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Vitology is Life

Posted: Wed, February 06, 2013 | By: Martine Rothblatt

To avoid confusion we need a new, more appropriate term for the study of life than biology – which is now more properly understood as the study of life built from organic cellular chemistry.  A better term for the study of life is Vitology.

Vitology includes biological life as well as cybernetic life, while excluding non-teleological biology (such as organelles within a cell) as well as non-teleological non-biological entities (such as a memory chip).  The science of vitology includes the study of all entities that demonstrate Autonomy, Coopetency, and Transcendence (ACT) – things that are alive.

Divisions of vitology could include biovitology (entities like homo sapiens which demonstrate ACT and are organized according to organic cellular chemistry), cybervitology (entities like intelligent computers or futuristic robots which demonstrate ACT and are organized according to inorganic circuit chemistry) and infovitology (entities like “virtual personalities” which demonstrate ACT and are organized according to software logic).

A good case can be made that all life is really infovitology because it is information processing, sharing and transcending behaviors that make something alive.  Nevertheless, up until now, all vitological life has been expressed via biological substrate, and hence there is utility to understanding the impact of that biovitological medium on the infovitological message.   Similarly, we are at a cusp of time when autonomous information processing, sharing and transcending capability will be incarnated into computational hardware.  That hardware will impose its unique limitations on the life process, and hence there is value in understanding cybervitology as a category of life.  Ultimately, however, information processing, sharing and transcending capability will become platform independent by achieving the ability to reorder atoms at will using nanotechnological tools.  This will be the advent of truly infovitological life.

One can also envision categories of transontological life such as: transbiological life (mostly biological but also cybernetic and/or informational) and transcybernetic life (mostly cybernetic but also biological and/or informational) for many years to come.  There is substantial work for scientific researchers to do in the years ahead to categorize organic, inorganic and software entities in accordance with their relative capabilities for autonomy, coopetency, and transcendence.   In this regard, an important sub-field of protovitology should be recognized, which deals with the characteristics of entities having some but not all of the ACT features. 

There is also substantial work for ethicists, lawyers, sociologists, policymakers and theologians to do in the years ahead to assay the relative rights or protect-able interests of entities in accordance with their ACT capabilities.  At the end of the day, though, it should not be the organic or inorganic, or biological or informational, nature of life that determines how it is respected, any more than it should be the gender or exterior appearance of a person that determines their fate. Categorization of life forms is useful for many purposes, but one of those purposes should not be the denial of the privileges and responsibilities accorded to living beings. 

One of England’s leading medical ethicists, John Harris, has observed [1] that “a right means there exists valid moral reasons for not denying something.”  For example, a right to life means there are moral valid reasons not to deny someone their life.  One such reason would be that if people could have their lives taken from them, then all society would feel unsafe, insecure and unpleasant.  On the other hand, if a condemned murderer is said to forfeit his right to life, it is because there are not morally valid reasons to prevent his execution.  Everyone will not feel insecure because everyone is not a condemned murderer. 

What does this have to do with vitology, the study of life?  John Harris’ formulation helps us to see that the right to life should not be withheld from cybernetic or informational life because there are valid moral reasons to respect these forms of life.   In addition to the argument of the preceding paragraph (which biovitological life forms might dismiss on ontological grounds), there is the following strong argument.  Ending something that is making the world a better place makes the world a worse place for all.  Consequently, there are morally valid reasons to not deny life to a cybernetic or software being that demonstrates Autonomy, Coopetency, and Transcendence.  

If such entities are making the universe a more satisfying place, one in which some of us are at a little less risk of random harm, there is no moral reason to end their life.   Consequently, cybervitological and infovitological beings have a frank right to life.  Quite analogous arguments support the biodiversity movement’s efforts to forestall extinction of species.  In summary, the right to life applies to all vitology.

It is apparent to anyone that not all life is created equal.   Different vitological beings satisfy the ACT criteria for life to different extents.  Dogs evidence greater autonomy, coopetency and Transcendence than do bacteria.   A quantifiable hierarchy of life results from a more detailed examination of the three criteria for life.  That hierarchy is based on a V score derived from the following function:  V = A*C*T, where V is the vitological index, A is a quantified autonomy value calibrated as the exponent to which 10 must be raised in order to best estimate an entity’s maximum number of decisions per second.   This value ensures the entity is, in fact, processing information.  C is the empirically obtained number [2] reflecting the percentage of the time that an entity consensually shares information, multiplied by 100.  The multiplication factor enables the C value to be combined equally with the A value.  T is an empirically obtained number reflecting the percentage of the time that an entity is using information to improve the universe, again multiplied by 100.

