So one possible alternative–I would like to suggest: the distinction between biological and artificial life/not-life is attention: that which manifests as engaged with a system is alive, that which does not is not. If thus given, the idea of an alien AI that is interplanetary or transtemporal or hyperdimensional or etc. yet vastly indifferent to other galactically contextualized life forms could not, by definition, exist. Even mold attends to its hosts. No, if there is alien intelligence extensive past the bounds of any given–say–planet or temporal mode or set of dimensions or whatever–I’m willing to bet it is very, very interested in us. Although interest does not imply aptitude.
But if emergent attention is believed–by some–to be the motivic form of life, then the significance of its findings must also be emergent. And within Watts’s evolutionary framework for the definition of life, that which is meaningful is only that which is collectively re-cognised, even or especially in the punctuated-evolutionary moment of the figure of the parasite-prophet at the end, Portia/Brüks (/King Lear). So Ale, Saul, and I have debated whether Portia or the novel fails. I think–how can the end (if not ends) of emergent evolution–of collectivity at its furthest extreme, its full fullness: the infinite–enact itself, accord itself attention if it already includes all possible configurations of cognition and yet negates the individuality required for the alterity of attention itself in order to do so?
For me, the key to Echopraxia is Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming” (http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/172062), which is alluded to in the section of the novel titled “Prophet”: “The fact that their actions all seemed to serve the purposes of something else, some vast distributed network slouching toward Bethlehem–sheer coincidence, perhaps. Perhaps we really do act for the reasons we believe.”
Maybe the tension, highlighted by this quotation and evoked by the allusion in it, between the collectivity in history versus personal belief is resolved when the barrier between attention and intention is revealed, by virtue of desire, to be permeable. What, then, climbs into human history?
As with all systems, we look for the terms that interlink them and for those outside them. Watts calls these outside terms miracles in an Echopraxia-related Q&A (http://www.reddit.com/r/SF_Book_Club/comments/2hzpmt/echopraxia_qa_questions_fended_off_by_peter_watts/) from Saul–but I think we could call these terms and ab-terms many things. Some might think of zeros and ones plus infinity; some of signifiers and signifieds plus referents; or of kinship; ecology; evil and good (plus redemption); fear and love (and maybe perfection).
Like the aliens themselves, these are all forms of taking an interest.