Mind Matters Natural and Artificial Intelligence News and Analysis

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alien planet landscape, beautiful forest the surface of an exoplanet

NASA Develops a Scale for Assessing the Chances of ET Life

We’ve come a long way from mere snatches of (maybe) information to the need for standards in evaluating the expected incoming mass

Geoscientist Dirk Schulze-Makuch, co-author with William Bains of The Cosmic Zoo (2017) and a number of other books on planetary habitability, thinks science needs standardized scales for assessing claims about extraterrestrial life. There are lots of claims: life on Mars detected by the Viking landers (1976), fossil life in a Mars-origin meteorite (1996), phosphine on Venus (2020) … all have some evidence in their favor. But scientists need a way to express degrees of certainty. Recently, NASA has proposed the Confidence of Life Detection Scale (CoLD), featuring seven benchmarks. The main problem is that evidence that might suggest life could just as easily be a non-biological process: Consider Jupiter’s moon Europa. A large asteroid impact could have volatilized ice on…

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exoplanet viewed from the rocky surface of its moon, elements of this image furnished by NASA.

So What Alien Tech Should the New Telescopes Be Looking For?

As powerful new telescopes come on line, we will be able to look for chemical signatures of civilization, not just life

Today, powerful telescopes like the James Webb Space Telescope search among the now 5000 confirmed exoplanets for biosignatures — chemical compounds like methane and nitrous oxide — that are typically produced by life forms. But what about technosignatures, evidence of an advanced civilization? These might be, for example byproducts of a nuclear fusion (tritium, for example) that is not associated with as nearby supernova. That’s on the agenda for the new telescopes coming down the line as well: In 2021, the National Academies of Sciences released their Decadal Survey on Astronomy and Astrophysics 2020, called Astro2020. They release one every ten years, and each survey outlines the critical challenges in astrophysics and astronomy for the next decade. Astro2020 contains several…

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Venus. Cinematic and very realistic sunrise seen from space on venus

Why Researchers Focus On Possible Life on Venus

Chemicals that we shouldn’t find unless they are produced by life forms are sparking interest in exploring Venus from both public and private sources

At one time, Venus was considered a likely candidate for hosting life. But its late- discovered carbon dioxide atmosphere turned out to be very discouraging so researchers focused on Mars. However, research into microbes on Earth has now identified many extremophiles that live under daunting conditions so researchers don’t want to run the risk of making “rules” for life forms that sometimes seem as if they were made to be broken. One possibility raised is that, given that life forms transform their environment over time, simple ones might be slowly shaping it over a long period of time: A team of researchers has put forward a new theory suggesting possible life on the planet Venus could be making the environment…

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First cell, origin of life

Will AI Chemistry Robots Finally Discover the Origin of Life?

Chemist Lee Cronin’s hopes for a breakthrough by getting robots to motor through millions of chemical combinations, looking for self-replicating systems

How did molecules form self-replicating systems? This is a harder problem than we sometimes think because it’s not obvious why molecules should seek to develop into complex organisms that can self-replicate. Science journalist Katharine Sanderson notes that University of Glasgow chemist Lee Cronin is using robots to test the “billions of ways” it could have happened: He and his team have set up machines that combine a selection of simple substances – acids, inorganic minerals, carbon-based molecules – to react randomly. The outcome is analysed and then an algorithm helps the robot choose how to proceed. In this way, the robot can hunt through vast swathes of chemical space to see if any self-replicating systems emerge. Cronin thinks this automated…