"In short, the way for a species to make a better AI is to let that AI and its components explore the messy Universe. As complex and nourishing as a single planet can be, a cosmos filled with worlds offers millions, billions, even trillions of natural test tubes, each with its own tale of natural selection and chance. Spreading savant AI pieces across the stars offers a way to exploit these endless natural experiments and sensory inputs."
We have a problem. In a 10-billion-year-old galaxy there should have been ample opportunity for at least one species to escape its own mess, and to spread across the stars, filling every niche, continues Caleb Scharf, director of astrobiology at Columbia University in Aeon. That this species doesn’t seem to have come calling leads to Fermi’s Paradox – if life isn’t impossibly rare, then where is everyone? Efforts to scan the skies for signs of intelligent life have come up blank too, adding to the puzzle. Perhaps the vast gulfs of interstellar space and the narrow windows of time for communicative species to exist within shouting distance of each other are to blame. Intelligences might be like small ships passing in the night in a vast ocean. Actual close encounters of any kind could be exceedingly unusual.
Another explanation for the great silence of the galaxy is that any surviving intelligence out there is so different from us, so radically evolved, that we can’t even conceive of its forms or behaviors. As a consequence, actually detecting and recognising it could be next to impossible. That’s a bit of a downer.
But there is also a possibility that lies between such extremes and it might be the most probable of all. When our first encounter or detection finally occurs, it could be a machine intelligence that appears in our sights.
The idea is not truly new. Back in the 1940s, the mathematician John von Neumann explored the possibilities of non-biological, self-replicating systems steeped in computation but requiring no operating minds. Later on, in the 1980s, others expanded on this concept by considering the real engineering needs for autonomous, replicating, space-faring devices; these machines would be able to roam the Universe, finding raw materials to build more and more of themselves, creating the infrastructure for energy from space or human settlement among the stars.
It would require a more complex mission still for such devices to have true artificial intelligence (AI). What would that purpose be, and what kind of AI is such a machine likely to have? An encounter with an alien machine could help us unravel this puzzle.
One possibility is that this machine is super-capable, exceeding our human capacity for cognitive or analytical tasks. Such an AI might be exceedingly hard to understand, either in terms of its underlying motivation or because of practical barriers of communication bandwidth. For this device, talking to us might be like talking to an infant. Or trying to discuss the collected works of Shakespeare using pictographs. An alien system optimised for processing vast data streams might not even be able to downgrade its pace enough to notice that we’re trying to talk, whether we use technology or not.
An extraterrestrial (ET) AI could also be seriously intimidating and scary simply because of its machine nature: a thing animated from non-living pieces, just like the classic tale of the golem moulded from clay or mud. By comparison, while a biological alien might be shocking, it would surely have some traits in common with us. We could convince ourselves that evolution leads to recognisable, even sympathetic behaviours and intentions. An artificial entity need not follow all of those evolutionary rules, taking alienness to a whole other level.
Image credit: With thanks to Oxford University Press