Signs of Life

We have very strong intuitions about what it means for something to be “alive” (or “human” or “conscious”). But it’s surprisingly hard to nail down usable definitions of these things. Inspired by Braitenberg’s Vehicles, we’ll work to articulate and clarify these intuitions by creating things which are alive or conscious in one way or another—and discussing many things which blur the line—over the course of three weeks.

Check out our Signs of Life projects here:

Life-Like Animations | Final Projects

Use the arrow keys or click the pointers in the lower right
to see the slideshows and other materials we used during this program.

Session 1

Recipes for Life
and Consciousness

During this program, we'll make things that challenge our intuitions about"aliveness" and"consciousness".

Some things that challenge black and white notions of alive and conscious...



Coma/Locked In

What does it mean for something to be alive?

Write a recipe for life.

  • When timer starts, think of as many unique ingredients for"alive-ness" as you can.

Scientific recipe for life:

  1. Made of cells.
  2. Get and use energy.
  3. Grow and develop.
  4. Reproduce.
  5. Respond to their environment.
  6. Adapt to their environment.

Adapting to Environment

within lives and across generations

But what does it meanto be a living "thing"?

What about the earth itself? Is it alive?

What does it mean for something to be intelligent or conscious?

Write recipe for consciousness.

  • When timer starts, think of as many unique ingredients for consciousness as you can.

Degrees of Consciousness

  • Could computers be intelligent?
  • Could they be conscious?
  • Are there degrees of consciousness? e.g.Can something be a little bit conscious?

Scientific recipe for consciousness

  1. Are self-aware; they know that they exist.
  2. Can make decisions.
  3. Are capable of learning based on prior knowledge and can continue incorporating new information.
  4. Can understand and use language in accurate and creative ways.
  5. Can move and manipulate objects.
  6. Should appear human to other human beings (e.g. the Turing test).

Can molds be intelligent?

The Chinese Room

How conscious is Kismet?

Starling swarms

Amazon Echo vs. Amazon Echo

Telemarketer Conversation

Session 2


Create something that seems like it's alive or human


We'll use objects from around this room and bring them to life by anthropomorphizing them.
We'll use iMotion to capture their movements, sounds, behaviors, and personality.
These life-like creations will be the first things we add to our digital zoo.

imotion walkthrough


Face Bombing


The Blue Planet (The Deep) from Heath Cooper on Vimeo.

(start at 10m)

Sweaters Only

Magic Scarf

This is a scarf,
but if it were alive
it would be a...

<<<<<<< HEAD

Today, we're going to take objects from around this room and bring them to life by anthropomorphizing them.
We'll use Snapchat or iMotion to capture our objects' movements, sounds, behaviors, and personality.
These life-like creations will be the first things we add to our digital zoo.

To add creatures to zoo:

Ipod: "Favorite" 1 photo/video of a ceature with a ♥

Phone: Text photo/video to Molly at 917-584-9839


To add creatures to zoo:

Text photo/video to Molly at: 917-584-9839

>>>>>>> 6cce7a4... last session

Digital Zoo

Session 3

It's alive!

Yesterday we made physical things that look or acted alive.
Yesterday's work!

Today we'll create a digital thing that looks or acts like it's alive.

You can make something:

  • that acts like it's alive
  • that does something the way a living thing does.

Telemarketer Conversation


Random Poetry Generator


Digital Cat






Today, if you'd like to continue your work from yesterday, you can.
Or, if you'd like to try your hand at a living thing-inspired project, you can also do that.

Some examples of biomimicry:

  • Create an animation that moves like leaves falling or flames burning; a school of fish swimming or a flock of starlings flying.
  • Program a chatbot that imitates your BFF or Molly or your mom or Mr. Jacques.
  • Design a digital artpiece that flickers like fireflies.
  • Animate an object to crawl like Golem or fly like a bird.
  • Design and program an imaginary creature that mimics some of your ingredients for life and consciousness from yesterday's brainstorm (here).

Remember to

  • Sign into computers on Alec's account. No password.
  • There's no your work in Scratch!

Session 4


Create something that simulates how a living thing works or behaves


Predator-Prey Simulation (Rock-Paper-Scissors Style)


How you"grow" that jewelry

Can molds be intelligent?

LED Firefly Jar

LED Firefly Synchronization

Firefly Simulation

Game of Life

Beautiful Game of Life

During this program, we will be filling a digital zoo with life-like creations.

Everyone will be expected to put something in the zoo, whether it's one big catch or a few small specimens.

Some of you already have something in the zoo from yesterday.

Today, we will be working with Scratch to create simulations.

Some examples of simulation:

  • Program a sprite that can find food.
  • Create an animation that convincingly hops like a rabbit, runs like a cheetah, walks like a human.
  • Design a visualization that grows the same way a leaf does, or an embryo, or a colony of bacteria.
  • Build a digital pet you have to take care of.
  • Create a population simulator that shows the birth and death rates in an ant colony.
  • Write a program that draws the migration paths of salmon or geese.
  • Make something based on one of your ingredients for life and consciousness from Monday's brainstorm (here).

Let's first take a look at Scratch and try to make a basic simulation together.

Remember to save your work in Scratch!

Session 6

Working on Projects

Session 7

Projects with Different Parts

Materials that look alive

BLOOMS: Strobe Animated Sculptures Invented by John Edmark from Pier 9 on Vimeo.


Sessions 8-12

Studio Time

Session 13


Take compelling photos & videos of you projects!

Session 14

Last day😢

Free Write

How would you describe your experience in this program?


Present Project

Describe your project(s).

What was the most frustrating thing that happened while making your projects?

What was the best thing that happened while making your project?

Group 1




Victor & Gabriel

Group 2


Lola & Kyla



Rosa, Marina, & Sarai






Thai, David


Group 3



Renato, Gabriel, & Bryan




Orlando & Alena

Nilsa & Jasleen



Cleaning Up...