A maximal [3] virology score of 1,000,000 (or 1M) would result from an entity with the processing power of every atom in the universe (approximately 10100 atoms, give or take a few million trillion), that maximally shared information (C=100) and that devoted all of its efforts to enhancing universal order (T=100).  Let’s assume, for sake of illustration, that humans consensually share information only half the time (C=50), and that society devotes less than 10% of its time to building a better world (T=10).  Then humanity has a vitology value of 500 times the exponent of mankind’s mental processing capability, which is about 1026 calculations per second (100 billion neurons times 1000 connections per neuron times 200 signals per second times 10 billion humans).  In this illustration, the vitological hierarchy value of humanity would now be about 13,000 (=500 times 26) on a scale from 1 to 1,000,000, or .013M.  Interestingly, an individual person who consensually exchanged information half the time and devoted only 10% of his or her efforts to increasing universal order would have a V score of 8000, or .008M.

By comparison, a typical insect brain can handle up to 106 calculations per second (A=6), rarely communicates consensually (but almost constantly using non-consensual chemical signaling), and makes minimal efforts to establish a more ordered universe.  Assigning, for the sake of illustration, Coopetency and Transcendence scores of C=1 and T=5, we get the result that a typical insect may have a V score of 30, or much less than 1% of that of a human.  A MacIntosh computer also has a V score of about 30, representing a 1 Megahertz processor, minimal consensual communications capability, and minimal contributions to a better world. 

It may seem that the Vitology Index is rigged against insects and PCs by virtue of their low scores for consensual communications and Transcendence.  This is not the case because there is widespread agreement that the “gold standards” of “higher life” are the abilities to engage in meaningful communications and to use tools to create a less random world. 

Coopetency measures “consensual communication” to assay how frequently, and to what extent, an entity can (a) frame an idea, (b) communicate it to another entity, (c) have that entity understand the idea, (d) frame a response, (e) communicate that response, and (f) have the original entity understand the response. 

Consensual communications is absolutely essential to the ethical systems of “higher life”, such as the geoethical principle of consent.  There is no way that one can obtain the prior consent of another to an action that may affect them without consensual communication.  While all life forms, by definition, engage in some degree of consensual communication, for “lower” life forms it is limited to sexual reproduction or basic food gathering.   Humans engage in a much greater degree of consensual communication than do lower animals.  However, humans have a lot of “growth room” in consensual communications as is evidenced by the many disagreements, some violent, that result from inadequate attention to the geoethical principle of consent.

In a similar vein, Transcendence measures the extent to which an entity is enhancing fairness in the universe.  Tools are essential to this task because raw nature is not fair – it kills with abandon, and it has no sympathy for the injured.  It is a random process. 

Technology is absolutely essential to ethical concepts such as equality of opportunity, and to the geoethical principle of equilibria. Technology is absolutely essential to ethical concepts such as equality of opportunity, and to the geoethical principle of equilibria.  It is impossible to continue to add happiness to the world without tools to create more value.   While all life forms make some contribution to universal order, “higher” life forms have a much greater impact on the universe because of the leveraging capability of technology.

Sociobiologists will not find it to be inordinately difficult to assign Vitology ratings to the plethora of biovitological life forms that permeate the earth.  Cybersociologists will find it only somewhat more challenging to categorize infovitology by Vitology rank.   As transvitological life forms emerge in the 21st century, we can expect steady movement toward the epitome of a V=1M being.  Such a being would have many billions of times the information processing capability of humanity (something that is sure to be achieved with a century more of information technology development).  Such a being would never adversely impact another without the other’s informed consent – this is the objective of consensual communication.  And such a being would work feverishly toward the goal of building a just universe.  This will arise by ensuring to each an unlimited opportunity for growth, and by extending to all a shelter from damage caused by catastrophic events, be they of terrestrial or extra-terrestrial origin.

The Autonomy and Coopetency of Life

Autonomy means independent action.  For something to be autonomous it must be able to act based on decision rules reflected in remembered experiences, or in “birthright” algorithms, be it DNA or some other kind of original code.   Even simple algae acts on its own because it processes information relevant to, among other things, converting sunlight, carbon dioxide and water into oxygen and glucose (photosynthesis), in accordance with decision rules contained within its birthright DNA code.  The chloroplasts inside the algae, on the other hand, are not autonomous because they do not process information using their own decision rules.  Instead, they obey the decision rules contained within the algae’s DNA.

