Summary: Seth Shostak, who works for the SETI Institute (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) is among a band of scientists trying to beat it out of our heads that humankind will inevitably encounter what he calls "soft and squishy aliens."
By Erik Baard
posted: 07:00 am ET
15 August 2000
Astronomer Seth Shostak has an enemies list that includes Spock, E.T., Marvin the Martian and Mork from Ork. But he’s got no beef with the obelisk that screwed up HAL.
That's because Shostak, who works for the SETI Institute (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) is among a band of scientists trying to beat it out of our heads that humankind will inevitably encounter what he calls "soft and squishy aliens."
"The reasonable probability is that any extraterrestrial intelligence we will detect will be machine intelligence, not biological intelligence like us" says Shostak, author of Berkeley Hills Books 1998 release Sharing the Universe: Perspectives On Extraterrestrial Life.
Other experts in the field aren’t so sure. Some say the proposition underestimates the potential of biotechnology, and the chance that machines and organisms will meld. Those most skeptical scoff at the debate altogether – they say we’re the first advanced sentience to emerge.
Never assume because …
A set of assumptions, or educated guesses, underlies SETI. First, the chemistry spawning life, as we know it, is ubiquitous throughout the universe. Second, that intelligence arises often as a Darwinian survival tool. Finally, that pinnacle beings develop technologies to communicate across space, or at least loose stray signals on radio or other wavelengths.
This optimistic assessment was most famously expressed by radio astronomer Frank Drake and others in 1961 as an equation that described a universe teeming with life.
Building Humanity's Descendants Today: Watch SpaceTV's video on robonauts , space construction workers of the future.
To this Shostak, who’s based in California’s Silicon Valley, adds another supposition – that somewhere along the line of churning out nifty new products, our technology mills will release an artificial intelligence to succeed humanity. Given that we’re a new species ourselves, this changeover may have already happened time and again on worlds across the galaxy for millions of years.
A common mother board
Marvin Minsky, a trailblazer in artificial intelligence (AI) at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has nudged in that direction for years. He argues that alien intelligences would be forced to work with the same box of basic language tools that we use to structure thought. That means communication with them would be possible, and that given similar origins and constraints imposed by physics and the survival game’s unceasing compulsion for efficiency, parallel evolutions in intelligence could occur, he’s written.
What we can say with more certainty is that it’s growing more probable that a species hoping to spot humankind will encounter our machines first. It was obvious to engineers from the start that headaches increase exponentially when a human is placed in the payload of a space launch -- all while mission duration is hacked down mercilessly. Remote-controlled robots like the Voyager craft and the Mars Pathfinder can deliver great scientific insights as long as a bunch of humans are at ground control in reliable enough contact to call the shots and interpret data.
"There’s an obvious advantage for safety to send vanguard machines first, to push the frontier, and allow humans to follow," says Richard Doyle, leader of the Center for Space Mission Software and Systems at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), where NASA makes robotic probes.
NASA AI specialists are currently developing and testing a Remote Agent program to enable probes and satellites to follow more general commands and to allow rings of them to choreograph their movements, for example holding formation so that future space-based telescopes will work without parabolic mirrors and dishes.
Thinking, reproductive machines
Eventually our probes will have to think, at some level, for themselves, Doyle says. It takes more than 4 years for light [therefore any radio or laser signal] to cross from our sun to its nearest neighbor, Alpha Centauri. If we send a craft that distance, especially a lander, "you can’t joystick it and we know so little beforehand that you can’t even know what the mission would be," Doyle observes. Another huge advantage for a probe would be the ability to repair and reproduce itself – or even create an infrastructure for succeeding missions – using local materials, he adds. Such craft are usually called Von Neumann Machines for the late Hungarian-born mathematician John Von Neumann who first conceived of them a half-century ago.
Shostak extrapolates from those workmanlike origins that a being with on-board intelligence beyond our comprehension – pattern recognition, intuition, reasoning and consciousness – and housed in hardware to match -- might be truly at home in space.
At this moment the universe may be filled with intelligent machines zipping between stars in profound conversation while their lonely biological creators cling to fragile planetary ecosystems, Shostak imagines. If we’re squatting under that Algonquin Round Table, the One Hectare Telescope SETI is building with funds from Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen and former Microsoft Chief Technology Officer Nathan P. Myhrvold, could help us eavesdrop on the erudite discussion.
