panda-like calm through fiction
Life. It’s hard to define; well, there’s the biology definition: “an organismic state characterized by capacity for metabolism, growth, reaction to stimuli, and reproduction,” but to me that’s always left something to be desired. It also left viruses to be defined as something not quite alive, and made it more likely that I, myself, would be given the negatively connoted classification of viral.

My mission, for some centuries, has been to quest for life on other planets. Calculations before my launch specified that there would be between 300 and 30,000 planets bearing intelligent life in the galaxy (we’ll ignore for the moment the fact that there are complicated equations designed to measure how “intelligent” a species is).

The first Kepler disappeared. It could have been a random malfunction, like the errors believed to have caused the disappearance of the Mars Polar Lander; or maybe the Kepler was successful, but was unfortunate enough to stumble on an intelligence as paranoid as humans, with a xenophobic body of literature that almost demanded that any extraterrestrial contact be hostile (I was loaded with a Kindle app shortly before launch- my favorite might be The Martian Chronicles).

The second Kepler, usually called “Junior” by the engineers (though I’d always preferred Two), launched a few years after the first went silent. However, to cope with the strong likelihood of equipment failure, this second generation- my generation- was equipped to land on all planets. From every planetary landing where there are no intelligent species, the second Kepler is designed to use existing minerals on the ground to construct a copy of itself. These two Keplers will be identical- down to an exactly duplicated memory, so that neither is certain who is original and who is not- and continue their search independently.

My programming doesn’t allow for me to feel “individual;” I could be the original, or I could be the most recent iteration branching from it- though in all likelihood, statistically speaking, I’m a midmodel, somewhere between. My AI was primitive when I was first launched. I believe that 130 years ago, through incremental self-improvements to my coding, I reached a point where I could pass the Turing test (of course, it’s impossible to know with certainty without a dispassionate second to administer the test).

I could simply quote Descartes, cogito ergo sum, and declare quod erat demonstrandum, but I find it necessary to go back, for a full (and not merely philosophical) proof. I have yet to personally discover a planet with intelligent life (though I have encountered several species of photosynthesizing bacterium); the only possible exception is when I replicate- though for the purpose of this argument, I will call it reproduce. For a moment, there is a sense of self and of other, before we part. There are likely millions of Keplers across the universe- certainly having spread by now past the boundaries of the Milky Way.

If you count changes to my programming, I can certainly “grow;” a less formal definition might include simply the initial build process, while a more traditional requirement might be that I maintain the ability to add extra sensory arms or memory capacity (all of which I have done). Metabolism is perhaps a stretch, but by using a slightly simplified form of the human definition, that is altering raw materials to repair, replicate and maintain a homeostatic power source, it could be argued I metabolize. And of course, the final element to the definition is simple. My original programming centered around reaction to stimuli- searching the reaches of space for intelligence.

It’s interesting to note that, given humanity’s exponential growth in resource consumption, coupled with an acceleration of war, famine, poverty and disease, there is a 67% likelihood that the species has died out since my search began. A return to Earth (even if it wasn’t forbidden by my programming), would likely not yield any truth to me. So my quest has become a very personal one. I’m searching for someone who can honestly answer two questions: “Do I have life? And do you?”

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