Sunday, July 15, 2007

Douglas Adams on Life

Back in 1998 Douglas Adams asked "Is there an Artificial God?" at Digital Biota 2 in Cambridge, UK. As I would expect his talk was both funny and smart. While his focus was on God and religion and the role it can play even in a modern scientific world, he had a bit to say about recognizing life.
The following strange thought went through my mind: that trying to figure out what is life and what isn't and where the boundary is has an interesting relationship with how you recognise handwriting. We all know, when presented with any particular entity, whether it's a bit of mould from the fridge or whatever; we instinctively know when something is an example of life and when it isn't. But it turns out to be tremendously hard exactly to define it. I remember once, a long time ago, needing a definition of life for a speech I was giving. Assuming there was a simple one and looking around the Internet, I was astonished at how diverse the definitions were and how very, very detailed each one had to be in order to include 'this' but not include 'that'. If you think about it, a collection that includes a fruit fly and Richard Dawkins and the Great Barrier Reef is an awkward set of objects to try and compare. When we try and figure out what the rules are that we are looking for, trying to find a rule that's self-evidently true, that turns out to be very, very hard.

It makes me wonder if we'll even recognize the first truly alien life form we stumble across. Adams also points out the danger of arrogantly believing that the universe was created just for us.

Now the real trap springs, because early man is thinking, 'This world fits me very well. Here are all these things that support me and feed me and look after me; yes, this world fits me nicely' and he reaches the inescapable conclusion that whoever made it, made it for him.

This is rather as if you imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, 'This is an interesting world I find myself in - an interesting hole I find myself in - fits me rather neatly, doesn't it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!' This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it's still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything's going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for. We all know that at some point in the future the Universe will come to an end and at some other point, considerably in advance from that but still not immediately pressing, the sun will explode. We feel there's plenty of time to worry about that, but on the other hand that's a very dangerous thing to say.

If there is another intelligent species in the universe it make think that it was created just for them. It seems like it's a recipe for a terrible culture clash.

It's well worth reading (or listening to) the whole talk. (via BoingBoing) While you're at Biota.org, check out some of their interviews and projects developing virtual creatures and digital ecosystems.

Some days I think Adams was right about everything: we are indeed bugs in the greatest organic computer of all time, descended from a useless bunch of telephone sanitizers and marketing consultants. I'm sorry we lost Adams before he could tell us more.

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1 comment:

Tom said...

Thank you for your kind words on the Douglas Adams' lecture. I am the editor of the BIota.org site and it was particularly nice that you included links to the other resources on the Biota.org site. The site also features a podcast (available from the front of the site) where contemporary artificial life developers talk about their history, their current and their future projects. The vision that people like Douglas Adams' started is carried on to this day through contemporary artificial life development. Thank you for your interest.