Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Extraterrestrial Contact: Visiting Robots

Many astrophysicists have suggested that if we meet traveling extraterrestrials they are likely to be robotic in form. Why? Artificial intelligence (AI) would not have the demands of biological intelligence in terms of biological needs. AI could be designed for travel. In space that is critical. The more mass you want to move, the more energy you need to move it. Life support requires plenty of stuff. AI wouldn’t need traditional biological life support and thus could travel in a much smaller and lighter vehicle. Because it doesn’t need fragile biological life support AI could also better withstand the dangers of space travel. Perhaps most importantly, AI could potentially travel for an infinite period of time, if it knew how to protect and repair itself.
AI of an alien manufacture would likely be much different from what we would design. Just as we put anthropomorphic characteristics into our robotic design, aliens would probably do the same, but from their perspective. I think there are a couple of things we could assume about traveling AI. There would have to be a reason for the travel. You don’t expend time and energy traveling through space without a reason. Perhaps there could be multiple reasons for travel? However, it seems likely there would be one primary reason. It could be the search for other intelligent life. It could be an exploration of parts of the universe of interest to the alien designers. Perhaps it’s a religious quest of some sort? You could speculate endlessly about the possible reasons for travel. One thing is certain: there would be a reason and we would want to know that reason quickly if we were to meet such traveling robots. AI could be a threat. Perhaps the primary reason is to extinguish competing life forms? Or to secure new planets for conquest? Those are certainly the favorite scenarios in Hollywood.
The other thing that we should expect from AI would be logic. It might not be logic that we would fully understand, but there would have to be some underlying system of logic. You would assume that AI would also need the ability to learn, which is what artificial intelligence implies. It would be tough to travel the universe, encountering new things at every turn, unless you had the ability to learn and adapt. That’s a good thing because it could provide a way for us to communicate. Even if such communication was not part of the original programming or mission, AI with the ability to learn could learn to communicate.
I’ve said before that machine intelligence would be one of the tougher First Contact scenarios. We’re suspicious of AI. It’s a relatively new concept in human reality even though it has been chewed on for decades by writers. The plotlines are usually not kind in fiction or for that matter in fact. The New York Times recently pointed out how robots are replacing humans in manufacturing at a greater and greater rate.
It might be tough for biological creatures to have a relationship with artificial intelligence, especially if that intelligence came with advanced technology. It’s one thing to feel dumb compared to biological creatures, how would we handle our inferiority to machines? I suppose we can hope for robots with compassion and plenty of patience.
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