The search for extraterrestrial life has so far assumed our cosmic neighbours are organic. What if we’re dealing with artificial intelligence?
For more than a century we have been broadcasting our presence to the cosmos. This year, the faintest signals from the world’s first major televised event – the Nazi-hosted 1936 Olympics – will have passed several potentially habitable planets. The first season of Game of Thrones has already reached the nearest star beyond our Solar System.
So why hasn’t ET called us back?
There are plenty of obvious answers. Maybe there are no intelligent space aliens in our immediate cosmic vicinity. Perhaps they have never evolved beyond unthinking microbial slime or – based on our transmissions – aliens have concluded it is safer to stay away. There is, however, another explanation: ET is nothing like us.
“If we do find a signal, we shouldn’t expect it’s going to be some sort of soft squishy protoplasmic alien behind the microphone at the other end,” says Seth Shostak, senior astronomer for alien-hunting organisation Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (Seti).
Seti has been actively searching for signs of intelligent extraterrestrial life for more than half a century. Despite tantalising signals (such as this recent one), it has so far drawn a blank. But Shostak believes we should consider looking to our own future to imagine what aliens will be like.
“Perhaps the most significant thing we’re doing is to develop our own successors,” says Shostak. “If we can develop artificial intelligence within a couple of hundred years of inventing radio, any aliens we are likely to hear from have very likely gone past that point.”
The big question is whether the AI goes on to become conscious and define its own goals and decide it doesn’t need the biological creatures that developed it – Stuart Clark
“In other words,” he says, “most of the intelligence in the cosmos, I would venture, is synthetic intelligence and that may disappoint movie goers who expect little grey guys with big eyeballs, no clothes, no hair or sense of humour.”
The argument assumes that the creatures who built the first AIs – grey guys, hyper- intelligent pan-dimensional beings, sentient trees or whatever – are no longer around.
“Well they might be,” Shostak concedes, “but once you develop artificial intelligence you can use that to develop the next generation of thinking thing and so on – within 50 years you not only have a machine that’s far smarter than all the previous machines but certainly smarter than all humans put together.”
“The big question,” says astronomer and author of the Search for Earth’s Twin, Stuart Clark, “is whether the AI goes on to become conscious and define its own goals and decide it doesn’t need the biological creatures that developed it.”
From the self-aware death machines of the Berserker books to the cyborgs of Battlestar Galactica or The Terminator, science fiction certainly has a rich seam of AIs taking over and wiping out their inferior biological creators. It is not, however, necessarily the inevitable path of any technological civilisation. artificial intelligence – truly thinking machines with synthetic super-brains – may not even be possible.
Richard Hollingham - BBC