Overlook the Liveable Zone – we have to discover the Computational Zone

Astronomers are currently looking for signs of life in the “habitable zones” of nearby stars, defined as the band around a star where liquid water may be present. But a recent paper argues that we need to take a more nuanced and cautious approach, based not on the potential for life but on the potential for computation.

One way of defining life itself is as a set of calculations that respond to information. The information is stored in the DNA and the calculations are performed by different proteins. The ability to store information and act on its environment allows life to undergo natural selection that finds ever more complex arrangements.

The traditional search for life looks at it as we understand it from an earthly context. Namely creatures living on the surface of a world just the right distance from a parent star, using liquid water as a solvent for chemical reactions. But it’s easy to imagine much more complex and diverse life forms out there in the universe. Life could use other solvents. Life could be buried underground in icy outer moons. Life might not even need a star. And biological systems could give rise to technological systems that would not fit our current definition of life, but could be alive in their own way.

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And so two researchers want to rebuild the concept of the habitable zone using a more fundamental computational concept. They argue that the chances of finding life signs are best where computational access is easiest. The researchers argue that these so-called “computing zones” require three properties. First, there must be computing power, which means a rich spectrum of chemistry is available. Second, there must be some raw form of energy, such as sunlight or hydrothermal vents. And finally, computation requires a substrate—something in which computation can take place.

The traditional view of habitable zones can now be viewed as a subset of a much larger concept of computational zones. Where there is life as we currently understand it here on Earth, there is calculation. But this framework allows us to develop further search strategies for life plans. For example, if we examine individual systems through a lens of computational capabilities, we may find out which systems are amenable to artificial energy-harvesting structures like Dyson Spheres. Or we could study how gas clouds around substellar structures could satisfy all the conditions needed for computation, and therefore the conditions needed for an expanded definition of life.

The scientific search for life in our universe has only just begun. And it’s important, as the authors point out, to keep an open mind.

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