Life Sciences Icon Life Sciences

Progress in Defining “Being Alive”


There is a great deal of chatter among the big-brained about granting “rights” to artificial intelligent machines. Understanding this, two biology professors, John D. Loike and Robert Pollack, have proposed a new definition of “life” that would exclude machines — making it more difficult to effectively argue that these inanimate objects should be included in the moral community.

First, they define the threat. From, “How to Define Life,” published in The Scientist:

Case Western Reserve University researchers are moving toward creating robots with superior emotional intelligence. They’re advancing artificial intelligence (AI) to create next-gen personalized robots that can read human emotions in real time. What will be the next step in AI robots? If they can be developed to mimic biological life, do we confer the status of living creatures on them? Do we confer personhood as well?

I like the use of the word “mimic,” because that is what would be happening.

 “Being Alive”

I have long believed that “being alive” is the fundamental predicate to possessing even rudimentary intrinsic moral value. Thus, sophisticated AI computers would certainly be valuable — as in worth a lot of money or having great utility — but as a machine, it would have no more moral value than a broken toaster.

But the exact definition of “life” has been a source of contention among scientists, particularly with the astonishing speed with which biotechnology is advancing. Stating rightly that “our moral imperatives in large measure depend on how we define life,” the professors propose a concise definition that would be of great use in the Biotechnological Age:

We propose a simple but challenging definition of life as the property of an organism that possesses any genetic code that allows for reproduction, natural selection, and individual mortality.

That excludes AI machines:

AI robots would not fit into our definition because human beings can control all aspects of computer functions. There is no uncertainty, nor unknowability, with AI robots. AI-based human robots can be programed to replicate themselves and even can be programed to terminate. However, robots do not sense “mutations” or engage in any natural selection process and, therefore, would not meet our criteria as “living.”

Yup. Very useful.

From AI to Embryos

Speaking of moral value, the professors’ proposed definition would certainly include the earliest human embryos, their status as “human life” often denied by those who wish to justify their wanton destruction or casual instrumental use as natural resources.

  • First, one-celled embryos (on up) are “organisms” and not just cells;
  • Second, these organisms possess their own genetic code;
  • Third, early embryonic cells reproduce themselves and more — soon differentiating into various tissues; and,
  • Because they are mortal, they are subject to natural selection; some embryos don’t survive into a later stage of development perish because of biological deficiencies.

So, this definition seems worthwhile to me as it would help exclude machines from attaining any perceived moral value, and at the same time, explain why nascent human life should be seen as having intrinsic worth. How much would still be a matter of debate. But, it wouldn’t be zero as the fundamental predicate to possessing value would be clearly fulfilled.

Photo by Franck V. on Unsplash.

Cross-posted at The Corner.