Monday, April 16, 2012

Extraterrestrial Contact: The Ultimate Alien

The term alien has many meanings, one of which is the primary use when describing extraterrestrial beings: belonging to another and very different place. That certainly makes sense. But there’s also the use of the word alien to describe something as strange. That usage could have a big impact on how we might relate to a member of an extraterrestrial civilization. Strange in our popular media has tended to be portrayed as serpent or insect-like creatures. It’s perhaps easiest for us to imagine extraterrestrials as having characteristics of fauna here on Earth. What might be harder to wrap our heads around would be machine intelligence.
Astrophysicists and science fiction writers have suggested that space-faring aliens might be machine intelligence for several reasons. Machine intelligence would be tougher, could survive for a longer period of time, and require far less support than biological creatures. Machine intelligence could be intelligent probes created by biological creatures to explore the universe. I think we could probably understand the concept of intelligent computers. But what if the machine intelligence is the evolved form of biological creatures? We wouldn’t be dealing with a sentient computer, but rather a whole new form of life.

Why would this be tough for us? Much of what we consider as human comes from our bodies: senses, emotions and reproduction. The very state of being alive as a human requires that the human body be working. Without the body we are dead. If even the most outlandish looking alien had a living body we would have more in common with that being than machine intelligence. We could ask about their senses and biological functions. The answers to those questions could help us better understand how those biological aliens perceive the universe and thus we could find commonalities. Those commonalities would be incredibly important. No matter how open minded humans would like to be, there would be a bias against creatures incredibly different from us. The first things we would likely search for would be similarities. That’s fine for biological creatures, but how about machine intelligence? Could we find commonalities with machine based beings?

This is no small question. The entire relationship with any extraterrestrials we may meet in the future will be determined by these questions. In the popular media it seems we fear the machine intelligence creations (think Terminator) at least as much as the weird looking serpent aliens. In some ways we may fear them more, because machine intelligence represents something threatening in a very basic way: it calls into question our biology and thus our humanity.

In the end, it may depend on the aliens themselves. If they are advanced enough in technology to have evolved into machine intelligence one would hope they would be able to find ways to communicate with us that would make us feel comfortable. A machine based being speaking colloquial English with a Midwest accent would be much more comfortable to us Americans. If the aliens did their homework they would study human relations carefully and make some public relations decisions. Scientists often put off such considerations as being too anthropocentric. But if you’re the visiting alien don’t you want to make the best impression possible? Why wouldn’t you study the beings you are about to approach and determine a form of introduction and communication that would make those beings the most comfortable?

While such work in human relations would be important for an extraterrestrial relationship with humans it would not be the most important factor. The big question would be the reason for the aliens saying hello in the first place. They wouldn’t go to the trouble of saying hello without a motivation for doing such. What they expect from the new relationship will be the primary consideration for humans if First Contact with an extraterrestrial civilization ever does occur.

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