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If We Ever Meet Aliens, They'll Probably Be Robots

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If you're trying to be the most dominant life form in the cosmos, biology will only slow you down.

Photo Credit: Ronny R via flickr | CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Over at Motherboard, Maddie Stone asked philosopher Susan Schneider and director of NASA's SETI program Seth Shostak to weigh in on the subject of artificial intelligence not as an eventuality on humanity's timeline, but as something that "is already out there and has been for eons," in the form of hyper sophisticated aliens:

"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 "At that point, soft, squishy brains become an outdated model."


According to Shostak, this is a possibility that very few people have thought about in great depth – but they should be. "Most people have an iconic idea of aliens as these biological creatures, but that doesn't make any sense from a timescale argument... I've bet dozens of astronomers coffee that if we pick up an alien signal, it'll be artificial life."

Read the rest at Motherboard.