Just wanted to say this question pinged my "huh, this is a neat question" detector. (I consider myself pretty confused about the broader topic so don't have good answers, but found your question neat because it tackled a problem at a level that where it still personally feels meaty to me)
Doublechecking my understanding of your "implied question" – it sounds like what you want is a reward function that is simple, but somehow analogous to the complexity of human value? And it sounds like maybe the underspecified bit is "you, as a human, have some vague notion that some sorts of value-generation are 'cheating'", and your true goal is "the most interesting outcome that doesn't feel like Somehow Cheating to me?"
Some thoughts I have at the moment:
- I think the actual direct comparison between Game of Life and Real Life is "one cell == an atom" (or some small physical particular", rather than one cell representing a bit of sentience, or even a single biological cell). I'd expect truly analogous "value" in Game of Life to look less like 'stuff happening' and more like "Particular types of patterns are more common, without being too repetitive." (i.e. in real life, I don't optimize "atoms moving around", I optimize for something more like "larger patterns of atoms doing particular things")
- Assuming "one cell = minimum viable bit of value-weight", there are still some questions I'd struggle with here that seem analogous to my philosophical confusions about human-value. How 'good' is it to have a repeating loop of, say, a billion flourishing human lives? Is it better than a billion human lives that happens exactly once and ends?"
- To some degree, I think "moral value" (or, "value") in real life is about the process of solving "what is valuable and how to do I get it?", and gaining more value depends somewhat on that question being "unsolved". I'm not sure, if I knew exactly what value was with infinite compute, that there would be as much point to actually having it.
If I'm taking your current (implied?) assumptions of "one cell == minimum viable value-weight", and "the goal is to have as simple a function you can that sort of 'feels like it's getting at something analogous to human value", I think the answer of "maximize the number of unique states that happen before things start looping" (maybe with a finite board, so that gliders-guns can't "game" the system by generating technically infinite 'variety'?)
In this case it might mean that the system optimizes either for true continuous novelty, or the longest possible loop?
I do suspect that figuring out which of your assumptions are "valid" is an important part of the question here.