Via Motherboard: ‘If and when we finally encounter aliens, they probably won’t look like little green men, or spiny insectoids. It’s likely they won’t be biological creatures at all, but rather, advanced robots that outstrip our intelligence in every conceivable way. While scores of philosophers, scientists and futurists have prophesied the rise of artificial intelligence and the impending singularity, most have restricted their predictions to Earth. Fewer thinkers—outside the realm of science fiction, that is—have considered the notion that artificial intelligence is already out there, and has been for eons.
Susan Schneider, a professor of philosophy at the University of Connecticut, is one who has. She joins a handful of astronomers, including Seth Shostak, director of NASA’s Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or SETI, program, NASA Astrobiologist Paul Davies, and Library of Congress Chair in Astrobiology Stephen Dick in espousing the view that the dominant intelligence in the cosmos is probably artificial. In her paper “Alien Minds,” written for a forthcoming NASA publication, Schneider describes why alien life forms are likely to be synthetic, and how such creatures might think.
“Most people have an iconic idea of aliens as these biological creatures, but that doesn’t make any sense from a timescale argument,” Shostak told me. “I’ve bet dozens of astronomers coffee that if we pick up an alien signal, it’ll be artificial life.”
With the latest updates from NASA’s Kepler mission showing potentially habitable worlds strewn across the galaxy, it’s becoming harder and harder to assert that we’re alone in the universe. And if and when we do encounter intelligent life forms, we’ll want to communicate with them, which means we’ll need some basis for understanding their cognition. But for the vast majority of astrobiologists who study single-celled life, alien intelligence isn’t on the radar.
“If you asked me to bring together a panel of folks who have given the subject much thought, I would be hard pressed,” said Shostak. “Some think about communication strategies, of course. But few consider the nature of alien intelligence.”
Schneider’s paper is among the first to tackle the subject. “Everything about their cognition—how their brains receive and process information, what their goals and incentives are—could be vastly different from our own,” Schneider told me. “Astrobiologists need to start thinking about the possibility of very different modes of cognition.”
To wit, the case of artificial superintelligence.
“There’s an important distinction here from just ‘artificial intelligence’,” Schneider told me. “I’m not saying that we’re going to be running into IBM processors in outer space. In all likelihood, this intelligence will be way more sophisticated than anything humans can understand.”
The reason for all this has to do, primarily, with timescales. For starters, when it comes to alien intelligence, there’s what Schneider calls the “short window observation”—the notion that, by the time any society learns to transmit radio signals, they’re probably a hop-skip away from upgrading their own biology. It’s a twist on the belief popularized by Ray Kurzweil that humanity’s own post-biological future is near at hand.
“As soon as a civilization invents radio, they’re within fifty years of computers, then, probably, only another fifty to a hundred years from inventing AI,” Shostak said. “At that point, soft, squishy brains become an outdated model.” ‘