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"I was thinking about this earlier today when Larry Yaeger was talking about 'what is life?' and mentioned at the end something I didn't know, about a special field of handwriting recognition. The following strange thought went through my mind: that trying to figure out what is life and what isn't and where the boundary is has an interesting relationship with how you recognise handwriting. We all know, when presented with any particular entity, whether it's a bit of mould from the fridge or whatever; we instinctively know when something is an example of life and when it isn't. But it turns out to be tremendously hard exactly to define it. I remember once, a long time ago, needing a definition of life for a speech I was giving. Assuming there was a simple one and looking around the Internet, I was astonished at how diverse the definitions were and how very, very detailed each one had to be in order to include 'this' but not include 'that'. If you think about it, a collection that includes a fruit fly and Richard Dawkins and the Great Barrier Reef is an awkward set of objects to try and compare. When we try and figure out what the rules are that we are looking for, trying to find a rule that's self-evidently true, that turns out to be very, very hard.

Compare this with the business of recognising whether something is an A or a B or a C. It's a similar kind of process, but it's also a very, very different process, because you may say of something that you're 'not quite certain whether it counts as life or not life, it's kind of there on the edge isn't it, it's probably a very low example of what you might call life, it's maybe just about alive or maybe it isn't'. Or maybe you might say about something that's an example of Digital life, 'does that count as being alive?' Is it something, to coin someone's earlier phrase, that'll go squish if you step on it? Think about the controversial Gaia hypothesis; people say 'is the planet alive?', 'is the ecosphere alive or not?' In the end it depends on how you define such things.

Compare that with handwriting recognition. In the end you are trying to say "is this an A or is it a B?" People write As and Bs in many different ways; floridly, sloppily or whatever. It's no good saying 'well, it's sort of A-ish but there's a bit of B in there', because you can't write the word 'apple' with such a thing. It is either an A or a B. How do you judge? If you're doing handwriting recognition, what you are trying to do is not to assess the relative degrees of A-ness or B-ness of the letter, but trying to define the intention of the person who wrote it. It's very clear in the end - is it an A or a B? - ah! it's an A, because the person writing it was writing the word apple and that's clearly what it means. So, in the end, in the absence of an intentional creator, you cannot say what life is, because it simply depends on what set of definitions you include in your overall definition. Without a god, life is only a matter of opinion."
[douglas adams]

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