As I have come to realize over the past couple weeks, the intersection of biotechnology and art is a flourishing field that is capable of bringing attention to many important ethical and scientific issues, as well as philosophical questions of what life is exactly. One rapidly developing field is artificial life and artificial intelligence, which look to replicate biological systems and cognitive processes in machines. While I am well familiar with the concepts of artificial intelligence from numerous popular sources, ranging from Watson, the Jeopardy robot, to popular films like Ex Machina and Her, artificial life is a concept that I was much less familiar with. The movies Her and Ex Machina show two very different sides of the potential for artificial intelligence. Her depicts artificial intelligence as something that can interact with humans as a companion while Ex Machina shows us that in the future artificial intelligence may be able to very easily take advantage of us.
(Ex Machina, 2014)
Artificial life, however, looks at how to model biological systems in computers and how we can synthesize life in robots, not just how to copy the cognitive processes and thoughts (Helmreich, 2011). Helmreich describes the hope that one day we would be able to upload human consciousness into robots, which would essentially allow us to live forever. While my immediate reaction was to think of the episode of FRIENDS in which Ross describes that exact process, it made me pause and think about what it really means to be alive or dead. I have always thought of the definition of life as having to do with respiration and having a cellular makeup, but if we can take our consciousness and upload it into another form like a machine is that still alive, and will it grow and change in the same way that our personalities grow and change in response to the world around us? The TV show Black Mirror is well known for bringing these kind of questions to attention, and in the episode titled Be Right Back, we are faced with the question of what would it look like to attempt to recreate a person within a machine.
(Black Mirror, 2013)
Other applications of artificial life look at how to create digital “organisms” that are subject to natural selection and maybe even artificial selection. Tom Ray has created a computer program known as Tierra, which is a Darwinian operating system that creates evolvable machine codes. This has essentially created an illustration of evolution, including various kinds of mutations, a gene pool, and a record of the different “animals” within the system. This system creates an analogy between computer code and DNA and pushes us to think about life existing in a completely different way than we have previously thought about.
“Be Right Back.” Black Mirror. Channel 4, 11 Feb. 2013
Ex Machina. Dir. Alex Garland. Universal, 2014. Film.
Helmreich, S. (2011). What Was Life? Answers from Three Limit Biologies. Critical Inquiry, 37(4), 671-696. doi:10.1086/660987
Her. Dir. Spike Jonze. Warner Bros, 2013. Film