Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) astronomer Seth Shostak (pictured) confesses that these are exciting times for alien hunters like himself, what with the Pentagon’s anticipated July 25 report on unidentified aerial phenomena. Still, he doesn’t expect any big revelations: “I think it’s overwhelmingly likely that aliens are present in our galaxy. But I don’t believe they’re hanging out in our airspace. Not now, and not in historic times.”
On the other hand, he goes on to say, every third star in our galaxy could host an Earth-like planet so the odds are we are not alone. Few life forms on Earth resemble humans, so why should extraterrestrials?
But if we are not alone, what would ET be like? A gaseous cloud? A plant? Pure information?
Shostak argues, somewhat daringly, that ETs who traveled to Earth would probably not be “alive” in a conventional sense. In fact, given the immense interstellar distances, not being alive might be the only way they could get here. They might be artificial intelligences:
Such leisurely trips aren’t going to appeal to biological passengers who will die long before their destination is reached. Machines, on the other hand, won’t complain if they’re cooped up in a spaceship for tens of thousands of years. They don’t require food, oxygen, sanitation or entertainment. And they don’t insist on a round-trip ticket.
Artificial intelligence aliens may not be as appealing as those who are warm-blooded and squishy, but we shouldn’t get hung up on an anthropocentric viewpoint. Researchers who work in AI estimate that machines able to beat humans on an IQ test will emerge from the labs by mid-century. If we can do it, some extraterrestrials will have already done it.Seth Shostak, “If we ever encounter aliens, they will resemble AI and not little green martians” at The Guardian (June 14, 2021)
Shostak sounds overly optimistic about artificial intelligence beating humans on an IQ test. It’s helpful to remember that computers only compute. Many thought processes are not forms of computing. As tech philosopher George Gilder points out, AI can win if the map is the territory (think chess) because then pure computation can win. But a map of Earth is not the territory and non-computational methods of thought are essential.
Of greater concern would be its intentions. Most sci-fi stories postulate that visitors would be noxious, arriving with a primal urge to obliterate Los Angeles or London. Frankly, if that’s what’s on their mechanical minds, it’s probably impossible to keep them at bay. Chimps couldn’t outsmart humans in any serious confrontation. Likewise, devices who can manage a trip to Earth will have the capability to do whatever they wish once they get here.Seth Shostak, “If we ever encounter aliens, they will resemble AI and not little green martians” at The Guardian (June 14, 2021)
But wait. If they are artificial intelligences, they wouldn’t have any desires at all. Someone might have programmed them to do thus-and-such. But obliterating the newly discovered research subjects, after all that time and trouble, seems like an unlikely program.
Waiting for the Pentagon’s report is a fun time and we are all entitled to our speculations.
You may also wish to read: Astronomer bets a cup of coffee that we’ll encounter ET by 2036 Seth Shostak points to the increase in the number of exoplanets identified and the increase in computing power. One problem is that signals to and from exoplanets may take years. It takes up to 21 minutes for a signal from Earth to reach even Mars.
Seven reasons (so far) why the aliens never show up. Some experts think they became AI and some that they were killed by their AI but others say they never existed. Who’s most likely right? Indeed, where are they? A flurry of explanations creates some great sci-fi.