Life & Computation

Is life digital information?

9 min readAug 10, 2023

“Is life on Earth the only form of existence in the universe?” This is a question that has intrigued humanity for centuries. The realm of exobiology, the study of life beyond our planet, has been met with both skepticism and curiosity. While we have yet to discover definitive proof of extraterrestrial life, the absence of concrete evidence doesn’t stifle the intriguing discussions and imaginative speculations that emerge from this fascinating subject.

Pondering Life’s Fundamental Nature: Is It Computation?

At the heart of exobiological contemplation lies a captivating idea — the notion of life as computation. Imagine life not as we see it in its complex biological tapestry, but rather as an intricate code, akin to the digital information processed by computers. This audacious perspective was shared by none other than Francis Crick, one of the brilliant minds behind discovering DNA’s double helix structure.

Picture this: the year is the 1950s, and the world is still taking its first steps into computing. Crick, amidst a conference at Cold Spring Harbor, was probed by a journalist from The New York Times about the essence of his groundbreaking discovery. His response was unexpectedly thought-provoking — “life is digital information.” Coming from a distinguished biologist, this proclamation sparked contemplation about life’s intrinsic ability to store and transmit information through the genetic code.

Beyond Conventional Boundaries: Challenging Assumptions about Life

As we delve into the world of exobiology and artificial life, we’re compelled to question the very fabric of what we consider life to be. Could life exist beyond the familiar parameters of stars, planets, cells, carbon, and water? Could life be based on an entirely different form of computation? These queries venture into the realms of the unknown, inviting us to explore uncharted territories of existence.

Artificial Life: Bridging Disciplines for Profound Insights

The concept of artificial life serves as a bridge between various fields — biology, computer science, physics, and even philosophy. It is a collaborative effort to uncover life’s general principles. This interdisciplinary endeavor brings together minds from diverse backgrounds, all united by a shared curiosity about the fundamental nature of life.

One pivotal aspect of artificial life centers around the ability of life forms to evolve complexity from simplicity. This contrasts the notion that biochemical networks, governed by our genetic code, are the exclusive route to achieving complexity and storing information. The exploration of artificial life suggests that alternative avenues could lead to the emergence of life-like attributes.

Unleashing Complexity: The Fascination of Cellular Automata

A captivating experiment in solving complexity lies in the realm of cellular automata. This intriguing field, existing at the intersection of biology and computer science, conjures complexity from the interplay of simple rules. Imagine a grid of cells, each black or white, evolving vertically based on straightforward guidelines. Astonishingly, these unassuming rules give rise to mesmerizingly intricate patterns that can even display elements of chaos.

Two Steps Back Cellular Automata

The Game of Life: Unveiling Complexity Through Simple Rules

In the early 1970s, a humble yet captivating game took its first steps, igniting a journey into the realms of computation, complexity, and the very essence of life. Known as “The Game of Life,” this digital marvel emerged from the corridors of the University of Cambridge, captivating minds and sparking an unexpected technological conundrum.

A Fascinating Tale of Simplicity and Surprising Demand

“The Game of Life” was a slightly evolved version of the cellular automaton concept, and it quickly ensnared the attention of curious minds. This game wasn’t your typical recreational pastime. It delved into the depths of computation, using a grid-like structure to simulate the propagation of on-off cells. Imagine a primitive digital universe where these cells could come to life, move, and interact based on elementary rules.

However, as the game gained popularity, an unforeseen dilemma arose. In the mid-1970s, the administrators of the university were struck with a sense of alarm. They discovered that a significant portion of the university’s computing resources were being devoured by a group of avid players — a game-induced technological takeover! This captivating yet seemingly simple game had captivated hearts and minds to such an extent that it was consuming the computational power of an entire institution.

From One Dimension to Two

“The Game of Life” may have started as a one-dimensional exploration, but it didn’t stop there. It ventured into a two-dimensional field, breathing life into an astonishing array of computational creatures. The rules governing this digital microcosm were deceptively uncomplicated, yet their interactions birthed an intricate dance of complexity.

As cells propagated and interacted, they created two-dimensional entities with mesmerizing behaviors. Some exhibited repetitive patterns, while others embarked on an uncharted journey of growth, evolving in ways that defied predictability. The game became a living testament to the transformative power of simplicity, where basic rules gave rise to stunningly intricate outcomes.

The Enigmatic Message of Cellular Automata

Diving deeper, it became evident that cellular automata, like “The Game of Life,” held profound lessons for fields far beyond digital recreation. Researchers, captivated by the emergent complexity from elementary interactions, pondered the implications for biology and the mysteries of life itself.

These computational marvels, akin to the inner workings of a Steppenwolf (A computational machine), held the potential to shed light on the nature of information storage and the essence of life. Through cellular automata, randomness could coexist with predictability on a grand scale. These digital wonders were even harnessed to crack mathematical conundrums, such as solving differential equations and birthing the concept of a universal computer known as the Turing machine.

A Glimpse into the Unknown: Biology and Beyond

But it didn’t stop there. The allure of cellular automata reached beyond Earth’s borders, captivating the minds of SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) scientists. These patterns, crafted through simplicity, held the potential to communicate complex concepts across the cosmos. By encoding a Turing machine’s bitstream into signals, we could essentially tell an intelligent alien species that we possess the knowledge to compute anything imaginable.

As our exploration of cellular automata expanded, it shattered preconceived notions. These seemingly artificial constructs, with their binary cells and one-dimensional propagation, unfolded into a realm of infinite possibilities. Free from grids, bounded only by constraints, they danced across dimensions, revealing a flexible mathematical playground.