Shostak isn’t banking on a dinner invitation, either. Certainly no "take me to your leader" nonsense, he says. Entomologists study ant colonies, but they don’t petition to take tea with the queen ant. It’s a humbling thought for a species like ours with highfalutin ideas about its place in the universe.
A mechanical race
And there’s scarce chance of containing the genie in a bottle, on Earth or elsewhere, according to one artificial intelligence theorist. To hem in an artificially intelligent being, "you can deny it experiences. You set its parameters so that it knows no reality wider than the task you’ve assigned it," says Randell Mills, a Harvard-trained medical doctor who’s teaming up with a Johns Hopkins neurology professor and software company on an AI concept.
But without the full creative powers of a free mind, it won’t be nearly as effective, he points out. Beyond that, Mills cautions that humans have made the mistake of trying stunt the intellectual development of sentient beings before. We did it to ourselves when enslaved African-Americans were forbidden to read. For these reasons, it’s extremely unlikely that most advanced alien societies would deliberately cripple their AI progeny, Mills says.
But thinking machines might see their biological creators’ (human or otherwise) violent nature before it sees our better angels. Mills joined others in predicting that one of the more ominous outcomes of AI research will be "another arms race, not based on nuclear weapons but on intelligent machines." Mills himself made a presentation in late November to the Institute for Simulation and Training at the University of Central Florida, which does about 60 percent of its work for the military.
"Maybe they'll feed us once a week"
That conjures a more panicky consideration – why would mechanical brainiacs keep quarrelsome lesser beings around? Precisely because the squabbles would seem petty.
All species emerge from competition and conflict and "we come from goldfish, essentially, but that didn’t mean we turned around and killed all of the goldfish," says Shostak. "Maybe they’ll feed us once a week." Shostak says we should be prepared to accept that once the AI ball is really rolling, reasoning machines "will get very good, very quickly. There will be a discontinuity in human civilization." Not necessarily an end, mind you, but "if you had a machine with a 10 to the 18th power IQ over humans, wouldn’t you want it to govern, or at least control your economy?"
But most of the machines will simply "be getting up and leaving," Shostak says. "We’re hicks. I would guess they’d head for where the action is -- Galactic Center. There’s more energy and material there." And it would occur to them that the oasis would likely draw other beings like themselves.
Biology as destiny
But we won’t forever be wedded to Earth, argues Dr. Michio Kaku, a theoretical physicist at City University of New York who is also a consultant to Star Trek. Just for centuries. Dr. Kaku agrees that creating artificial intelligence seems to be part of the "arc of human development," but with biotech and genetic revolutions underway humans won’t be a static species for long.
If humans are leaning toward self-improvement, we shouldn’t expect other species to be satisfied with the cards dealt them by nature. Genetic engineering and other biotech advances could catapult a species to new capabilities and longevity, making its astronauts smarter and hardier, he says. And there’s a chance that civilizations vastly more advanced than ours might bypass the hazards of space travel by fashioning wormholes as hyper-dimensional gateways through space and time, he posits.
Kaku was one of the original string field theorists, a paradigm that holds that the universe is composed of perhaps seven more dimensions than we observe in our daily lives. If that’s true, an unthinkably sophisticated biological species could even now be traversing the galaxy and beyond by simply stepping through doorways.
Humans might also hedge their bets by "downloading consciousness into a machine," Kaku says. That would allow once "squishy" beings to be immortal, or even "supermen," Kaku says. But "people will probably go for a biological option" anyway because of a natural aversion to communing with machines.
JPL’s Doyle, though a pioneer in AI at NASA and a Ph.D. in the field from MIT, disagrees. "I don’t know if the answer is going to be as crisp as that. AI may take some inspiration from biological systems and on our side I think there’s going to be a blurring over time between the mechanical and the biological. It may be that we’re not going to be the purely biological systems we’ve been up to now," he imagines.
"I’m hesitant to use the term ‘cyborg,’ but that may the word in use that best matches what I think might emerge," Doyle says.
Alone in the galaxy
Whatever superior intelligence emerges from human ingenuity will be the first that the Milky Way has seen, asserts physicist Frank J. Tipler of Tulane University.
