. I would still refer to anything digital as a "machine" rather than a "life" because at this point I tend to think of "life" as being biological by definition.

Now however I can see that finding a digital machine somewhere would be interesting in what it might indicate about its origins and travels. One step closer to "life" perhaps, although I don't see a reason to refer to it as "life" instead of "machine".

Graham Glass

Hi Patrick!

Why do you think that only things built out of organic chemicals can be alive? What is so special about DNA that could not be replicated or improved upon by other methods?


Simon Harris

Steven Wolfram (of Wolfram research) recently wrote a paper on something very similar. In it he puts forward arguments suggesting that SETI is a waste of time; and that we should be looking closer to home for signes of digital life (or universes as he describes).

Patrick Logan

"Why do you think that only things built out of organic chemicals can be alive?"

That's a good question... i.e. I don't have a good explanation.

On the one hand I can imagine this scenario... some "natural" life form invents a machine and sends it on its way across the universe. It lands in my back yard and we strike up a conversation. Then it steps on a sharp object and expresses pain. At that point I express remorse for leaving the sharp object in my yard.

On the other hand I can imagine another scenario... I invent a machine and send it on its way across the universe. It lands in the back yard of the previously mentioned "natural" life form. They strike up a conversation, but soon my machine steps on a sharp object. The machine sends a signal to me that it is in pain. I feel no remorse since I know it is a machine and could just as easily ignore the sharp sensation as to register it as "pain".

There are four things in these scenarios. Three of them seem to be treated by me as "life" and one not. One (myself) seems to have evolved genetically on earth. Another is just given as "natural" but I have not defined it. The other two have been "built" but one appears to me as "natural", i.e. "non-built".

I have no clear definitions, just perceptions that might one day be "fooled".

Graham Glass

Hi Patrick,

The word "machine" is a very loaded term. For the sake of discussion, imagine that the digital lifeform inhabits a host that is far more complex and sophisticated than your own body.

Would you still call it a machine? Or would you call it a body?

Conversely, imagine what they would think of human bodies; they would look pretty fragile and old-fashioned from their perspective! They might have good reason to regard humans as "the machines".


Ed F


Interesting post, but I find the idea of digital life completely horrifying!

My problem with these types of discussions is in the conceptualizations of 'life' and 'intelligence'--both seem to be arbitrary/circular concepts. If the forms in question are determinant, then it follows that being 'alive' is simply meeting a cultural (i.e. arbitrary) measure of features/complexity.

The nature of consciousness, on the other hand, is what keeps me up at night. If I understand your concept, a digital life form would be completely embedded within its context (i.e. the universe). I don't mean embedded physically, but embedded in a sense that it's entirely a first-order construct--it doesn't require 'out of band' concepts; in other words, completely extant. This is not a radical idea, as it's commonplace to view the brain as a determinant 'machine'. In other words, the mapping of a human to a digital life form would be 'free'--it's just a matter of knowledge and processing.

The problem I have with digital life is the same problem I have with the mind as a machine--nobody's home! I can have my arm removed and still be me, so that's not me. I can have some grey matter removed as part of a cancer operation and still be me, so I'm not entirely in that clump of cells. If my neurons are just bouncing around my skull, which structures in there are 'me'? Where's the me in me? Most importantly, where is it that I'm exercising my free will as a sentient being? Being self-aware is by definition possessing a second-order component. If Windows 2000 pops up a dialog saying "Welcome to Windows 2000", is that sufficient for its self-awareness?

I can remember being acutely paranoid at a very young age (preschool?) about something I now know to be the 'problem of the other minds'--the fear that you may be on the only conscious being, with all others around you being completely determinant and unconscious. I found myself occasionally succumbing to solipsism[1] (something that can still give me deep anxiety now and then). I could never understand why I was looking through my own eyes, here and now, as opposed to the eyes of someone else, then and there. If you tell me you're self aware, how do I know? How is it any more credible than the paperclip in Microsoft Word talking about itself?

That brings me back to my original problem: what is the nature of consciousness (and by transition, free will)? The faithful would argue that it's the 'soul'. However, my epistemology (in regards to God) is strict agnosticism[2], and my theology is athiestic[3], so I'm in a pickle.

It's another conversation for another time, but I think quantum physics is the salvation. It frees us from a deterministic[4] universe, and allows for an explanation of both free will and consciousness through the empirically grounded construct of the Universal Quantum Observer. If you're a solipsist, the universal quantum observer would be you. Otherwise, each conscious being would be a partition of the universal observer. An ironic and unintended thing: It's almost a reconciliation of eastern ideas and my preferred[5] epistemology.

For either of these theories--consciousness as soul, consciousness as quantum observer--the obvious question is "where is the interface?" Our consciousness uses our faculties to observe, so where's the interface? There are a couple of speculations out there, one of which is that these quantum interfaces are somehow emergent from the structure of our brain. This question aside, moving from an unknown mechanism for consciousness and free will to no mechanism for consciousness and free will is tantamount to 'death'.

Even if only the 'storage' and 'tools' were digitized for use by a host, you'd need to control the interface to create such a host. But if consciousness is external, then (by definition) you don't have authoritative control over when, where, and how it chooses to interface.

My schizophrenic rambling aside:

Where does the concept of digital life sit vis-à-vis consciousness, free will, etc?

How is digital life not 'forever dead' as opposed to 'forever alive'?

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solipsism
[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strong_agnosticism
[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agnostic_atheism
[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deterministic_system_%28philosophy%29
[5] http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0452010306/sr=8-1/qid=1140487396/ref=pd_bbs_1/002-5738324-7418416?%5Fencoding=UTF8


Not being a professional philosopher when I talk about these things over beer people always fall on two sides:

1. Consciousness is an emergent property of a complex system and can be reproduced.

2. Well you know the other one.

I think life is a loaded concept that we are predjudiced to associate with sentience. How is it that we regard ourselves experts on identifying what it means to be alive? Anyway interesting post it made me forget that for a second that I'm a solipsist. Now lets all get back to what I was doing. :)

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