Are computers alive?


Staff member
If something thinks, does that make it (them?) alive? I mean my pocket calculator may be limited in its thinking, but it works out that 2 + 2 = 4, using electricity just like my synapses. And on a bad day, I might make that 3!

For that matter, does that also mean that an abacus is also alive, since it can calculate too, with a bit of human assistance? :D
By the current definition of life, no. It cannot reproduce itself by parthenogenesis. You can't put two calculators in a dark drawer and come back later to find a third, tiny calculator. If you turn it off, it doesn't respond to other external stimuli. Also, saying "your pocket calculator is limited in its thinking" is putting the cart before the horse. Since we don't actually KNOW what it means to think (at a mechanical level), we can't say what you said.

On the other hand, there are speech analysis programs that are pretty darned good at interpreting speech including nuances, slang, and partial sentences. I think we have a lot of the components that would lead to a "true" AI - but we are missing one part. We know how neurons flow in a brain and nervous system. But we don't know how the sum of those neural flows becomes conscious thought. If we ever discover that bit of knowledge, we very well COULD develop an AI that could pass the Turing test.
What keeps it pumping after you finish the printing process? Why would it be alive?

If you ever watched the old Star Trek: The Next Generation series, you would remember that more than once they wrestled with definitions of life forms that were excluded by standards of traditional life forms. More than once they came up with crystalline life, energy-only (i.e. non-corporeal) life, and heck, even the original Star Trek "Devil in the Dark" episode had a silicon-based life form. There are some basic requirements of life including self-replication, response to stimuli, and ingestion/secretion cycles. That's not an exhaustive list, but those three are high on the list. Isaac Asimov, one of the world's most prolific writers, had a short story as part of his I, Robot series, I think titled "The 0th Law," in which there was one time when a robot could disobey his infamous "Three Laws of Robotics." It had to do with a robot that could replicate itself and thus cross over towards life.

A computer that can, from start to finish, rebuild other computers just like itself, perhaps with help in getting raw materials but otherwise driving the entire process, would perhaps start towards crossing that line. So far as I know, some factories come close but they lack the degree of self-guidance in response to adverse stimuli. So I'm not saying AI is impossible. We just aren't there yet.

(Sudden image flashing through my mind in a future world where a kid in the back seat unpacks their brand-new version of "Alexa 6.0" and turns it on. Suddenly the father hears an unfamiliar voice from the back seat asking "Are we there yet?")