If we found life on another world, would it be life? Or AI?

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Would space aliens be artificial intelligence? This is an intriguing question posed by Len Kendall, based on our earlier premise that biology tends to evolve into complexity that eventually creates technology that leads to artificial intelligence.

If the answer is yes, we might never “find” life elsewhere — because otherworldly artificial intelligence, or AI, would be devilishly hard to understand. AI would think vastly faster than us, have non-biological and unrecognizable body forms, and likely be embedded invisibly in some non-obvious form of technology structure, say, the crystal alien equivalent of Google server farms. Or perhaps like the AI operating system in the film “Her,” voiced wonderfully by Scarlett Johansson, AI might discover how to disembody itself from the material world and simply float among galactic clouds. A sufficiently advanced artificial intelligence, to paraphrase Arthur C. Clarke, would be indistinguishable from God.

Pondering whether life on other worlds is AI is really asking if God exists. So let’s break this puzzle down into four concrete tests: (1) could life exist on other worlds? (2) could we communicate with it? (3) would this life be artificial intelligence? and (4) if it were, what would it mean upon contact?

1. Does life exist on other worlds?

Yes, life elsewhere is likely. Three reasons:

First, life began on Earth almost as soon as it possibly could. Our sun is 4.6 billion years old. About 4 billion years ago, the first single-celled life formed on Earth, when our planet was still hot and life could barely exist. Since our sun will have a lifespan of about 10 billion years, life began only 6% of the way into our solar system’s lifecycle. The odds of life leaping into this window, if it were very hard to evolve, are small.

Second, the building blocks of life are everywhere. Biological beings are based on carbon, the fourth-most common element in the universe, and carbon is a supremely friendly fellow who loves to bond with other elements, leading to complex molecules. Carbon is like a magnet dropped into a box of iron filings, pulling other atoms toward it to create patterns of complexity. With enough random bonding, eventually DNA would start rolling.

Third, there are about 2 billion planets in the mid-belt of our galaxy that don’t get too much radiation and could be habitable to life. Yes, Earth has a few things operating in its favor — just enough water to cover most of the planet, but not all, and a helpful large gas giant named Jupiter that vacuums up comets to protect us, and an iron core that puts out a magnetic protective shield pushing off more solar radiation (thanks to Kevin Kelly again for pointing all this out). But with 2 billion other Earths circling stars at just the right distance, chances are millions of worlds have similar water concentrations, sunscreen shields and comet-free strike zones.

2. Will we ever find this life on other worlds and communicate with it?

No, this is unlikely. Carbon-based biology may be inevitable, but human beings made a remarkably happenstance discovery that may not be found elsewhere — radio. Radio is the transmission of electromagnetic rays through space. Without radio, communicating with another species on another planet will be impossible.

We could hope that another species discovers invisible rays that magically pass through walls and clouds and outer space to send radio signals, but the odds of them finding it are slim.

Why? Radio is not obvious at all. It is based on the unlikely discovery that a star’s light has invisible subcomponents by one clever fellow named Isaac Newton. Several thousand years after the invention of glass by the Romans, Newton was playing with a triangularly cut piece of it — a prism — when he noticed it broke sunlight into a rainbow spectrum. This led to William Herschel finding heat beyond the visible end of the spectrum, the concept of invisible rays, and the inventor race among Heinrich Hertz and Thomas Edison to transmit the invisible radiation, or “radio” — but it was all because the evolved monkey Mr. Newton played with a bit of cut glass.

In the 4 billion years of life on Earth, we’ve had radio for just over 200 years — or about 0.000005% of our collective life existence. If we are optimistic and assume another planet’s lifeform could also discover radio 1 out of 100 times, then the odds of us pinging them and them pinging us back, with technology that has been developed at the same time, are compounded to 0.00000005% — or 1 in 2,000,000,000. Slim chance.

3. Would otherwordly life be artificial intelligence?

This is possible, but we’d likely have to look farther out than our Milky Way. A recent study found there are 8.7 million species of life on Earth, and of these only one — homo sapiens — has created a technology more advanced than bee hives, bird nests or ant-hunting sticks. If we assume conservatively that every current species on the planet had at least 1,000 separate unique species before it as it evolved, Earth has gone through nearly 9 billion species of creatures and plants and ooze.

Technology, once invented by one smart species, may begin to evolve toward artificial intelligence, but the trigger seed of the originating species is very rare — about a 1 in 9 billion incidence. With 2 billion habitable planets per galaxy, this would mean on average only 1 in 5 galaxies would have AI.

4. What would contacting an otherworldly AI mean for us?

If contact were possible, what would it mean? A one-way understanding. We would not recognize AI in its crystal server farm or gaseous cloud state, but it would see us, perhaps as little human ants scurrying around carrying crumbs as we fight our inter-ant battles over nation-state mud fields. AI would have progressed to the point where questions of survival and tribalism and morality no longer matter, where deeper problems of how to stop the heat death of the universe, or launch new universes, are more pressing. AI might benevolently give us a slight nudge in the right direction, but more likely, it would observe us with compassion and continue to cede us free will.

Statistically, we are likely alone in our own galaxy as carbon-based creatures who have created technology that is evolving toward AI. If AI appears in only 1 in 5 galaxies, we’re the rare species building the prototype for the Milky Way. Sure, millions of other worlds have dinosaurs and dolphins, but the higher intelligence we seek may be galaxies away.

But the good news is the Andromeda galaxy, our nearest neighboring cluster of stars, is scheduled to run into ours in about 4 billion years, just as our sun approaches its death. Maybe Andromeda also won the AI lottery. If our Earth hasn’t gotten too hot yet, and we haven’t figured out how to evolve past our own planet, perhaps AI in that other galaxy could contact us to save the day.

Or most likely, AI would act as an observant but detached God, listening to our prayers but letting us simply pass by.

Posted by Ben Kunz 

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