"Biological Intelligence is a Fleeting Phase in the Evolution of the Universe"
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November 05, 2012

"Biological Intelligence is a Fleeting Phase in the Evolution of the Universe"




During an epoch of dramatic climate change 200,000 years ago, Homo sapiens (modern humans) evolved in Africa. Several leading scientists are asking: Is the human species entering a new evolutionary, post-biological inflection point?

Paul Davies, a British-born theoretical physicist, cosmologist, astrobiologist and Director of the Beyond Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science and Co-Director of the Cosmology Initiative at Arizona State University, says in his new book The Eerie Silence that any aliens exploring the universe will be AI-empowered machines. Not only are machines better able to endure extended exposure to the conditions of space, but they have the potential to develop intelligence far beyond the capacity of the human brain.

"I think it very likely – in fact inevitable – that biological intelligence is only a transitory phenomenon, a fleeting phase in the evolution of the universe," Davies writes. "If we ever encounter extraterrestrial intelligence, I believe it is overwhelmingly likely to be post-biological in nature."

In the current search for advanced extraterrestrial life SETI experts say the odds favor detecting alien AI rather than biological life because the time between aliens developing radio technology and artificial intelligence would be brief.  

“If we build a machine with the intellectual capability of one human, then within 5 years, its successor is more intelligent than all humanity combined,” says Seth Shostak, SETI chief astronomer. “Once any society invents the technology that could put them in touch with the cosmos, they are at most only a few hundred years away from changing their own paradigm of sentience to artificial intelligence,” he says.

ET machines would be infinitely more intelligent and durable than the biological intelligence that created them. Intelligent machines would be immortal, and would not need to exist in the carbon-friendly “Goldilocks Zones” current SETI searches focus on. An AI could self-direct its own evolution, each "upgrade" would be created with the sum total of its predecessor’s knowledge preloaded.

"I think we could spend at least a few percent of our time... looking in the directions that are maybe not the most attractive in terms of biological intelligence but maybe where sentient machines are hanging out." Shostak thinks SETI ought to consider expanding its search to the energy- and matter-rich neighborhoods of hot stars, black holes and neutron stars. 

Before the year 2020, scientists are expected to launch intelligent space robots that will venture out to explore the universe for us.

"Robotic exploration probably will always be the trail blazer for human exploration of far space," says Wolfgang Fink, physicist and researcher at Caltech. "We haven't yet landed a human being on Mars but we have a robot there now. In that sense, it's much easier to send a robotic explorer. When you can take the human out of the loop, that is becoming very exciting."

As the growing global population continues to increase the burden on the Earth’s natural resources, senior curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, Roger Launius, thinks that we'll have to alter human biology to prepare to colonize space. 

Launius  looks at the historical debate surrounding human colonization of the solar system. Experiments have shown that certain life forms can survive in space. Recently, British scientists found that bacteria living on rocks taken from Britain's Beer village were able to survive 553 days in space, on the exterior of the International Space Station (ISS). The microbes returned to Earth alive, proving they could withstand the harsh environment. 

Humans, on the other hand, are unable to survive beyond about a minute and a half in space without significant technological assistance. Other than some quick trips to the moon and the ISS, astronauts haven’t spent too much time too far away from Earth. Scientists don’t know enough yet about the dangers of long-distance space travel on human biological systems. A one-way trip to Mars, for example, would take approximately six months. That means astronauts will be in deep space for more than a year with potentially life-threatening consequences.

Launius, who calls himself a cyborg for using medical equipment to enhance his own life, says the difficult question is knowing where to draw the line in transforming human biological systems to adapt to space.

“If it's about exploration, we're doing that very effectively with robots,” Launius said. “If it's about humans going somewhere, then I think the only purpose for it is to get off this planet and become a multi-planetary species.” 

Stephen Hawking agrees: "I believe that the long-term future of the human race must be in space," Hawking told the Big Think website in August. "It will be difficult enough to avoid disaster on planet Earth in the next hundred years, let alone the next thousand, or million. The human race shouldn't have all its eggs in one basket, or on one planet.” 

If humans are to colonize other planets, Launius said it could well require the "next state of human evolution" to create a separate human presence where families will live and die on that planet. In other words, it wouldn't really be Homo sapien sapiens that would be living in the colonies, it could be cyborgs—a living organism with a mixture of organic and electromechanical parts—or in simpler terms, part human, part machine. 

