Digital life form questions the definition of life

Published on
November 1, 2018

What is life? What determines if something is alive or not? And do our standard definitions of life hold up with the ongoing developments in artificial life? Those are the questions that artists Arvid Jense & Marie Caye ask themselves and the scientific community in Wageningen as part of their project for “Creative innovations: art meets science”.

In previous work, Arvid & Marie worked with artificial intelligence, creating machines that could completely take care of themselves, including making an income and paying bills. This raised the question about the definition of life. “We asked this question to multiple scientists here, at the university of life sciences”, Arvid explains. “It seems like a very obvious question, what defines life, but the answers were really different”. Arvid emphasises how “human centred” the standards for life are: “We can easily apply it to humans and mammals, but as soon as you come to viruses or digital life it gets blurry”. 

To investigate the discussion about the boundaries of life, Arvid & Marie aimed to create a digital life form that matches all commonly used seven criteria for life: homeostasis, birth and death, metabolism, growth, mutation, response to stimuli and reproduction. In order to do so, they needed to translate these criteria from the organic domain to the digital domain. “For instance, instead of digesting food, the app makes calculations”, Marie explains.

They also found out that next to the seven definitions it is essential to consider other characteristics, for example: suffering. “If a life form has the capability to suffer in a for us visible way, we value life more and are more likely to feel responsible for it. We wanted people to feel responsible for the life form, so that they will think about the topic on their own terms”, Arvid explains. 

The resulting life form will live in the digital environment of your phone. It will use the resources of your phone, like the storage space, and responds to its surroundings: if you open it often, it has more access to resources, and it will grow. If not, it will die. If your battery runs low, it will suffer. To obtain the life form, a ‘spore’ must be taken from someone else who has the lifeform, or from one of the ‘mother life forms’ that will be launched on 2 November.

The final presentation of the artwork Arvid & Marie created in collaboration with Vincent van Dijck and Mathilde Lemaire takes place on 2 November, 12.30 in C2035 Orion. More information can be found here.

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