The Corner

Science & Tech

Scientists’ Definition of Life Excludes AI, but Includes Embryos

The CloudMinds XR-1 robot performs for visitors at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, February 25, 2019. (Rafael Marchante/Reuters)

There is a great deal of chatter among the big-brained about granting “rights” to artificial intelligent machines. Understanding this, two biology professors 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.

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.

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.

Most Popular


White Cats and Black Swans

Making a film of Cats is a bold endeavor — it is a musical with no real plot, based on T. S. Eliot’s idea of child-appropriate poems, and old Tom was a strange cat indeed. Casting Idris Elba as the criminal cat Macavity seems almost inevitable — he has always made a great gangster — but I think there was ... Read More
Politics & Policy

The Other Case against Reparations

Reparations are an ethical disaster. Proceeding from a doctrine of collective guilt, they are the penalty for slavery and Jim Crow, sins of which few living Americans stand accused. An offense against common sense as well as morality, reparations would take from Bubba and give to Barack, never mind if the former ... Read More
Politics & Policy

May I See Your ID?

Identity is big these days, and probably all days: racial identity, ethnic identity, political identity, etc. Tribalism. It seems to be baked into the human cake. Only the consciously, persistently religious, or spiritual, transcend it, I suppose. (“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor ... Read More
Health Care

The Puzzling Problem of Vaping

San Francisco -- A 29-story office building at 123 Mission Street illustrates the policy puzzles that fester because of these facts: For centuries, tobacco has been a widely used, legal consumer good that does serious and often lethal harm when used as it is intended to be used. And its harmfulness has been a ... Read More