by Jochen Szangolies
In the 1994 science fiction film Star Trek Generations, while attempting to locate the missing Captain Picard, Lt. Cmdr. Data is given the task to scan for life-forms on the planet below. Data, an android having recently been outfitted with an emotion chip, proceeds to proclaim his love for the task, and makes up a little impromptu ditty while operating his console, to the bewilderment of his crew mates.
The scene plays as comic relief, but is not without some poignancy. The status of Data himself, whether he can be said to be himself ‘alive’ and therefore worthy of the special protection generally awarded to living things, is a recurring plot thread throughout the run of Star Trek: The Next Generation. In his struggle to become ‘more human’, his attainment of emotions marks a major milestone. Having thus been initiated into the rank of an—albeit artificial—life-form, one might cast his task as not so much a scientific, but a philosophical one: searching for others of his kind.
It is then somewhat odd that there is apparently a mechanizable answer to the question ‘what is life?’, some algorithm performed on the appropriate measurement data returning a judgment on the status of any blob of matter under investigation as either alive or not. If there is some mechanical criterion separating life from non-life, then how was Data’s own status ever in question? Read more »