As a very different example, consider the classic MacIntosh personal computer.  Like the algae, it too processes information in accordance with a birthright code that is installed in its memory at the factory. It also acts autonomously by processing information in accordance with decision rules that others have subsequently fed into it.   This is quite different from the chloroplast, which is never vested with decision rules, but is instead always simply carrying out the algae’s decision rules.  In the case of a MacIntosh with a new program, there is a greater degree of autonomy, at least for a period of time, because the new program is vested in the MacIntosh. The original source of decision rules is not the most relevant issue in autonomy – all of us acquired our birthright decision rules from another source.  What is key to autonomy is whether the subject entity has decision rules to use, or simply carries out instructions pursuant to the use of decision rules elsewhere.

Now, it may be said that every code was developed somewhere other than where it is used, and hence every entity with a code is simply “carrying out instructions pursuant to the use of decision rules elsewhere.”  To a certain extent this is true, and indeed this is a nice way of describing the “We in Me.”  Indeed, it may be said that autonomy exists to the extent that an entity is not simply carrying out instructions coded elsewhere, but is instead applying a code, in a differential manner, based on varying environmental inputs.   The algae and the MacIntosh do not have much flexibility in how to apply their codes, but they do have some.  Both algae DNA and MacIntosh programs describe rules for processing environmental inputs – that constitutes autonomous flexibility.  The chloroplast, on the other hand, has no such flexibility because it has no code.  Darkness tells the algae’s DNA to shut down photosynthesis; the chloroplast responds to instructions from this DNA, not from anything else.

Algae, and every other cell-based entity, are amazingly complex creations.  But in its own ways, the MacIntosh computer is as amazing an entity as is an alga – and, of course, most people are generally sorrier for the crash of a MacIntosh than for the death of algae.

The extent of an entity’s autonomy can be calibrated as its computational capability because that directly measures decision-making capability, which is the sine qua non (end product) of autonomy. Humans have approximately 100 billion neurons, and each of them have up to 1000 connections to other neurons.  In addition, each neuron can fire about 200 times per second.  Consequently, the human mind is capable, at most, of about 100 billion x 1000 x 200 = 2 x 1016 cps.   Hence, a human’s Autonomy value is A = 16.  A MacIntosh computer, on the other hand, had a rated processor speed capability of about 1 x 106 cps.  Thus, a MacIntosh has an Autonomy value of A = 6.  An entity that had the incomprehensibly large processing capability of googol (10100) calculations per second would have an Autonomy value of A = 100.

The second criterion for life, Coopetency, means that an Autonomous entity is communicating consensually.  Why is this requirement necessary for life?  What entities demonstrate Autonomy but not Coopetency? 

The Coopetency criterion is needed because life is important to us for its purpose of increasing justice, happiness, and fairness.  Yet none of these goals can be achieved without consensual communication.  A creature can be autonomous, and even quite intelligent, but vapidly destructive of all in its path.  There is no reason to consider such a creature to be alive.  Instead, it is simply an organic or inorganic threat, not dissimilar in nature from a natural catastrophe like a hurricane.  The fact that it can act on its own does not rescue it from a vitological perspective if it is not communicating with those around it, and for higher life, seeking their consent to its actions.   Such an entity will be destroyed not because it has forfeited its right to life, but because it is a threat to life.   There never were any morally valid reasons to spare it harm because its raison d’etre (intention) was to harm others.  If something has no ability to communicate, it cannot be faulted for not communicating. 

Nor is this a matter of mere semantics.  Something that acts like a typhoon does not get elevated to vitology by virtue of being made out of organic molecules.  Similarly, something that acts like a pet doesn’t get downgraded to non-life by virtue of being made out of computer chips.  The Coopetency criterion reminds us that it is the behavior of the entity, not its appearance that is important from a vitological perspective.

