The ‘crawl’s been kinda quiet lately, mainly because I am (for the second time in as many years) on the last lap of this dumb novel. I am, in fact, committed to delivering the damn thing to Tor before I leave for FinnCon — and I’m on track to do that, if I don’t let myself get distracted. As a result, any occasional posts you might read here over the next month or so will most likely be limited to Echopraxian fiblets.
(That said, I am typing this while sitting on our front porch, twilight deepening around me. I have fond hopes for a replay of last night’s three-way dust-up between rival gangs of cats, possums, and raccoons, all of whom converged pretty much simultaneously on the kibble we leave out here as an offering to the local wildlife. If that happens — and if I escape with all my toes and some decent pictures — I might post those too. Although I don’t know how long it might take to upload a toe using my Telus account.)
Anyway. While this project sprints for the finish line, others unwind around the world. One such is a little e-collection which is about to come out from Fata Libelli, in Spain— and over the past week or so I’ve been sneaking away from Echopraxia now and then to answer some questions they e-mailed me in hopes of spurring interest amongst their base.
Tonight’s impoverished offering, therefore, is an prexcerpt from that interview, with a bit of a semantic bent. Because we all know that if there’s anything more fascinating than watching a bunch of panelists sitting around arguing about the definition of “science fiction”, it’s gotta be watching a bunch of people sitting around arguing about the definition of “life”:
Your aliens have been widely praised for looking genuinely different, not just like green humanoids. Sometimes, those aliens are so weird (no genes, no cephalisation, hive minds instead of individual selves) that even the main characters have trouble identifying them as living beings. Is there a basic definition of ‘life’ suitable for humans, aliens and IAs?
Up until recently, Dawkins’s definition would have done just fine: Life is information, shaped by natural selection. Of course, that means that computer viruses have the potential to qualify as life forms, not just metaphorically but literally. I can live with that. A-life can meet Darwin’s criteria as well as any other kind.
The problem now is that we’re actually in the process of creating synthetic life — squishy bugs with real genes and metabolic processes — pretty much from scratch. Those things are undeniably alive, yet were not shaped by natural selection. You could make an analogous case for any conscious AIs not derived via genetic algorithm.
Darwin coined the term “natural selection” to distinguish it from the “artificial selection” that characterizes things like the selective breeding of dogs and pigeons. So perhaps tweaking Dawkins definition to “Information, shaped by natural or artificial selection” might be enough to cover the synthetics coming up through the ranks.
Or maybe it’s time to give up on defining “life” in terms of the way it was derived, or what it’s made of, and to concentrate instead on what it does. So: How about defining life as any complex of structured energy pathways that restricts entropy increase below some threshold rate?
What do you guys think? Anybody have any thoughts on where that threshold might lie? Hell, judging by your past comments it’s pretty obvious that most of you know how to define “entropy”, and I bet a few of you even know what units it goes by. Which, offhand, is more than I can claim right now.
Shhh. Something rustling under the porch…