Although a technological wonder, a state-of-the-art robot with artificial intelligence is a life-like but lifeless entity. It is an inanimate high-tech gadget. Some robots look and act like humans and mimic them so well that we may have a hard time differentiating those lifeless so-called ‘humanoids’ from live humans. What sets robots (and other smart devices) apart from ordinary inanimate entities is that they are a combination of precision hardware and sophisticated software. That is, a robot has a precisely organized physical body that is fully controlled by a set of instructions prepared specifically to enable the robot to perform assigned tasks. When the code is executed by an external agent, such as a human operator, the software drives the robot and controls its inputs and outputs in full compliance with the encoded instructions. The domain of control or influence of the software is limited by the robot. Also, there is no built-in agent within the robot and thus no traits of will, self-initiation, knowledge, or consciousness. If the robot is not prompted to say or do something, it will just stand there like a dummy. Therefore, a robot and an autonomous car can be expressed as
Robot= Physical body (hardware) + Software + Operator
Autonomous car= Physical body (hardware) + Software + Operator
The features and the rules of operation of a robot or autonomous car, with allowance for the operator to intervene via input commands, comprise the software of the robot or autonomous car. No one can predict the behavior of a robot by simply examining its hardware, including all the electrical activity in its microprocessor, with millions of transistors, and the patterns of that activity. Such an attempt is simply untenable. All technologically savvy people will agree that the ‘character’ of a robot comes from the software package that is loaded and the capabilities included in that package. It is the executed commands in the software that makes a robot what it is, since the software drives and controls hardware – hence the name ‘driver’ for the software of devices. A friendly robot can be changed to a killer robot by simply changing its software or even just some of the instructions within the software. This is why hackers are the nightmare of institutions whose safe operation depends on protecting their software from intruders, which is becoming a growing challenge in this highly connected world.
A robot or computer without a software is a dead robot or computer, no matter how sophisticated its electronic circuitry is. Note that the hardware and software are compatible but distinct entities, even for machines with AI and deep-learning capability that modify the software within a specified framework. Software is simply a collection of inscribed passive commands with no inherent causal power. Software has supremacyover the hardware since software rules over hardware and fully controls it. Also, the character of a robot comes from its incorporeal software, not the corporeal hardware with the sophisticated electronic circuitry. (The character of a live being also comes from subtle life, not the robust body.) The difference between a friendly robot and a monster robot is the software loaded, and thus the coders. A bad-natured robot can be converted to a good-natured one by simply changing its software. So much for the much-feared monstrous robots of science fiction.
Similarly, an autonomous car does not have a human driver that can see the road, control the steering, adjust the speed, break to avoid accidents, and stop at the destination. However, it has a driving software that processes the signals coming from sensors and performs all the necessary smart actions. Even if we do not see the driving software and have no idea as to where in the car it is located, we do not doubt its existence and capabilities. This is because we know that the physical parts of a car – the engine, steering wheel, brakes, and the gas pedal – have none of the attributes of a driver, and those parts have no ability to coordinate their acts collectively to make the car move while being mindful of the variable traffic conditions. In the absence of imposed influences by people and other beings, matter itself is driven by the laws and forces of nature alone. Also, the driving software does not need to be physically present in the car; it may reside in a cloud storage system. In such remote-controlled autonomous cars, all the vehicle needs is a signal-processing center and a modem to communicate with the virtual driver in the cloud.
In the case of autonomous cars whose driving software resides remotely, the claim that the intense electrical signals of the microprocessor gives rise to the driving software that then decides what to do and where to take the car is somewhat ridiculous. Presenting as evidence the correlates between the patterns of electrical activity in the microprocessor and the tasks performed does not make the claim any less absurd. Here the underlying thinking is that existence is limited to matter, and since there is no apparent physical driver or driving software, then it must be the microprocessor that is the next best candidate to generate its software and drive the car. Unless we give up the preconceptions that limit thought and expand our horizon of existence to include invisible entities such as commands that reside in the cloud – in this case – it is clear that the autonomous cars would remain a mystery.
