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Ethics and Artificial Life: From Modeling to Moral Agents

Artificial Life (ALife) has two goals. One attempts to describe fundamental qualities of living systems through agent based computer models. And the second studies whether or not we can artificially create living things in computational mediums that can be realized either virtually in software or through biotechnology. The study of ALife has recently branched into two further subdivisions, one is ‘dry’ ALife, which is the study of living systems ‘in silico’ through the use of computer simulations, and the other is ‘wet’ ALife that uses biological material to realize what has only been simulated on computers; effectively wet ALife uses biological material as a kind of computer. This is challenging to the field of computer ethics as it points towards a future in which computer and bioethics might have shared concerns. The emerging studies into wet ALife are likely to provide strong empirical evidence for A Life’s most challenging hypothesis: that life is a certain set of computable functions that can be duplicated in any medium. I believe this will propel ALife into the midst of the mother of all cultural battles that has been gathering around the emergence of biotechnology. Philosophers need to pay close attention to this debate and can serve a vital role in clarifying and resolving the dispute. But even if Life is merely a computer modeling technique that sheds light on living systems, it still has a number of significant ethical implications such as its use in the modeling of moral and ethical systems, as well as in the creation of artificial moral agents.

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