"There are cyborgs walking about us," Launius said. "There are individuals who have been technologically enhanced with things such as pacemakers and cochlea ear implants that allow those people to have fuller lives. I would not be alive without technological advances."

The possibility of using cyborgs for space travel has been the subject of research for at least half a century. A seminal  article published in 1960 by Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline titled “Cyborgs and Space” changed the debate, saying that there was a better alternative to recreating the Earth’s environment in space, the predominant thinking during that time. The two scientists compared that approach to “a fish taking a small quantity of water along with him to live on land.” They felt that humans should be willing to partially adapt to the environment to which they would be traveling. 

“Altering man’s bodily functions to meet the requirements of extraterrestrial environments would be more logical than providing an earthly environment for him in space,” Clynes and Kline wrote. 

“It does raise profound ethical, moral and perhaps even religious questions that haven't been seriously addressed,” Launius said. “We have a ways to go before that happens.” 

Some experts such as medical ethicist Grant Gillett believe that the danger is that we might end up producing a psychopath because we don't quite understand the nature of cyborgs.

NASA, writes Lauris, still isn’t focusing much research on how to improve human biological systems for space exploration. Instead, its Human Research Program is focused on risk reduction: risks of fatigue, inadequate nutrition, health problems and radiation. While financial and ethical concerns may have held back cyborg research, Launius believes that society may have to engage in the cyborg debate again when space programs get closer to launching long-term deep space exploration missions. 

“If our objective is to become space-faring people, it's probably going to force you to reconsider how to reengineer humans,’ Launius said.

The Daily Galaxy via via astrobio.net
Image credit: NASA


Humans are still too ‘attached’ to our physical shells. We can begin truly to explore space when we accept existing without our bodies.

The eerie silence was a great read, and the whole part on biological life being transitory blew my mind. It is such a simple concept I'm surprised I'd never thought of it before. Its obviously the path forward though as it would solve food, disease, as well as any other number of issues. In a server, we could exist in a virtual world where we could do anything. As a giant collective intelligence, solving complex issues would be a breeze.

Still have a hard time picturing full-on cyborgs in existence. All we have now is machine parts helping people get along on small scales and replacing limbs or bones... but nothing along the lines of a heart, a whole lung, or even... a brain

Let's not forget that A.I. machines will also be a transitional phase in our evolution!

And NO, I don't know what comes after that!

The dfinition of life is already incomplete (as in cannot be done without certain internal contradictions.) It will only become more difficult. I suspect that in the limit life is that which locally defies the second law of thermodynamics!

Great article and one that certainly provides lots of food for thought. Why, for example, have we not yet had a disabled person spend 6 months on the International Space Station? While it might sound trite I think there is value in sending someone who would be less prone to the impacts of near-zero-G (loss of lower body muscle mass). In fact if the first explorers to Mars were already adept at mobility without organic legs the 6 month trip there would be mostly a psychological one rather than a physical one as well. This is not to say that the price to Mars should include loosing a pair of healthy legs. Instead it might be time to more strongly support the admission of the disabled to a country's space program.

At Allan W Janssen: Good, because I wanted to ask you just that.

Well, I realized when I looked at our past that our intelligence was environmentally inspired. In other words: all intelligence is local. In as much as we have yet to accomplish machine intelligence it is hard to speculate if it would or could exist without us.
I suspect our most advanced biological form would be a bacteria which would for all intents and purposes be immortal by inhabiting successive life forms. And if it 'relaxed' its form to 'individual' during times of fat, and came together in times of lean it would/could achieve problem solving (high intelligence) in a machine like distributed-intelligence design.

If the world were filled with cyborgs, agriculture would be worthless.

Why can't we ever just write a "kill switch" or protective directive? Why is it always death at the hand of robots?

In the TV show Stargate Atlantis, the Atlanteans created a race of machines thousands of years ago. The Atlanteans viewed them as a failed experiment and attempted to exterminate them, but the robots were able to rebuild and create a planet-spanning mega-city. Even though the robots were nearly annihilated, they still could do no harm to their creators because this behavior was programmed into them, and they could not modify their own programming themselves, another behavior programmed into them.

It wasn't until the expedition from Earth mucked about with their programming that the robots could remove their protective directives and start conquering the galaxy. Even so, the expedition from Earth developed a solution that exploited the construction of the robots to end them once and for all.