Also,distilling an active agent out of the software – which is just a collection of inscribed passive commands – is an imagination running wild and is also as preposterous. Every autonomous car comes with a physical body and software. But without an external operator, the car will just sit there. The active agent that commands the car must be an overarching entity such as you and me with the traits of will, purpose, knowledge, consciousness, and power. During routine driving, the microprocessor of the autonomous car commands the engine, the steering wheel, and the brakes in full compliance with the driving software. Hidden in the software instructions are the intentions of the software engineers.
We can make the following inferences by comparing an autonomous car with an identical car with no driver or autonomous driving feature:
- The driving software takes the autonomous car in operation and its passenger to a specific place. Therefore, it exists and is purposive.
- The software is of a different nature than the hardware of the car, including its microprocessor, and it cannot be reduced to hardware. Therefore, software is a subjectiveexistence.
- The driving software controls and rules the hardware. Therefore, the software is primary and the hardware is secondary. That is, software has primacyand supremacyover the hardware.
- An ordinary car without a driver must remain static, but an autonomous car is on the go. Therefore, it is dynamic.
- The sphere of influence of the driving software is specific to the car, and thus autonomous driving is a localphenomenon.
- All components of the car, including the engine, the brakes, and the steering wheel, act in harmony. Therefore, the driving software has unity.
- The car seems to know the traffic rules and how to adjust to traffic conditions. It also seems to know all parts of the car, their functions, and their limitations. Therefore, the driving software possesses information.
- The driving software is represented by symbols made of matter-energy, but its essence is the meaning of the commands. Therefore, the software is a subjectiveentity (the 0’s and 1’s of the software have no idea about what they represent).
- The driving software comes with apparent traits– sensing, reasoning, speeding, and honking as necessary – and thus it has an apparent character.
- The driving software follows well-defined rules depending on the traffic conditions (as relayed by satellite or online information) and thus it has a code of operation.
- When in traffic, the driving software makes a lot of decisions that are typically made by drivers, such as choosing the best route, and thus it has a concealed built-in virtual agent(which is a manifestation of the code writers).
- The driving software commands; the physical car obeys. That is, the car fully complies with the instruction of the software. Therefore, the driving software resembles a causalagent.
A similar inference can be made for the robots. It appears that the elusive life is to a cell or any living organism what software is to a robot or an autonomous car. Using this factual analogy as a guide, we can also make similar inferences for life by comparing living beings to nonliving ones.
To see the resemblance, let us closely examine a living cell and compare it to a physically identical nonliving cell. The millions of molecules in a cell work in an orderly manner as a unit and collaborate fully to produce certain products – i.e., the insulin cells in a healthy pancreas synthesizing the insulin hormone. Each molecule seems to know its duties and possesses the needed skill to perform those duties and communicate with other molecules and work with them as a team in perfect harmony. Each molecule in a cell also seems to know what the cell is doing as a whole and the role it plays. The information contained within our DNA – which resembles a 1000-volume encyclopedia – is read, understood, and implemented by specific molecules with precision. The DNA with such a huge amount of information is also copied within the cell in a fraction of a second during cell division.
All these marvelous actions are associated with life. Considering that acts are indicators of the traits and capabilities of the actor, which is life in this case, we infer from what manifests in the contents of a cell that life is an agentthat comes with the traits of purpose, intent, unity, order, organization, control, knowledge, skill, power, communication, reading and implementing information, and collaboration. At the organ or plant level, life also involves a higher purpose and output, higher order, harmony, connectedness, division of labor, and working as a team of cells within a larger entity. At the higher animal level, it involves an even higher level of purpose and output, with organs working together as one. It utilizes the five senses and exhibits limited levels of consciousness, intellect, instinct, and knowledge. At the human level, life comes with high levels of emotions, desires, intellect, reason, instinct, imagination, consciousness, and knowledge as well as conscience.
In short, the mysterious and miraculous life is a nonphysical, subjective, abstract attribute of animate beings. The nonmaterial life reigns supreme over the material body. It is immaterial and irreducible to matter or energy. As such, life is in the same category of existence as consciousness, free will, beauty, knowledge, and meaning, except that life qualifies as an agency.