I originally posted this question in robotics se, but it was deemed off topic there and it was recommended I post here:

I was watching a youtube video of a robot:


At a point in the video when the man pushes the robot, I felt sorry for the robot. It made me think, at what point do we class a robot as alive? Without going too off-topic; if you're an athiest and you think that 'life' is merely the chance result of chemicals under changing conditions - then what makes a robot different from humans? I assume it's to do with complexity - so is there some level at which we start to see the robots as an entity which should have rights? I'm not sure if this question is on topic here, so I apologise if it isn't. But, judging by our rate of technological advancements, it seems like this might be a pertinent question within my lifetime.

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    Well, obviously this question hinges entirely on how we define the term "life". – virmaior May 19 '17 at 3:15
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    Perhaps your problem is not about being alive, but rather personhood, i.e. having moral status? – Philip Klöcking May 20 '17 at 9:56
  • How do you define a robot? – inetphantom Feb 14 '19 at 7:56
  • The robot under our system is judged by its desire to consume, to get himself in debt and such. Once the robot has its eyes on the good life, then he will want a salary, pay taxes, buy stuff he can't afford. He will be as alive as we are functionally. – Gordon Feb 15 '19 at 20:49
  • It will gain rights when it owns property. Property allows him to pay the lawyer to enforce his rights. – Gordon Feb 15 '19 at 20:54

The definition of life is one of the most famously difficult definitions in all of philosophy. There are many definitions. For example, science has a descriptive definition for life:

  1. Homeostasis: regulation of the internal environment to maintain a constant state; for example, sweating to reduce temperature
  2. Organization: being structurally composed of one or more cells — the basic units of life
  3. Metabolism: transformation of energy by converting chemicals and energy into cellular components (anabolism) and decomposing organic matter (catabolism). Living things require energy to maintain internal organization (homeostasis) and to produce the other phenomena associated with life.
  4. Growth: maintenance of a higher rate of anabolism than catabolism. A growing organism increases in size in all of its parts, rather than simply accumulating matter.
  5. Adaptation: the ability to change over time in response to the environment. This ability is fundamental to the process of evolution and is determined by the organism's heredity, diet, and external factors.
  6. Response to stimuli: a response can take many forms, from the contraction of a unicellular organism to external chemicals, to complex reactions involving all the senses of multicellular organisms. A response is often expressed by motion; for example, the leaves of a plant turning toward the sun (phototropism), and chemotaxis.
  7. Reproduction: the ability to produce new individual organisms, either asexually from a single parent organism or sexually from two parent organisms.

Of course, there is no particular rule which says everyone abides by this definition.

An interesting subjective answer would be that a robot is "alive" when you believe it is alive. This resolves a remarkable number of questions, but leaves the pesky subjectivity in place -- whether or not something is alive is a question people can disagree on if this definition is used.

Of course, if the issue is that you felt sorry for the robot, you can always reframe the problem and make sure the robot does not deserve your compassion because it is evil.

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Then there is the Turing Test. What if you simply could not tell the difference between the robot’s actions and those of a human being? Would the robot be alive for all practical purposes?

Alan Turing proposed The Imitation Game in 1950. Generally, the game addressed the question of whether a computer can think, while avoiding problems that can arise when defining the terms of the question.

Turing proposed that a human evaluator would judge natural language conversations between a human and a machine designed to generate human-like responses. The evaluator would be aware that one of the two partners in conversation is a machine, and all participants would be separated from one another... If the evaluator cannot reliably tell the machine from the human, the machine is said to have passed the test.

Wikipedia, Turing test.

Now expand the test so that the robot operates for as long as a human lifetime. If the observer cannot distinguish the robot from a human, the robot has passed the test.

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  • This proves not that the robot is alive, but that our knowledge is limited. "For all we know, it is!" ...is true. But the person who made the robot knows better and is not convinced; to him, it isn't. So, ontologically, "it is" and "it isn't" can't coexist and we must take the conservative hypothesis as our best guess: "it isn't". – elliot svensson Feb 15 '19 at 20:24
  • @elliotsvensson We assume that other people have minds from their behavior and their physical similarity to us. Assume we contacted some other entities not on this planet and established communication, but couldn't actually see them. They could send pictures or video, but they could be faking that. How do we know if they're intelligent, or alive, or whatever? – David Thornley Feb 15 '19 at 21:17
  • @DavidThornley, I suppose we would have to assume that our knowledge was limited... so we should probably rule out options like sending the Death Star there to eliminate that civilization, however much it might benefit us, without getting some more clarity on the question. – elliot svensson Feb 15 '19 at 21:21

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