The difference between life and machine

English: Schleichwölfe Deutsch: Schleichwölfe

Addy Pross has an interesting post up at HuffPost looking at what actually makes life…life.

Most of us recognize that there is a fundamental difference between mechanical objects designed and created by man, no matter how sophisticated, and the naturally derived complexity of living things. In fact, my granddaughter, when she was just 2, already understood one basic difference. She loved toy dogs but was scared of real ones. Real dogs were unpredictable; she recognized that they had a mind of their own. All living things act on their own behalf, doggedly pursuing their agenda. That’s true even for mindless bacteria — no designer, no creative sculptor required.

I think this is exactly right and I’ve noted it in several older posts.  Living things have desires that relate to their own survival.  For mammals, this includes survival of their offspring and for social animals may include survival of their family or pact.

Machines don’t have this, at least not yet, and aside from some research projects, are unlikely to have it.  We build machines to fulfill our agendas, not have their own.  Their programming will form their desires, which will be to fulfill their primary purpose, or purposes.  So a navigation system will have simply a “desire” to fulfill the navigating function, and won’t be concerned about being replaced by a newer model next year.

We’re unlikely to regard a machine as sentient, as a  fellow being, until it has drives and desires we can identify with, until we can sense a fellow being there.

We program machines of course.  But then where do the desires of living things come from?  Evolution.  Our desires for survival, procreation, and all the rest, come from our evolved instincts, from the programming natural selection slowly developed in us.

One thing that can be a little disturbing to think about is what might happens if we ever reach the point where we can reprogram living things.  Essentially turn them into living robots.  Indeed, as machines become more sophisticated, the difference between machine life and engineered life will start to become blurred.  Just as a machine usually won’t care about its own survival, these reprogrammed animals might not either.

Of course Douglas Adams did think through this, and the result was classic.

6 thoughts on “The difference between life and machine

  1. This subject always brings to mind the little I’ve read on self-repairing materials and machines and every time it comes up I read a little more – so thanks! Taken far enough I think that kind of technology could come to resemble a survival instinct, but I don’t think that alone will be sufficient to be seen as sentience.


  2. I can see the connection. Now, if the self-repairing machine starts anticipating and avoiding situations that might damage it, worrying that its owner might shut it down or dismantle it, alters its behavior to insure that its power source isn’t interrupted, etc, then I think people might be strongly tempted to see a fellow being there.


    1. Yes, I can see that, if the machine seemed to behave in a manner that was perceived as exceeding its programming, then most definitely.


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