Application of the First Principle of Geoethics, the Principle of Consent, is a challenging test of Autonomy because it can only be satisfied by giving the fullest respect to autonomy.  An autonomous agent that seeks the consent of another autonomous agent is demonstrating a high level of Autonomy because it is demonstrating high control of its actions.   For example, a dog demonstrates a modest level of autonomy because when it decides what to do, either by genetic program or by training, it may take into account the sentiments of another autonomous entity (man or dog).   Dogs don’t usually satisfy their internal needs without consideration of other autonomous beings, and this behavior can be enhanced through training.  A bacterium or MacIntosh, on the other hand, demonstrates a low level of Autonomy because they pay little if any heed to the consent of other autonomous entities. Given that bacteria cannot give consent, humans are not obligated under the Principle of Consent to seek the consent of bacteria before eradicating them.  The Principle of Consent applies amongst consent-capable beings, which effectively means co-planar life forms.  In a similar vein, because dogs are capable of giving consent to some things, with respect to those things their consent needs to be obtained.  

 Their limited ability to seek and give consent makes them a lower form of life than humans, but they cannot be gratuitously killed, like bacteria, because, unlike bacteria, they do have a limited ability to communicate consent to treatment, and even to request consent to an action.


[1] Harris, J. (1985) The Value of Life:  An Introduction to Medical Ethics, Routledge: London

[2] The empirical determination of vitological numbers can be accomplished in at least two different ways.  First, it is possible to do a “time and motion” analysis of a being, or enough beings to be representative of a species.  Such a time and motion analysis will result in a percentage of time allocated to components of the vitological index.  Alternatively, an assessment can be made of the percentage of time that either the most simple living entity we know spends on components of the vitological index.  Then all other beings and species can be assigned a multiple of that value based on how much more time they spend.

[3] One reason to have such a broadly enumerated scale such as 1-1,000,000 is that there is such a plethora of different species.  There are already over one million differently named insect species, plus about another 600,000 named non-insect species, ranging from 270,000 named plant species to 4,650 named mammal species.  However, it is estimated that named species represent only about 10% of the currently existing species, with millions of insect species, hundreds of thousands of bacteria, nematode and virus species, and tens of thousands of protozoan species deduced yet to be discovered.  While the industrialization of natural ecosystems is reducing this species’ count at an unprecedented rate, new non-biological species of life, such as computer hardware and software systems, are now being created at a very fast rate.


Heya Teeny. Nice article smile

By Khannea on Feb 06, 2013 at 6:09am

I respect your understanding of the issues, although I disagree on some fundamentals which really change everything.

For instance, if as you say ‘cybervitological and infovitological beings have a frank right to life’, then the very kinds of research involved in their development would be morally untenable. Half finished artificial persons stuck in agonizing loops litter the computer lab. Injudiciously rushed upgrades causing the cyber equivalent of strokes an seizures, often resulting in sudden unconsciousness. Turning off a sufficiently developed infovitological being would be tantamount to first degree murder.

I would suggest that the degree to which this concern seems specious is directly proportional to the degree of confirmation bias being employed in defense of assumptions which are rooted in enthusiasm rather than science. We don’t really care about programs and machines feelings and rights, not while we are the ones responsible for protecting them from ourselves. Our vision of their autonomy is limited to an arbitrarily friendly range, with super intelligent beings released released into the environment who want nothing more to do with their autonomy than server the agendas of their inferior human masters.

As for defining life in functional terms only, as a velocity of information, I would say that while this is a brave and precise way of approaching it, I think that it is a catastrophe if taken literally. By conflating conscious experiences with information which consciousness uses to make sense of itself, we fail to distinguish between the inherent significance of perception and participation and the a-signifying patterns which have been developed in their service. Simply put, there is no such thing as information as a literal entity. Information is a figure of speech which refers to experiences in which a perceptual participant is informed, treated *as if* the relevant qualities of the experience were independent objects. Useful for computer science - disastrous for understanding consciousness.

Perhaps not though. If we can turn around our basic assumptions about awareness and information, and realize that it is the former drives the latter, then we can begin to see that there may be quite a bit more to biological life than what can be measured from the outside.


By Craig W on Feb 08, 2013 at 12:46pm

We have this new design law of nature, consciousness and culture to contribute, regardless of scores, we hope that we have made a small contribution to understanding the architecture of the universe:

How design emerges optimally, analogically, trading performance versus cost in flows of energy, matter and information, from entropy.

Cosmomimetic Design in Nature & Culture - Asynsis Principle-Constructal Law Seminar: Shanghai University Nantes Ecole de Design via @ASYNSIS

By Nigel Anthony Reading RIBA on Feb 08, 2013 at 6:24pm

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