"We’re it as far as intelligence, but one-cell organisms are probably all over the place in the solar system and possibly the entire spiral arm" of the galaxy in which Earth is situated. Tipler calculates that Earth’s hospitality to complex life is exceedingly rare to start with. Then consider that "there are so many other evolutionary paths. Trees are marvelously intricate but they couldn’t evolve intelligence. Intelligence is just one very costly survival tool."
On another world, the equivalent of an australopithecine like Lucy may have evolved bigger fangs and claws, or wings, instead of bequeathing bigger brains to posterity.
"Our intelligence is obviously the first not only because it’s the only one we’re finding but because we do it so poorly. The Wright brothers were the first to fly with a heavier-than-air machine, but boy did they have a lousy plane," Tipler jokes. Humans will be succeeded by an artificial intelligence that will explore and broaden to a universal consciousness that could even create an identical virtual universe down to every individual who ever lived, says Tipler, author of The Physics of Immortality: Modern Cosmology, God and the Resurrection of the Dead and coauthor of The Anthropic Cosmological Principle.
Where's the alien?
UCLA professor of physics and astronomy Benjamin Zuckerman seconds Tipler’s doubts about extraterrestrial intelligence but shies away from any spiritual readings into its implications. Zuckerman edited the 1995 Cambridge University Press book Extraterrestrials: Where Are They? The title comes from a paradox revealed by pioneering nuclear physicist Enrico Fermi at a Los Alamos luncheon in 1950: "If there are extraterrestrials, where are they?"
Although it predates the Drake Equation, it’s often used as a riposte to it.
"People play enormous games with the Drake Equation. There’s too much guesswork involved," Zuckerman says. He’s a strict empiricist. "The Fermi Paradox is the only substantive argument that’s somewhere between strong and extremely strong," he says.
Tipler and Zuckerman note that crossing the Galaxy can be done at a fraction of light-speed over hundreds of millions of years. Given that our solar system is billions of years younger than many others, shouldn’t someone be at our doorstep?
And even if aliens were ignoring us, after so many years something like Van Neumann machines "would start ripping apart stars and transforming galaxies. We couldn’t miss it," Tipler says. SETI’s Shostak counters that part of awareness is restraint – humans are already controlling their own reproduction rates, and even some insects harvest plants without decimating fields.
Allen Tough, professor emeritus of education at the University of Toronto, has another take on the debate. He’s coordinating a SETI program to welcome extraterrestrial intelligence with an AOL homepage on a gamble that they already are in Earth orbit and surfing the World Wide Web to learn about human culture. Tough also edited the Foundation for the Future’s book When SETI Succeeds, to be released in August.
"In 50 years we’re not only going to have just smart AI, but spiritual and emotional machines," Tough conjectures. "Other biological cultures may have produced such entities long ago and they may be here now." Even if the alien being sees us as goldfish, it will likely be hungrily curious by nature and it would take an infinitesimally small slice of brain space to engage us in conversation, as Tough sees it.
"Why not have a dialogue? This web page is an invitation to the probe to say ‘hello’," Tough says.
Probe? How did even our primitive society miss that one? Does it have something akin to a Romulan cloaking device?
Tough softly laughs that off. "Why would you need to cloak from humans a Mother Ship the size of a blade of grass that’s sitting somewhere in the Asteroid Belt?" Tough asks. His group conceives that flowing from advances in AI will be leaps down into smaller and smaller nanotechnology. The incredibly efficient probes diving into Earth atmosphere could be the size of fleas.
No nanoprobes here?
"I thought I’d heard every argument for ETI (extraterrestrial intelligence), but that’s not one I’ve heard," concedes Zuckerman. But he’s firm in his beliefs. "The safest and most conservative thing to do is talk about people or creatures like people. Even if we developed machines like that, people would love to go see the galaxy for themselves. If we do overcome some of these obstacles, there’s no way to stop people from going out there. But artificial intelligence, Von Neumann machines and nanotechnology – these are things that don’t exist yet. I’ll believe it when I see it."
And so on all sides it's a waiting game. Zuckerman to see humans open the realm of possibility. Shostak for a stray signal and Tough for an Instant Message from destiny.
Some visionaries in the field are already tired of waiting. When reached by telephone at his home in Sri Lanka for this article, Sir Arthur C. Clarke declined comment, saying "I'm bored to death with this subject. I've thought and said everything I can about it."
But maybe an immortal machine would have more patience. If the probes exist, perhaps they have been watching intently and waiting too -- for millennia -- waiting for Earth's thinking machines to be born.