Machine Life – EIN Presswire

Machine Life – EIN Presswire

One of the most useful metaphors for driving scientific and engineering progress has been that of the “machine”. But in light of our greater understanding of biology, evolution, intelligence, and engineering, we need to re-examine the life-as-machine metaphor with fair, up-to-date definitions. Such a process allows us to see that living things are in fact remarkable, agentic, morally important machines, writes Michael Levin.

The difference between living beings and machines was once clear. Machines came from a factory and were designed by real creative people (or in the case of simple machines, like levers, by crows), who understood exactly how they worked. They were boring and predictable – they did the same thing over and over, they didn’t adapt to new challenges, and they showed no evidence of having preferences or an inner perspective. So we felt on safe moral ground to do whatever we wanted with them – for example, take them apart.

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Living beings were the exact opposite in every way. They were created, with great ability but no understanding, by other living things. On a longer time scale, they appeared as a result of a blind search process (evolution), from an originally abiotic state. They were infinitely clever in their handling of their environment and of new challenges and opportunities. Living things exhibit clear agency – they have preferences, they are easy to reward and punish, they learn from experience, and at least some of them are capable of making statements that speak convincingly of an inner perspective and a deep spiritual nature in addition to the “mere mechanisms” of our brains and bodies. As a result, they gain empathy and moral status. Of course, there have been many historical lapses of ethical treatment of beings that are distinctly human (to say nothing of other mammals) – the recognition of biological, agential status has never afforded effective protection. But in general these categories seemed to pick out different natural kinds. Those ancient criteria will not survive the next few decades.

This view, although held by many sophisticated modern thinkers, fundamentally expresses the Garden of Eden story, which focused on the difference between discrete categories: humans and everything else. Darwin gave us a 1-dimensional continuum, on which all life is connected. He broke down that binary distinction between humans (the magical category one violates when accused of “anthropomorphism”) and everything else. But the upheaval to come, due to a greater understanding of biology, evolution, intelligence and engineering, will make the Darwinian revolution look like child’s play.


The progress in morphogenic engineering, bio-robotics, AI and artificial life will give rise to an astronomically large space of possible creatures in which Darwin’s “Endless Forms Most Beautiful” is but a small speck


Furthermore, the erasure of categorical differences, or the realization that evolution and protoplasm have no monopoly on the creation of thoughts, is a modern idea. Julien Offray de La Mettrie published “Man, a Machine” more than 270 years ago in a remarkably prescient (given the examples available to him at the time). Since then, science fiction authors have consistently led the way on this issue, forcing us to confront the idea that we really don’t know what kind of substrates underlie “true” cognition, feeling, or any of the other properties that matter. . Even Cartesian dualism can accommodate this realization—who’s to say that an immaterial soul might not be happily attached to a robotic embodiment?

Taking the lessons of developmental biology and evolution seriously requires that we embrace the continuity thesis. Each of us has made the journey from physics to mind: we were once a quiescent oocyte, a tiny piece of passive chemicals. Eventually we became a complex being with metacognitive abilities (and perhaps beliefs about being ‘more than just a machine’). But in development, as in evolution, there is no place for a bright red line – no discrete step at which, boom – pure physics becomes ‘true cognition’. Whatever we think of as preferences, pain, pleasure, decision making, etc. is, if any living thing has it, we have to go backwards to ask if paramecia have a version of it. If not, then we are back to the search for a sharp discontinuity, which is as fruitless as the medieval paradox of what really came first, the chicken or the egg. If so, then we are firmly in the land of machines with feelings and thoughts, because the molecular reactions that make up a single-celled organism and its functionality are a kind of machine.

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The gradual, slow metamorphosis that gives rise to cognitive beings requires us to stop thinking in binary, discrete, sharp categories and instead focus on defining a spectrum along which cognition can scale, from the minuscule capabilities of minimal cybernetic systems to the most advanced rational agent. We must define the transitions that appear to us, as observers, as separate classes of agency and intelligence. More than anything, we need to formulate theories about the scale of cognition. We are all collective intelligences – not just the termite colonies and flocks of birds, but all of us – made of parts, some of which were once independent organisms (cells) themselves, and possessing many powers, preferences and behavioral repertoires. How does a collection of neurons develop a unified first-person perspective? How many cells can fit inside a 3.5 lb neural structure? How does a swarm of embryonic cells pursue collective goals to navigate morphospace? How many “embryos” (and what does one count, anyway?) can form in a single embryonic blastoderm? Turing, with his interest in intelligence but also chemical morphogenesis, understood the profound question that these diverse fields of science have in common.

The coming paradigm shift is much more than just the realization that any standard “human” (the subject of much philosophy and policy) is just an arbitrary point on a smooth continuum on the developmental scale (starting with a single cell), and on the evolutionary scale (surrounded by a range of ancestral forms that challenge us to pinpoint a specific breeding pair of organisms where human mental traits “began”). It’s much worse than that. The future includes cyborgs, hybrids, chimeras, bioengineered constructs, software AIs, and much more—possibly even exobiological agents. All of these can implement a smooth continuum between something that is 99% machine + some human brain cells on board and something that is 99% human with some technology integrated into their brain. Every point (including 50-50) along this continuum can exist, torpedoing any naïve hope that a sharp distinction between life and machine can be maintained. And because of the interoperability of life, every combination of developed material, designed material and software is a possible being that instantly shatters familiar, binary categories. The progress in morphogenic engineering, bio-robotics, AI and artificial life will give rise to an astronomically large space of possible creatures in which Darwin’s “Endless Forms Most Beautiful” is but a small speck.


Those binary categories thrived in a world of limited imagination and technological ability. It is time for us to grow further and move towards an exciting future in which old, random categories give way to a mature science of scaling the spectrum of cognitive abilities


Many agents in our future environment will be made by some indivisible mixture of evolutionary design principles, rational engineering, and behavioral shaping of the capacities of agential materials such as cells. Very soon it will be impossible to know how to relate to a new being using the old criteria because it will be nowhere on the familiar tree of life we ​​used to establish our relationships. Well; it is time we cast “what do you look like” and “where are you from” as viable categories for knowing how to relate to another being.

The future lies in the discovery of useful categories for recognizing, predicting, manipulating, creating and relating to truly diverse intelligences, regardless of their embodiment or origin story. The field of cybernetics taught us decades ago that machines can have goals – no magic required. That field, and recent work in developmental biophysics, basal cognition, and artificial life, are destroying the categories that were never real to begin with—merely convenient. Those binary categories thrived in a world of limited imagination and technological ability. It is time for us to grow further and move into an exciting future in which old, random categories give way to a mature science of scaling the spectrum of cognitive abilities. The science of the next century will not ask whether a machine has sentience, but what kind and how much—what tools, from a soldering iron to psychotherapy and many in between, are the optimal interface with this system. Once we abandon the myopic attachment to protoplasm and evolution as unique ways to create true thoughts that matter, we can establish the powerful technologies that take advantage of cellular intelligence for regenerative medicine, and multiscale competence architectures for transformative robotics and AI. More importantly, we can begin the journey to establish a new system of ethics that is inclusive of truly diverse thought and based on an understanding of the existential struggle we all share.

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