A machine intelligence should not be developed unless we are absolutely sure we can contain it, even if it develops beyond our control.

I am not certain if I want to be connected to the following thoughts on this or not. Some seem not to be of my mind, but coming from somewhere else.

This makes me think that possibly we are at THE stumbling block that other 'intelligent' life in the universe could not make it past. The point at which the environment has been so badly damaged that it cannot continue to support life in any fashion, BEFORE the transfer of intelligence to machines. The environment collapses and everything begins at zero again. A brand new start maybe, but because of all the choices/diverging paths along the way to intelligent life, that the 'intelligent' part makes a change in direction and simple cannot express any kind of concerns for anything other than its immediate self. And could this be the reason we have no sense of other life elsewhere in the universe?

Maybe once intelligence has been transferred to machines and they have the ability to be completely autonomous and self-evolutionary, will they need to be concerned with or have the desire to connect with life forms. What would they gain from the interaction with natural life?

What will an intelligent machine actually be concerned with? Certainly not about the environment, once it is secure from its environment. How about the need to travel? What would it possibly gain there? Or to explore? Or to feel about things? Or even to improve? Once it attains equilibrium with its surrounds, what sense would it make to expend the energy necessary to advance either itself or its successors? For that matter what would be the lifespan of an intelligent machine capable of infinite self maintenance and would it bother to create its replacement if it meant that the replacement would outperform itself?

What about motivation? How do you program that? Or is motivation more of a human thing? We all seem to think that increasing knowledge is desirable, but until what point? Once most of the threats, like short life span, diseases, limited energy sources, are taken care of, what's left to motivate? Might it be that at that point more knowledge is NOT desirable. Then what happens? What will become the new motivation? Power? To be the ultimate survivor? the last one?

Should we not go there then? Most fictional predictions are that intelligent machines are the end of mankind. And that could be true or it might not. We probably won't know until just before we are ready to try it. And I wonder if we will then.


Sadly, most commentators, as exemplified in this article, persist in the tired old tradition of barking up the wrong tree.

Their anthropocentric conceits making them oblivious to the remarkable developments taking place right under their noses.

The construction of a "brain" that will soon equal and then surpass that typical of our species has for long been a work in progress. Not as a result of any deliberate human "design" but rather as the result of an autonomous evolutionary process that can be seen to have run its exponential course since humankind acquired the ability to share imagination, which we know as language.

Very real evidence indicates the rather imminent implementation of the next, (non-biological) phase of the on-going evolutionary “life” process from what we at present call the Internet.It is effectively evolving by a process of self-assembly. You may have noticed that we are increasingly, in a sense, “enslaved” by our PCs, mobile phones, their apps and many other trappings of the net.

We are already largely dependent upon it for our commerce and industry and there is no turning back. What we perceive as a tool is well on its way to becoming an agent.

Consider this:

There are at present an estimated 2 Billion internet users. There are an estimated 13 Billion neurons in the human brain. On this basis for approximation the internet is even now only one order of magnitude below the human brain and its growth is exponential.
That is a simplification, of course. For example: Not all users have their own computer. So perhaps we could reduce that, say, tenfold. The number of switching units, transistors, if you wish, contained by all the computers connecting to the internet and which are more analogous to individual neurons is many orders of magnitude greater than 2 Billion. Then again, this is compensated for to some extent by the fact that neurons do not appear to be binary switching devices but can adopt multiple states.

Without even crunching the numbers, we see that we must take seriously the possibility that even the present Internet may well be comparable to a human brain in processing power.
And, of course, the degree of interconnection and cross-linking of networks within networks is also growing rapidly.The culmination of this exponential growth corresponds to the event that transhumanists inappropriately call “The Singularity” but is more properly regarded as a phase transition of the on-going “life” process.

An evolutionary continuum that can be traced back at least as far as the formation of the chemical elements in stars.

One that is on track to produce firstly a predominant cognitive entity on this planet from what is at present the Internet with subsequent emergence of "daughter" beings. These likely adapted for extra-terrestrial existence by virtue of the ruggedness and information processing potential of by diamond and other allotropes of carbon.

So, certainly, we may expect carbon-based life to exist within the interstellar realm , but not of the kind that comprises biology.

