Scientists wanted to count all the things that were alive in the world, so they built a computer.
The computer was very advanced, and completely independent. It was able to move around so that it could find both things to count and power sources to recharge itself. It could detect heat, wetness and other physical factors, as well as take samples of the air to determine living conditions. It also took samples of the creatures and plants it found to see if they were alive, and once the computer had made its decision it would dispose of the samples. It could modify itself to suit the environments it came across, and manufacture probes to go to the places it couldn’t reach.
The computer set out on its mission. It trundled over the garden outside of the laboratory, taking samples of insects and flowers. It reached a large pond and used the spare parts it had been given to make an engine that could propel it underwater, where it found a couple of frogs to analyse. It used its new engine to go into the sea where it found all sorts of fish and sea plants. It came out on a beach on the other side of the sea, and took a moment to reassemble its engines into legs to better traverse the shifting sand dunes, before plugging itself into an outlet in a nearby building to recharge after its long journey.
The computer was on an island, and the island had a volcano. After it had filled its battery, the computer made itself some arms from parts it found around it and set about climbing the volcano. Once it had reached the top it felt a lot of heat. Knowing that it couldn’t explore the volcano any further without being destroyed, it took apart its arms and legs and made a probe that was better suited to hot environments, and programmed it to go into the volcano and search for life. The probe went inside and looked all around but couldn’t find anything, and, after taking an air sample, discovered that the fumes inside made it impossible for anything to be alive inside the cone.
The computer carried on like this all around the world. It studied every single thing that met the scientist’s description of life, ejecting each sample it found once it had made its decision so that it could make room for the next one.
Eventually, many years later, the computer reported back to the laboratory where it had been created. The scientists downloaded all the information it had gathered and ended up with a great list of all the living things that inhabited the Earth.
But as they came to the bottom of the list, the scientists paused. The final entry was the computer itself. It had analysed it’s behaviour – the fact that it moved, took air and matter samples and then ejected them, fed from power sources, detected the sensations of its environment and grew to suit it by adding components to itself, and even reproduced in the form of probes. It had decided that these qualifies matched the scientist’s description of life.
The scientists discussed this at length. Was the computer right? Had all the abilities they had built into it made it alive?
After much debating, the scientists decided that the computer was wrong. Just because something was made up of processes that happened to fit the criteria they had specified for life did not mean that it was truly alive. Being alive meant far more than that. They went back to the computer and informed it of their decision.
The computer asked why they had come to that conclusion, seeing as all the living things it had analysed were also made up simply of processes, if very complex ones.
The scientists explained that was completely different, and they switched off the computer.
The computer, in fact, was wrong. The idea that humans have come up with called ‘life’ really is far more than a complex set of processes. However, the scientists were wrong too. Because for all their belief in the man-made concept of ‘life’, humanity, with all its basis in processes of cells, particles and brain chemistry, does not fit that concept either.