When does an AI become alive?

and does it matter?

This blog post is gonna be a little different; it’s more philosophical than most of what I write.

It rose out a question a friend asked:

“When does a biological AI become life?”

My friend asked me this because he felt that SciFi must have covered this topic, and I’ve read and watched more than my fair share :-)

Remove the limitations

Now, I found the restriction to “biological AI” is unnecessary limiting. I can understand the thinking (we’re biological, we’re alive), but the question can apply to a larger scope.

Let’s go larger.

I can see two possible interpretations of the question:

  1. when does something become “alive” (in the same aspect that a rat may be alive, or a tree, or maybe even a microbe). We don’t need it to be an “AI” for this
  2. when does it become sentient; we don’t need “biological” for this.

A related question is “what does it mean to be human”. Having just rewatched “Bladerunner” and “Bladerunner 2049” this question naturally came to me; it’s one of the key themes in both of these movies.

The problem with these questions is that we don’t really have good definitions of what any of this means; philosophers have been debating it for millennia.

Star Trek TNG asked this question a few times; e.g.

Even the original series covered some of this (The Devil in the Dark). Star Trek Voyager took the concept even further with debate on whether a hologram could be sentient and if so, alive.


A lot of these questions all come back to “creating an underclass” - ie creating a slave race. We believe enslaving people is evil, but if we create something or grow something and declare it “not human” then can’t we treat them like slaves? Asimov addressed some of that in his Robot stories as well.

So determining the answer to these questions (“what is life”, “what is sentience”, “what is human”) and determining how we should treat the entities we create may become a critical question that could have ramifications through history.

Will we remain human?

This may also have consequences for our own evolution (cf X-Men stories for mutants) or “Post-Human” (or Trans-human) for technology-enhanced humans.

What if we learn to create nanotechnology that can rewrite DNA to enhance muscle power; heart function; brain power? What if we have computer technology that can be implanted into the brain and act as an enhancement to memory, thinking, communication?

Will we define these people as “human” or will they be “sub-human”?

Since many of these technologies may come out of the defence industry and initially applied to soldiers who sign away their rights some of the early decisions may be against calling these people human, which could have long term ramifications. This was a thread in “Nexus” trilogy of books, by Ramez Naam. (Aside: I could do with some technology to help me remember names like that; I forgot the author and book title, but I knew exactly where it was on my book shelves, so had to go and physically find the book!)

My grandfather’s axe

Law loves bright lines; “This is human”; “this is not human”. It’s really not so good with blurred areas. This became a big deal in an obscenity case that appeared in front of the US Supreme Court:

I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [“hard-core pornography”], and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.

We’re already starting down this path. We can replace limbs with artificial equivalents, we can replace organs (eg artificial hearts), we can even use organs from other species (pig hearts). So where does “human” end? When does man become Cyberman

So far the line appears to be “brain”… but what when we start to enhance that?


For a long time we’ve had the ability to alter consciousness. “Beer, you’re my best friend! hic”. We’ve gone some step towards overcoming natural limitations (e.g. drugs to counter ADHD, reduce epilepsy). But what happens when we surgically make permanent changes to the brain?

Well, we’re already doing some of that, as well; cochlear ear implants where the implant connects directly to the nervous system. The are experimental artificial eyes to allow blind people to see. There’s even one person with an artificial eye that translates colours into sound.

So far we’re at the early stages of direct brain manipulation, but we’re definitely going down this path!

Human life

We can’t even tell when human life starts. When does a random collection of cells (egg+sperm) become “human”. Anti-abortionists claim “life begins at conception” but that’s meaningless and would result in a crime investigation being warranted whenever a mother spontaneously aborts (and in the first few days of implantation that’s common).

If we can’t even define this for humans, how can we expect to define it for our creations?

What even is Artificial Intelligence?

When I was a kid I thought that we would encounter alien intelligence… but it wouldn’t be from outer space; it’d be something we created. An AI, basically. After all, there’s no reason that an AI would be an artificial human intelligence (AHI); given the lack of sensory input and control mechanisms that human’s grow up with (your body!) there’s little reason to assume that an emergent AI would be human.

So we have another problem; how do we identify this intelligence? Clearly the Turing test is aimed at AHI, and not alien intelligence. Do we even have a way of identifying this?


We’ve come a long way from the original question (“When does a biological AI become life?”). It’s exposed a tonne of questions to which we don’t, yet, have answers.

But these are questions we do need to start thinking about; not from an AI perspective, but from a human perspective. When does man start? Where does he end?

The reality is that there is no hard line between “not alive” and “alive”, as exposed by the “abortion” question. The law tries its best, but there are legal, ethical, and religious components to the question.

When does an AI become alive? I don’t know!

And then there’s Roko’s Basilisk to be aware of…