We should start thinking about how we define life, according to Lund University researchers. An army of intelligent robots is growing in front of us, but also opportunities to alter people’s DNA, create super babies and, perhaps, to encounter life in space. The researchers argue that this definition is central to the exploration of new forms of life. It has to do with the ethical/moral, legal and practical issues that we as individuals and communities may face.
The definition of life, however, is not entirely clear. For example, reproduction and metabolism are often considered criteria for the concept of living. However, there are living beings, e.g. mules, which are not able to reproduce, and certain non-living entities, e.g. fire, have a form of metabolism. Viruses – which many biologists do not consider as living – can also reproduce under the right conditions. Meanwhile, although consciousness is not a criterion for life, we consider it necessary in order to be perceived as fully alive human beings.
There are more than 100 definitions of life
The research team wants to find common denominators of the various definitions, while being aware that the concept of life itself may drastically change in the future. The aim is to create a common language for researchers – which may be used as a basis for ethical, legal and practical approaches.
In the group’s work, initiated by Lund University philosopher Erik Persson, the researchers are influenced by philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s family resemblance theory, which is about finding similarities rather than distinct definitions between different things.
Other issues on which we as individuals and societies must take a stand, according to the research team, are whether it is morally right to change human beings through genetic engineering, how synthetic life is to be developed, what is to be preserved and what is to be discarded, and how we as a species are to relate to systems with life goals that are entirely different from our own.
Evolutionary biologist Jessica Abbott believes that within 10 years, we will perhaps be able to create synthetic life in the form of cells that can reproduce. But she also says that this is currently not possible as we simply do not know what functions all the genes in our cells have.
On the other hand, Abbott does not believe it is possible to regenerate extinct species, such as dinosaurs or hominidae like Neanderthals, at least not in the near future, despite attempts to get chicken embryos to develop reptile noses rather than beaks, and inserting mammoth genes into elephant embryos.
Regarding the discovery of extra-terrestrial life, we might find life closer to us in space, in our own solar system. Using mass spectrometers, the US space administration NASA has discovered an abundance of hydrogen molecules in water columns that shot up from the Saturn moon called Enceladus, which shows that methane could also be formed in the ocean under its surface of ice. In addition, seven new exoplanets were discovered including three which have favourable conditions for water oceans in which life could occur.
As for AI, tremendous progress will be achieved. In Japan, a research team has developed an android named Erica that can interact with people, answer when spoken to, and describe its hopes and dreams. Also in Japan, geminoids are used as shop assistants, television hosts and actors.
The Tesla company in the US has developed self-driving cars, Apple uses AI for its digital assistant Siri, and the AlphaGo software has beaten one of the world champions in the board game GO. However, researchers argue that it remains to be seen whether AI will ever be considered a living being, and it is difficult to predict its future development.
Cognitive scientist Christan Balkenius argues that the AI must be able to reproduce, or be designed to be capable of repairing itself, in order to be considered a living being. And it must be able to learn new things, beyond the systems with which it has been pre-programmed.
According to him, the Turing test which took place in 2014 – in which a person could not determine whether they were speaking to a chatbot, and which is said to be proof of intelligence – is not enough.
Contrary to, for example, visionary Elon Musk who started the company OpenAI which focuses on developing friendly and safe AI, Balkenius argues that we will not develop robots with their own will and their own goals, as it would simply be foolish.
Philosopher and medical ethicist Mats Johansson, on the other hand, predicts a future where AI will become our best friends, and where robots will be a natural part of our relationships. However, such a development does not require them to have a consciousness, but only to be capable of serving as companions without having their own human psychology.
According to the researchers, one of the major risks in creating or discovering new life is the loss of control. How can we be sure we can control what we create, and is it even possible to control new forms of life?
Mats Johansson points out that as human beings we may initiate processes without considering the consequences. As a species, we have carried out several genocides, which proves that there are no guarantees we will use the technology to make good or smart choices, he argues.
Already, there are AI systems that have exhibited racial and gender bias. For example, the systems that interpret speech and languages more often associate European names with pleasant words such as ‘gift’ and ‘glad’ as opposed to African names that are more often associated with unpleasant words.
Johansson also explains that there are a number of other risks associated with AI, regardless of whether they will be considered living beings or not. He mentions researcher Nick Bostrom who warns against the development of a superintelligence whose life goals could be too significantly different from our own. “If we develop intelligent AI, how can we make sure it is sufficiently moral? How do we teach it to make wise decisions?”
Another danger is that, as individuals, we will become more self-centred as we develop better and smarter AI. Johansson believes that if we are surrounded by machines that always meet our needs and wishes, we may find it hard to see others and start thinking that we are more important than we are.
The most immediate risk with AI is that we as human beings risk phasing ourselves out from the labour market, according to Mats Johansson, and Balkenius agrees. They believe that, in the long term, the development will lead to a change in all sectors.
Despite the many risks associated with new life forms, there are also endless opportunities, according to the research team. The development of AI could have a positive impact on areas such as healthcare, homecare and household services, for example.
Mats Johansson believes that AI will eventually revolutionise our entire society, arguing that it will be possible to use robots in many different areas as they never become tired or overworked, which makes them suitable for performing tasks that are currently very physically demanding or monotonous.
He also believes that robots can be used as companions, which may have a positive impact on perceived loneliness and sadness, especially among elderly isolated individuals. He believes that we will probably see more and more relationships between AI and people, regardless of whether AI will be defined as a living being or not. If AI evolves into learning, emotional robots, these relationships will be more complicated.
The opportunities of synthetic life are also major, according to Jessica Abbott. She, like many others, sees a development where synthetic bacteria can be used in areas such as energy and climate work.
Bacteria could be developed to break down chemicals more efficiently, for example through carbon fixation, preventing it from being released into the atmosphere – something which could help prevent climate change. Other bacteria could help produce substances that can be used as energy.
The development of genetic engineering is also beneficial, according to the research team. By learning more about what genes do, in the future, we can develop better and more personalised drugs, stop hereditary diseases and prevent ill health by implementing treatment at an early stage.
According to the researchers themselves, the group’s ambition to define life and to increase understanding of what life actually is reflects humanity’s inherent curiosity and will to explore. They find the human fascination for life intriguing: Why do we build large telescopes if the chances of discovering and encountering advanced forms of life are small?
The research team concludes that the will to find or create new life forms ultimately concerns a desire to reach out, to communicate as a species, arguing that the gold discs with sounds and images from different cultures in the world, which were sent into space in 1977, say a lot about us as human beings.