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Finding or Creating a Living Organism? Past and Future Thought Experiments in Astrobiology Applied to Artificial Intelligence


This is a digest of how various researchers in biology and astrobiology have explored questions of what defines living organisms—definitions based on functions or structures observed in organisms, or on systems terms, or on mathematical conceptions like closure, chirality, quantum mechanics and thermodynamics, or on biosemiotics, or on Darwinian evolution—to clarify the field and make it easier for endeavors in artificial intelligence to make progress. Current ideas are described to promote work between astrobiologists and computer scientists, each concerned with living organisms. A four-parameter framework is presented as a scaffold that is later developed into what machines lack to be considered alive: systems, evolution, energy and consciousness, and includes Jagers operators and the idea of dual closure. A novel definition of consciousness is developed which describes mental objects both with and without communicable properties, and this helps to clarify how consciousness in machines may be studied as an emergent process related to choice functions in systems. A perspective on how quantization, acting on nucleic acids, sets up natural limits to system behavior is offered as a partial address to the problem of biogenesis.

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An early version of this paper was originally submitted to the Australasian Conference on Artificial Life and Computational Intelligence in 2016, and reviewer and mentor comments shaped the present form. Special thanks to John Pfaltz, of the University of Virginia, Department of Computer Science, who served as mentor—and to Gerard Jagers of the Wageningen University and Research Center, Animal Ecology Division; Dale Patterson, of Griffith University Queensland College of Art, Digital Design; and Pramod Parajuli, of Prescott College, Sustainability Education, who served as reviewers while comprising the author’s doctoral dissertation committee. A previous draft was composed as part of a course at Prescott College taught by Joan Clingan, Modes of Inquiry II, with Michelle Fisher providing additional comments. Fundamental inspiration came from the late Jack Green, whose passion was lunar protolife and lunar volcanism, with his sights always set on exploration. Also, love always to my parents.

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Correspondence to Daniel S. Helman Ph.D..

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Helman, D.S. Finding or Creating a Living Organism? Past and Future Thought Experiments in Astrobiology Applied to Artificial Intelligence. Acta Biotheor 70, 13 (2022).

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  • Definition of life
  • Darwinian evolution
  • Biosemiotics
  • Thermodynamics
  • Quantum mechanics
  • Chirality
  • Systems
  • Ecology
  • Artificial life
  • Consciousness
  • Nucleic acid
  • Axiom of choice