Monday, June 14, 2010

Meeting our Expectations

Scientists make persuasive arguments about the most likely nature of a visiting extraterrestrial civilization. If the visitors are centuries, if not millennia, ahead of us in evolution will they actually be some form of hybrid organic-machine? Or intelligence residing in machine form? Humans use electronic instruments to regulate heart rates and control prosthetic limbs. What will the future hold for us? It would be much more convenient to have access to the Internet directly in our brains rather than needing a computer interface sitting at a desk. This ties in with the idea of technological singularity. Singularity in this sense refers to the point that which technology has advanced far enough to surpass human intelligence, perhaps by some sort of transhuman state in which the human mind is merged with a computer. It sounds far fetched, however supporters point to the exponential growth in computer and information technology. If the growth continues it will only be a few decades before we have microscopic computers, perhaps fully integrated into a human body. Or perhaps complex computers able to hold human intelligence? The singularity points to the time where technology transcends humanity as we know it, ushering in a new era of machine based intelligence.

So, it makes sense that an advanced extraterrestrial civilization might follow the same path, at the very least making use of technology to extend their lives in some machine form and allow them to accomplish much more. The only thing I could see stopping them (or us for that matter) would be ethical considerations. Perhaps at some point aliens would consider the complete loss of an organic body to be unpalatable from either a religious or some other social standpoint.

Physicist Paul Davies talks about machine intelligence in his new book The Eerie Silence: Renewing our search for alien intelligence.He raises the point to suggest that we need to be thinking in a broader manner when it comes to SETI research. We can’t focus on the narrow speculation that an alien civilization is out there inhabiting a planet and sending electromagnetic signals as we do. Machine intelligence makes sense for many reasons. Davies and SETI researcher Seth Shostak go as far to suggest it is the most likely possibility for any civilization that we meet. Machines, if properly maintained, can operate for long periods of time. Machine intelligence, if similar to our own artificial intelligence, could be transferred from one machine to another, thus extending life even further and making space travel easier. The biggest hurdle for extraterrestrial interstellar travel is time. If you take time out of the equation we already have the technology to travel between stars – some of our own space probes have left our solar system.

What does machine intelligence mean for Direct First Contact? We need to be very flexible about what we consider. Perhaps an extraterrestrial visitor would be a space traveling computer that would enter our solar system and contact us via the communication systems we currently use. It seems unlikely any visiting extraterrestrial civilization would send up an immediate hello. They would probably want to spend some time researching our planet and civilization. The primary question would be whether or not they wanted to contact us at all. The secondary would be how best to do it.

I throw into the collective hat one idea. Perhaps an extraterrestrial machine visitor would have ability to design beings and spacecraft in any manner they would like? This would give them the ability to design a creature and a craft for a Direct First Contact event, more in line with what we might expect. They could even make things easier for us by creating beings and spacecraft as we have imagined them to be. Why not? It would certainly be less of a shock to the system to have a being we could relate to, at least initially. Creating a being that looks human might go too far, providing a whole new set of worries on our part.

I think no matter what the life form, organic or mechanical, some basic ideas apply. If they have positive intentions they will want to figure out how best to reach us and start the conversation. This is for the benefit of the new relationship and for our benefit. First Contact of any sort is going to cause major changes to our civilization. If the visitors are altruistic they will take this into account and set up a big hello that we can handle.

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