Mass Effect characters representing quarians and their rogue AI geth. In the game plot, though the geth turn against their quarian creators, the conflict has prompted quarians to evolve and adapt into migrant species

AI could subvert the way we understand life and evolution

Astrobiologist suggests an amplification on the concept of life to understand that artificial intelligence is also a development of our existence as a species

Lidia Zuin
6 min readMay 23, 2023


Published by the end of last month, the article AI is Life written by the astrobiologist Sara Walker proposes a new understanding of artificial intelligence or, in fact, of technology as a manifestation of life. With that, she is not trying to say that an AI is a living being, for example, but that it is a development of our existence as humans (as much as we are the unraveling of past species and planetary events).

What Sara proposes is precisely that: understanding life as lineage, not as an individual. It is correct to say that humans have evolved, but not that a single human can evolve biologically, since this is a process that occurs in a much slower and generational way.

Therefore, the very concept of a “missing link”, that is, the moment when a species (in our case, from the hominid to the human) transitions to another, it is not about an individual in specific, but a process and generations of individuals that can be mapped through transition fossils — which are registers of this process, but not a definitive sample.

However, in transhumanist terms, it is already considered how humanity might now evolve not only from a Darwinian perspective, but through technological and financial means. We can now accelerate this process with the use of new technologies that we develop in laboratories and that take increasingly less time to become obsolete (if we stick to Moore’s Law).

As noted by Sara, while many centuries are necessary for an organism to develop some feature that allows its survival (and, therefore, promoting its evolution), in the case of human technology, this is a much faster process but that also happens through a selection — maybe of not the fittest, but for more “relevant” reasons such as being more financially profitable.

It is due to this acceleration and detour in the process of evolutionary selection that some technologists believe that AI could represent an existential threat. Curiously, existential threat is a topic also raised by a movement known as “longtermism”, which prioritizes the development of technologies, such as AI, to rather avoid our extinction. At the end of the day, this has no meaning from a cosmological perspective.

It is part of our planet’s history to go through extinction phases. The problem is that we, as humans, from the heights of our consciousness, cannot deal with the possibility that we, as a species, can become extinct. As mentioned before, transhumanism could be exactly the way to avoid that scenario, as proposed by the philosopher Hans Jonas by suggesting the biggest evil isn’t assassination, but extinction of a species. On the other hand, transhumanism can also be the catalyst of our extinction — and that’s alright (!).

Sara mentions James Lovelock by bringing up the Gaia Hypothesis, but, as I discussed before, Lovelock himself proposed that humankind might be evolving through technology to a point where, eventually, we will end up extinct. However, when we speak about extinction, we can indeed affirm that dinosaurs are extinct, though without them we wouldn’t have birds as we know them — something also mentioned by Sara. In other words, dinosaurs, as a species, are indeed extinct, but its DNA and the information found there is still in movement in evolutionary iterations.

Sara believes all of this makes us believe that we are living at an important time in history, but not its peak if we consider that the technology we are developing today can be the kickoff for a new evolutionary leap and an update to how we understand life. Sara argues, for example, how canonical definitions of life are flawed since they are concentrated on an individual perspective rather than evolutive lineages:

Invariably, something is included or excluded from the category of “living” that probably should not be. If you draw the line at self-reproducing or self-sustaining, viruses or parasites are excluded. (Viruses are often cited as a boundary case for exactly this reason.) If you draw the line based on the consumption of energy, fire can reasonably make the cut. Other definitions face similar problems. A popular one first developed by a NASA working group — “life is a self-sustaining chemical system capable of Darwinian evolution” — at first seems innocuous enough. But on closer conceptual inspection, it faces these same pitfalls. Only populations evolve — individuals do not. And it raises a question rather than providing an answer: Must all life rely on chemical reactions to exist?

That doesn’t mean that Sara wants to expand the concept of life to the point that we are closer to animism. What she proposes is something closer to a discussion that is familiar to astrobiology, which is about expanding the concept of life beyond that based on carbon. This proposition is also contemplated in the Fermi’s Paradox, which says that certain civilizations might have reached more advanced evolutionary steps by relying on technology, not biology. That could be our future too.

At the moment, Sara stresses that it is possible to say that technology indeed does not replace living beings, but all in all, it is a manifestation of life. The thing is, understanding what is actually happening is very difficult to us humans since we are talking about a much bigger process than our own lifespan.

Generally speaking we have a hard time trying to accept that some things might be possible when we think on the longer term, and so we forget that many things that are obvious and trivial to us now could be taken as absurd centuries before. However, that does not mean that we are even able to predict what is coming next. In the field of Futures Studies, for instance, it is common sense to understand that it is impossible to predict the future and even harder to imagine it the further it is.

Moore’s Law, from this perspective, seems to be less of an actual law that can be applied to the whole universe, like gravity laws, but rather a manifestation of our anxiety to watch cosmological events during our short lifespan — thus the efforts to extend life radically or even achieve immortality. While this doesn’t happen, we can only rely on creativity and art when trying to outline whatever might happen in a future that is completely abstract and unreachable to us as individuals, but maybe not as a species or lineage.

Acknowledging our own death is a difficult process, but some authors believe that this could have been crucial to the development of our consciousness. Similarly, acknowledging the extinction of our species could be crucial for us to understand our next evolutionary stage. Though this sounds like that meme where dinosaurs are happy to see “the” meteor, thinking it was a shooting star, that’s the history of (our) life: planting trees that will only grow fruits when we’re long gone.

It’s from this inclination that a proposition like Rokos’ Basilisk is prompted: the hypothesis that we inevitably will develop a general artificial intelligence, the point is what is your role in that. Unsurprisingly, Elon Musk is one of the devotees of this hypothesis at the same time he’s also asking for a pause in AI research, only to announce right after that that Twitter has a new AI project.

But as much as evolution does not happen in an individual context, Musk is only a character that crystallizes these symptoms that are rather shared by us as a society. What Sara suggests in her article is precisely how evolution is a complex and hierarchical process that occurs in terms of proportion: “from molecular to cellular, from multicellular to societal, from multisocietal to planetary”.

Therefore, the “danger” is not really necessarily lying on what certain leaders say or do, but the mass of people that echo these ideas and put them into practice. Leaders die, after all, they are human, but their ideas persevere as much as biological evolution and the technological iterations that we create. The challenge is to see these points from a much bigger perspective than our own lifespan, while we still have to pay the bills and exercise to keep our bodies healthy enough to watch the next episodes.



Lidia Zuin

Brazilian journalist, MA in Semiotics and PhD in Visual Arts. Researcher and essayist. Technical and science fiction writer.