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Is a 3-D printer alive?

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Can information theory help us understand origin of life? A mid-length essay sponsored by the Santa Fe Institute touches on many of the main points, asking what if a 3-D printer could reproduce itself? Would that be life?

Coloured robot design Free Vector

But let us look at the functional information that makes us. Some was acquired around 4 billion years ago when life got started, but most was acquired over evolutionary time. We learned how to build our bodies around 540 million years ago, and to digest cooked food maybe in the past million years. We are a bundle of information, acquired at different stages, some acquired by the bacteria in our gut, and some acquired through culture. From the lineage viewpoint, the 3D printers were always life, there was no nonlife/life transition in our thought experiment. But something did change over the course of their evolution – they acquired functional information over millions of years on Mars, and were able to use this information to do novel things – that is, they came closer to what we would call alive. It is in this sense that we might consider the 3D printers to represent new examples of alive things, each generating new possibilities for life…

Although you care deeply for your creation, your insurance company worries about the unfavourable losses if Eve ever takes over the Earth. So, you figure out a way to get your little autonomous 3D printer sent on the next mission to Mars as a stowaway. Imagine Eve has a happy existence in a hidden valley on Mars, and goes on to produce many copies of itself. Humanity discovers the valley a few million years later to find the process of evolution on 3D printers generated a wide variety of them that are quite different from your original design – small ones, big ones, blue ones, red ones, ones that hunt other 3D printers for resources, and so on.

The value of this thought experiment is that it allows us to play with the notions of life and alive. Intuitively, we feel that life emerged, or maybe that the new robots are even alive. Did the 3D printers become life? If so, at what point did they become life? Are they alive?

Michael Lachmann and Sarah Walker, “Life ≠ alive” at Aeon

Clearly, we have come a long way in thinking up new ways to explore the origin of life problem.

See also: The Science Fictions series at your fingertips – origin of life What we do and don’t know about the origin of life.

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