Xenology: An Introduction to the Scientific Study of Extraterrestrial Life, Intelligence, and Civilization

First Edition

© 1975-1979, 2008 Robert A. Freitas Jr. All Rights Reserved.

Robert A. Freitas Jr., Xenology: An Introduction to the Scientific Study of Extraterrestrial Life, Intelligence, and Civilization, First Edition, Xenology Research Institute, Sacramento, CA, 1979; http://www.xenology.info/Xeno.htm


16.4 Machine Life

Can machines live? Evolve? Think? Many scientists would answer in the negative. Gears, relays, and integrated circuits certainly aren’t alive in the traditional sense. Evolution typically involves reproduction and natural selection, but no Earthly machines are known to reproduce themselves. And, it is said, cold steel cannot cogitate.

From the xenological point of view, however, we’ve already determined that the most useful definition of life involves the concept of negative entropy, or negentropy. That is, to be considered "alive" an entity must (1) feed on negentropy (absorb order from the environment) and (2) store negentropy (create order within itself). The amount of stored information in a living organism determines exactly how alive it is.

Philip Morrison at MIT has taken a first stab at a quantitative analysis of "how much life" is present in any entity of specified complexity. It will be recalled from Chapter 6 that a refrigerator or other similar contemporary machine technically is "alive" by our definition, because it feeds on negentropy and uses this to create internal order. But most machines "alive" today aren’t very alive because they store only miniscule amounts of information at the molecular level. Morrison has shown that patterns imposed on lumps of inert matter will not begin strongly to affect the matter thermodynamically "until the pattern is constructed with molecular fineness."1704 His calculations, summarized in Table 16.3, pertain to an hypothetical black-and-white checkerboard pattern superimposed on a slab of otherwise inert matter.


Table 16.3 Molecular Fineness and the Thermodynamic Significance of Patterns of Information
(modified from Morrison1704)
Nature of the Pattern
Characteristic Size of the Pattern
Contribution of the Pattern to Thermodynamics of Inert Matter
(Relative Intensity of Life)
Macroscopic mechanical pattern
1 centimeter
Visible pattern
Microscopic pattern
1 micron
Electron micrographic pattern
0.1 micron (1000 Angstroms)
X-ray lithographic pattern
100 Angstroms
Molecular pattern
10 Angstroms



We may view the last column of Table 16.3 as representing, in a sense, the intensity of life achieved by an information-laden pattern imposed on inanimate matter, Clearly, the finer the pattern (Figure 16.3), the more "alive" is the entity. By implication, we cannot concede that machines are "very alive" until their components are constructed with molecular fineness. Only then will the information storage in machines be comparable to those found in biological lifeforms.


Figure 16.3 Microstructure in Machine Lifeforms and Biological Lifeforms Inhabiting the Planet Earth

(both photographs)

An x-ray lithograph of a magnetic bubble computer memory device developed by IBM (state-of-the-art, 1977).2700

An electron micrograph of a polygon-shaped bacterial virus, or phage, of a strain designated as "lambda" by microbiologists. The smaller splotches peppering the picture are bacterial ribosomes, the RNA containing protein factories of living cells.2701

The scale in both photos is identical. The average bacteria would fill this entire page if photographed on the same scale.


The need for a biochemistry as a prerequisite of organic life is far less compelling for beings of purely artificial construction. As such creatures perhaps can be modified or repaired simply by replacing modular parts, the only fundamental requirement appears to be Morrison’s "molecular fineness of construction." The distinction between biological and mechanical life be comes quite blurred -- are not machines constructed of iron and silicon with molecular patterns examples of "ferrosilicon-based lifeforms"?


Last updated on 6 December 2008