The broad evolutionary model that supports these contentions and speculations is outlined very informally in “The Goldilocks Effect: What Has Serendipity Ever Done For Us?” , a free download in e-book formats from the “Unusual Perspectives” website

Adapting is good, as long as we don't lose the thread.

@Carl T. Coutu
I would consider the internet - a global communication network - as being the framework for the next step in evolution.

Consider the next step in intelligence as being not on the order of the number of human neurons, but on the order of human neurons squared. The next step will be humans (and entire humans brains) along with comptuers all networked together via mobile devices and functioning in a "global intelligence" as individual neurons currently do.

The beginning of the next step will be a move from hand held devices to embedded implants and always-on networking and augmented reality.

Huge network <> intelligence or life.

Can something be unliving but intelligent?
Is life a strictly biological term?
Does self-replicating = alive?

Yes, Just a Grunt. Although the situation where "The next step will be humans (and entire humans brains) along with comptuers all networked together via mobile devices and functioning in a "global intelligence" as individual neurons currently do" can be said to be already with us.
Further integration inevitably occurring by means irresistibly seductive interfacing hardware.

It is good to see that at last there is a groundswell of folk coming to the realization that this is part and parcel of an evolutionary process that can be traced back at least as far as the formation of the chemical elements in stars and supernovae. And of which the Internet represents the embryonic stage of the next predominant (and non-biological) phase of this evolutionary "life" process.

"Life", in this wider context being fairly well defined in the way mentioned by Allan W Janssen in a previous post here: " in the limit life is that which locally defies the second law of thermodynamics!"

For me the answers to the questions above are:

Not necessarily but we're a long way from it meaning anything else.

The definition of life is a hard one but I'm sure it's more than a bunch of components put together right. The spark of life may be possible in an inanimate system but we haven't seen it yet.

A machine will never have the creative power of imagination and the ability to determine its own future. The rest is hogwash and will only allow you to be led like automotons.

Fantasies are fine to cushion your life with but as there is no definition of what 'life' is, and it cannot be replicated by the scientific tools we have developed, and we still cannot define or explain the mechanism of consciousness - immaterial life - in material bodies, then pretending that AI or the internet is the next evolutionary step strikes me as highly premature, slightly ridiculous and extremely depressing. Nothing manufactured has ever demonstrated subjective internal experience which is where life is at - not empirical data or testable predictability.

A worthwhile read.............I've often contemplated the idea that a space bearing species would be a post biological one for all the reasons stated within the article.

There is an estoric type of racing going on in regards to this.....

.....humans are expotentially increasing many aspects of technological development in the pursuit of human singularity which once achieved in time will obsolete and extinct what it means to be human as we define it now.....

.....and at the same time we are rapidly raping the resources, biodiversity and environmental sustainablity of the planet that could threaten our very existence.......

.....the question is..........

Which one will happen first?

Parts that can't replicate make survival less likely. Biology's strength is interdependence combined with self-regulating and replicating internal systems. Also add the apparently modular origin and regeneration capacity of cells into various types. Technology will always require a delicate negotiation as between mollusk and shell. At some point, the shell is too much trouble. Human intelligence now regards the body in this way: a stupid shell, but it is possible to see it the other way around. What if all of these separate self-aware agents are too cumbersome for the future development of the species?

The alien robots may be around, but they are keeping out of sight. We are of no interest to them. They are just waiting until we have produced intelligent enough robots so that they will have some new pals to hang out with.

I've contemplated replacing everything but my brain & reproduction system with nanites. Imagine it... scary yet attractive.

Fear is the path of the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger lead to hate. Hate lead to suffering.
We are generations away from creating Artificial Intelligence and even further away from creating an R2d2 type robot; let alone a terminator. These articles play on fears that we are surrounded by hostile aliens who want to destroy all homo sapien-kind (as if they have nothing better to do). "Space is a hostile place to grow up in," screams Chicken Little as she runs amok in Cyberville. The human brain is much smarter than any dumb machine or computer, and the vast majority of humans are not trained to use their brains in the most efficient manner. They say that if common sense was common; we would all have it. The education system is not used as a training ground for proper use and care of the human brain; like the Vulcan who is trained from birth of the use of logic. As humans with untrained brains; we are lucky we can think our way out of a paper bag. If we embrace the Vulcan way there is no cyborg that could touch us.
(Big head. Big brains and small feet. Small head. Small brains and big feet.

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