Bet 42

Duration 22 years (02002-02024)

“That by 2024 "artificial" life emerging somewhere out of the soup of human technology will be given a Latin taxonomic name by biologists and others and declared viable for study.” Detailed Terms »

Bruce F Damer


Damer's Argument

If life is evolving code in interplay with its environment, then the increasingly complex technological code in Cyberspace, Robotspace, or Devicespace might be seen as akin to a prototype living system evolving within the human environment.

Hogwash! You may say, “Our technology is all built and maintained by people, and everything there is therefore artificial.” You might also follow up with the challenge: is a computer virus really alive? We might ask in return: is a flu virus really alive? Where does the machine end and the living form start? Is life simply a level of complexity so that once the system becomes opaque and unpredictable enough it is alive? Is life the ability of any entity to effect self repairs or self reproduction? Is life about populations in a dynamic dance within an ecosystem?

Would the skeptics be convinced if the Yes camp came up with compelling examples of "made" environments exhibiting lifelike properties? Of course, how you define lifelike is very much an open issue. We believe however that despite all this, eager engineers, like the alchemists of old, would quit their day jobs to labor on winning this bet. They would say: it may be really tough to define consciousness or master the vagaries of natural language and cognition to pass the Turing test (see Mitch Kapor and Ray Kurzweil's bet [2]), but with 22 years and Moore's Law on our side, surely we can recreate a cell in silico, or yea, even successfully code up a slime mold! Isn't life in the small just a bunch of squishy machines running chemical algorithms? The nerds would conclude, “This will be a piece of cake!”

Detractors might then retort that software is much too brittle to represent the complex actions of genes or proteins and Cyberspace or any other technospace is much too incomplete and impoverished an environment to stimulate authentic evolution. Other critics might cast out the whole enterprise as being nothing more than game like simulations of trivial cases of authentic living systems.

But what if, one day, something completely unpredictable began to happen in our networks? What if the emergent properties within some piece of technology just piled up high enough that we were confounded to explain a behavior? Would this then be a kind of “first contact”? Or would we be fooled yet again by glitches gone wild and woolly? Yes, reboot that server, stop that daemon, unplug that device, and the phenomenon goes away. But what if it returns somewhere else in a slightly improved form (without a hacker somewhere making the changes)? Is this happening already? Will it happen even if we don’t try to create it?

What does this all mean?

If you sense a kernel of truth in all this, you might ask: “So what does this all mean?” Life seems to have progressed over 4 billion years through a series of steps to ever-higher energy and complexity states. Why should we doubt that life intends to penetrate into further frontiers even using us as a surrogate? Dawkins' selfish genes might express a planetary-strength will to reproduce whole biospheres (a la Dorian Sagan) thereby getting all the proverbial eggs out of one basket. The Earth is a tomb for life the day the sun starts to fuse helium.

Blind watchmaking or not, the products of evolution are highly innovative and human intelligence may be handing the ultimate survival invention to Earth life: the coding of living systems, their replication and travel through space free of the limits of mass, molecules and chemical reactions.

Or in other words, it is much easier to escape the Earth's gravity well if your blueprints don’t weigh anything. As Freeman Dyson’s open bet [3] posits, life might be found on the small chunks of ice and rock surrounding our solar systems. The surface area of these small objects vastly exceeds any planetary real estate. If some form of Earth life is to get a foothold here, it would have to be fleet of foot and able to overcome the separation of a trillion trillion islands tumbling in a hard vacuum.

Human beings and almost any other Earth life bigger than a bacterium are unsuited for such places. So the future shape of successful life outside the biosphere may necessarily be some weird techno-biological hybrid. Crude early examples of this model at work include the crippled Galieo Jupiter spacecraft, which obtained a new “brain” (and way of seeing) beamed to it as software code en route to the Jovian system.

A greater meaning for this bet?

So what is the meaning of this bet? Is it simply a challenge to get the "A" out of "A-Life" or something much larger? Is it a challenge to humanity to recognize that it can be a conscious and willing partner in the next step on the long journey of Terran life?

And where in all this fits human intelligence and our species? Dawkins also tantalizes us with concepts of memes, ideas as life forms reproducing from mind to mind. Information technology serves humans as a cultivator of memes. It might be fair to speculate that out of our will to open new pathways for life new forms would emerge that are both memetic and genetic in nature, coexisting with human minds at home and out there in the universe.

Getting down off this soapbox of out-there theories, we invite input and discussion from the skeptics, fence sitters, and the Yes and No camps alike. Being realistic, even with 22 years to go, winning this bet would be a marathon effort, but why keep the biosphere waiting?

Detailed terms

How a winner would be determined?

  • At one or more points over the 22 year period people with an interest in this bet would come together, physically, virtually, or both, to consider entries to the contest that this bet might stimulate.
  • Entries would come in from persons or teams seeking to win the bet and building systems for submission, or from a “discovery” of a candidate system simply existing out there, regardless of the ability to identify its author (if there is no author, all the better bet!).
  • A working group and an advisory group would in tandem evolve definitions and tests for what “lifelike” really means and to permit evaluation of submissions.
  • During the event the working group would review submissions and shortlist the “most lifelike” based on the tests and definitions. At such times, various awards and recognition might be awarded to those behind high scoring submissions (a kind of “Alive Prize”).
  • If one or more submissions are judged viable candidates for, well, real aliveness, then these candidates would be submitted to an open process of evaluation by those who make it their business to study living systems or otherwise consider what is alive and what is not.
  • If a “critical mass” of people give their nod that a given candidate is in fact representative of an authentic new biota then will propose a taxonomic name based on suggestions from the critical mass, declare the candidate “alive” and seek its protection under the Endangered Species Act (USA).
  • What exactly is a critical mass? We are open to suggestions but how about 3 practicing biologists from different fields, a philosopher or two, a writer (or a dozen), and a major spiritual figure?

What submission would not qualify for this bet?

  • Some rigging together of old fashioned Terran biology with technology (disembodied neurons driving the robot or a transplanted cell nucleus existing and controlling some other processes) would not qualify.
  • If, however, the function of neurons or elements of a cell were somehow replicated in software or hardware they could be used as building blocks in new forms that would qualify.
  • That said, a complete faithful reproduction of an existing living organism or system would not be considered as this would not be subject to a new taxonomic classification.
  • More here TBD.

Related discusson and resources:

  1. Resources, people and events focused on this subject are available at our organization's homepage at
  2. Recorded Bet #1: A computer - or "machine intelligence" - will pass the Turing Test by 2029.
  3. Open Bet #30: The first discovery of extraterrestrial life will be someplace other than on a planet or on a satellite of a planet
  4. Bill Joy: why the future doesn’t need us (or nanobots eat the Earth)
  5. Tom Ray never claimed that his Tierra experiments represented authentic life in silico but did suggest that evolution is possible in a medium other than carbon chemistry.
More later TBD

Damer was challenged to a bet!

Bruce F Damer is negotiating the terms of a bet about this prediction. It will soon be added to Bets on the Record.

Detailed Terms

Paul, thanks for your challenge, lets work on how this would be judged. I expect that others might suggest that from "witin the soup of human technology" could include non-biochemistry based environments such as sofware running around inside computer systems and networks or robotics tromping around out in nature.