Beyond our tiny blue planet, the universe is filled with 100 billion galaxies, each containing 100 billion suns, and each of those stars some vast but unknown billion of inhabitable planets. Let’s say we had some means to inspect at least one other planet in the universe that sprouted sentient creatures who also developed their own advance technology. If we could see a complicated artifact on that planet do we have any test to determine whether that thing was alive or created? Could we tell whether a particular example was an organism born, or a supremely advanced machine made by ones who were born? What framework would we use to discriminate between a product of “natural” evolution and one of technological evolution? If we knew nothing of the origins or even nature of this planet’s original lifeforms, is there some special thermodynamic or informational giveaway of how its technology would be different from its life? I don’t think there is such a test.
Now, let’s switch the lens and let that intergallatic investigator look at things here on Earth. If they were ignorant of what system our planet used for natural life, would they be able to identify what things were biological and which were technological? Is there an all-purpose distinction in thermodynamics, or complexity, or information flow that says “this evolved without minds” or “this was invented by a mind”? Could it make the further distinction between something that was self-evolved vs evolved from a system created by a mind, by a sort of artificial evolution? Say we set up a system that would self-evolve new organisms based on an alternative DNA-like molecule. If the investigator looked at Earth today the difference in complexity between self-evolved and mind-designed among small things might be a telltale clue, but what would it make of our largest creations, like the internet? How about in 100 years? I suspect there is no fundamental physical difference between “natural” and “artificial” organisms, and that the only way to distinguish the two will be to investigate their history.
There is no physically detectable vital spirit in living things that can not be found in manufactured things of a certain type. This continuity between the born and the made is not obvious nor very important right now, but it will become more important, valuable and troublesome in the future.
[Image of mechanical life generated by William Latham ]