Navigating the Horizon of Artificial Life and Human-Machine Evolution

In a world where computation and technology reign supreme, the idea of artificial life emerges as a tantalizing frontier, beckoning us to explore the fusion of biology and machinery. This journey of exploration leads us to ponder the potential of a future where biological evolution might merely be a stepping stone, paving the way for a new era — one characterized by a harmonious amalgamation of humans and machines.

From Computation to Civilization: The Unfolding Narrative

In the backdrop of our technological civilization, a profound question takes root: Could biological evolution represent just a solitary chapter in our ongoing narrative of progress? Science fiction luminaries and forward-thinking futurists have dared to envision a future where our species transcends its biological limitations and evolves into a more machine-like form.

Yet, let’s not dismiss these ideas as mere flights of fancy. Reflect on the astonishing journey we’ve undertaken in just a span of fifty years. Cast your gaze upon the colossal ENIAC, an early computer that demanded a small house’s worth of space and an unimaginable amount of power — equivalent to what once powered an entire city. This behemoth of a machine, relying on fragile valves and tubes, pales in comparison to the computational prowess now harnessed within the confines of an average smartphone.

ENIAC — Wikipedia

Crystalline Visions and Clouded Futures

At the inception of the computer age, even visionary minds were left awestruck by the trajectory of technological progress. Eminent leaders in the computer industry were humbled by the unforeseen magnitude of the road ahead. It’s a reminder that peering into the future, no matter how informed our speculation, is akin to gazing through a misty crystal ball.

Take a moment to engage in a thought experiment. Traverse time through orders of magnitude — a decade, a century, a millennium. A mere decade ago, the Internet was still an emerging phenomenon. A century ago, the rapid transit we take for granted today was a distant dream. A millennium ago, medicine as we know it was non-existent. The inexorable march of progress has transformed us from primitive hunter-gatherers to space-faring modern humans. And as we extend our vision into the abyss of time, uncertainty prevails, leaving us to ponder the limitless possibilities that lie ahead.

Dancing with the Machines: A Symbiotic Future

In the near future, genetic engineering might grant us the power to mold our very essence. A century from now, cybernetic organisms — the harmonious union of humanity and machine — might become a reality. And further ahead, the stars themselves could beckon us, propelled by technologies that elude our current understanding.

Yet, the most remarkable facet of this trajectory lies in its unpredictability. The grand tapestry of a million years hence is woven with threads of uncertainty, defying our attempts at prophecy. Nevertheless, if the universe teems with civilizations beyond our own, the very fact of our existence implies that enduring extraterrestrial societies have mastered technologies beyond our wildest imagination.

Robots Rising: Mechanical Miracles and Unforeseen Progress

Our foray into computation has triggered an exponential surge in our capabilities. Robotics, once confined to the realms of science fiction, now stand as mechanical marvels on the cusp of mimicking human sensory experiences. Enter Hans Moravec, a visionary in the realms of computer science and robotics. Through his insights, we glimpse the progression of computational capabilities.

Moravec’s graph charts our exponential computational growth both in terms of raw power and cost efficiency. This surge has led to a remarkable feat — the creation of robots boasting the sensory and functional prowess of lizards or salamanders. Yet, the exponential trajectory hints at a future where mechanical beings rival human intelligence within decades, not centuries.

Whispers of Cyborgs and Science Fiction

Science fiction paints vivid portraits of a world where cybernetic organisms seamlessly coexist with humans. Works like “Blade Runner” thrust us into a realm where cyborgs undertake tasks beyond our capabilities. These synthetic beings, graced with intelligence and self-awareness, grapple with ethical dilemmas that mirror our own.

Even biologists, the custodians of life’s mysteries, concede that aspects of biology are rooted in pure computation. This observation triggers a cascade of thought, inviting us to extrapolate the capabilities of computation itself. As we advance exponentially, our robotic designs emulate the capacities of modest creatures, mirroring the progression from bacterium to lizard in a mere fraction of the time it took life on Earth.


In conclusion, the exploration of exobiology and artificial life opens the door to a world of captivating speculation and profound inquiry. The question of whether life exists beyond Earth’s boundaries continues to fuel both skepticism and curiosity, inspiring us to ponder the very essence of existence. Francis Crick’s audacious perspective on life as digital information challenges conventional notions and leads us to contemplate life’s potential existence in forms and computations yet unimagined.

The study of cellular automata, epitomized by “The Game of Life,” demonstrates the incredible power of simple rules to give rise to complexity and beauty. These digital microcosms mirror the intricacies of life itself, offering insights into the interplay of information, randomness, and predictability. Cellular automata not only have implications for fields as diverse as biology, mathematics, and communication with extraterrestrial intelligence but also provoke profound questions about the nature of biological evolution and its relationship to computational possibilities.

As we venture further into the horizon of artificial life, we encounter a future where the fusion of biology and technology becomes increasingly tantalizing. The possibility of a harmonious union between humans and machines, the emergence of cybernetic organisms, and the exponential growth of computational capabilities lead us to a realm of boundless potential. Science fiction and visionary thinkers alike suggest that our journey may be just beginning, with unpredictable paths and transformative leaps awaiting us.

In this ever-evolving narrative of progress, the lessons of simplicity, complexity, and the interplay of rules and feedback resonate deeply. The symphony of cellular automata reflects the harmonious interplay of existence’s infinite possibilities, urging us to embrace curiosity, challenge assumptions, and navigate the uncharted waters of tomorrow. As we stand at the crossroads of biological evolution and technological advancement, the mysteries of existence beckon us forward, inviting us to contribute our own threads to the tapestry of the universe’s unfolding story.