Is AI More Common Than Biological Intelligence Across the Universe?

By Malcolm MacIver | August 31, 2010 6:04 pm

In a recent article, Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) astronomer Seth Shostak makes an intriguing claim: SETI should start pointing its telescopes toward corners of the known universe that would be friendly not just to intelligent aliens but to artificial alien intelligence. The basis of his suggestion is that any form of life intelligent enough to generate the kinds of radio signals that SETI is looking for would be “quickly” superseded by an artificial intelligence of their creation. Here, going on our own rate of progress toward AI, Shostak suggests that this radio-to-AI delay is a small handful of centuries.

These artificial intelligences, not likely to have had the “nostalgia module” installed, may quickly flee the home planet like a teenager trying to pretend it isn’t related to its parents. If nothing else, they will likely need to do this to find further resources such as materials and energy. Where would they want to go? Shostak speculates they may go to places where large amounts of energy can be obtained, such as near large stars or black holes.

Alien's harvesting the energy of a star for a worm hole
Stephen Hawking imagines aliens covering stars with mirrors
to generate enough power for worm holes

Stephen Hawking has suggested one reason to go to high-energy regions would be to make worm holes through space-time to travel vast distances quickly. These areas are not hospitable to life as we know it, and so are not currently the target of SETI’s telescopes searching for signals of such life.

In the same article, Shostak also makes the argument that since biological intelligence is a short stepping stone to artificial intelligence, “the majority of the intelligence in the universe could well be artificial intelligence.” There’s clearly a missing premise here, which is that biological intelligence means an intelligence that invents radio or TV, or more broadly speaking, technology. But this is clearly false. From cuttlefish to corvids, the scientific evidence for high levels of intelligence in non-human animals is rapidly accumulating. At the moment, it’s not even clear that the invention of technology will be good for us as a species: an analysis of nine planetary boundaries within which human life can flourish shows that we are now transgressing three of these. Given that life has flourished for billions of years, for this to happen with just a few thousand years of agriculture and a few hundred years of industrialization shows that the step from advanced technology to artificially intelligent descendants roaming the galaxies is not one to be taken for granted.

In any event, given we can’t look everywhere, should thoughts about AI inform where we look? I don’t think so. First, based on our very limited experience, only Homo sapiens, just one of tens of millions of species of life on Earth, have developed technology. Were it not for our species, it’s unclear whether technology would ever have come about on Earth. Second, it’s far from obvious that our species will have the maturity to survive the power of our achievements for more than a blink of evolutionary time–the development of AI that leaves this planet, or at the very least serious efforts toward space colonies, is probably our best hope for long term survival–but we may not get there. Perhaps the situation is no different for other forms of life that have developed technology. They will have all emerged from a Darwinian primordial soup, a soup where certain vicious and short-sighted traits will have been essential to survival. Third, it would probably be both more successful and more scientifically useful to adjust our search strategy to improve the chances for finding extraterrestrial life, rather than intelligence.

My personal favorite for such a tweak to our search strategy is to look for places that have the hallmarks of increasing entropy. All forms of life take in energy that has some degree of entropy and re-emits it with increased entropy, such as heat. For our biosphere, we absorb sunlight and reflect heat, which appears as a “red edge” in the spectrum of reflected energy. The same, incidentally, seems likely to be true of artificial intelligence: it will require energy such as electric power, which will be radiated at higher entropy, such as the heat of integrated circuits. Sean Carroll has written an excellent explanation of the red edge in one of his postings over at Cosmic Variance. If we build better red edge detectors, we will both improve our chances of finding the much more common non-technologically savvy forms of life in the universe, and as an added side benefit, we might just detect the much rarer roaming AIs out there — although, as Hawking suggests, we may want to avoid hailing them down for coffee.

Image from Stephen Hawking’s Universe, “Fear the Aliens”


Comments (12)

Links to this Post

  1. Aggregate Supply « destructural | September 2, 2010
  2. Stranger than fiction » Systemic Babble | September 6, 2010
  1. Recommend the sci fi book Spin

  2. It’s an interesting idea, but us trying to predict the actions of an intelligence (artificial or otherwise) that is beyond us is kind of like that old saying about how a writer can write about any character except a writer better than he is. Probably best to make assumptions based on what we know from our N of 1

  3. Miles

    Depends on your goal. If you want to observe life on other planets, then searching for a red edge may be the best bet. If you want to communicate with aliens via radio, well, I don’t think we’ll be talking with any aliens that haven’t developed radio technology. And if alien species ever do contact each other over long distance radio, it seems a safe bet that neither species will be in the short window of time between developing large radio devices and AI more advanced than itself. Using ourselves as the metric, on the high end that window might be a few thousand years compared to billions of years to evolve radio technology. I’d go as far as to say that if inter-solar contact between independently evolved life is common in the observable universe, then almost all of that is between “artificial” life forms.

  4. What you are missing is that AI is indistinguishable. In other words, unlike humans, AI can merge and therefore is one big mind. If two AI meet, they can commune, and thus fill the universe. Wouldn’t “it” be very very interested in how it was “born,” and thus try to recreate the circumstance of it’s birth repeatedly as a self-discovery experiment? Thus, all it has to do is be “born” once, but it would very likely repeat that evolution experience from biological to mechanical mind across the universe. Who knows, maybe human’s “purpose” is to create AI?

  5. exegetical

    I would strongly challenge your assumption of “the much rarer roaming AIs out there”.

    It seems very plausible that if even just one natural life form is able to achieve the technological developments needed to produce a “roaming AI” able to exploit natural resources, that we may find artificial life to be much more common than natural life.

    Mr. Shostak is correct to point out the cognitive biases of his human colleagues at SETI in looking for life in the Universe.

  6. When you are suggesting SETI adjust their search to look for ‘life’ instead of ‘intelligence’, you are missing the key fact that SETI requires the reception of radio waves. We can’t search for ‘cuttlefish’ near Star X with SETI because cuttlefish don’t create radio waves for us to receive. We would have to actually ‘go’ there to find the life (at least with our current SETI technology). SETI is basically taking a HUGE shortcut to finding life by using the basic assumption that advanced life will create radio waves like we do; and we can do that relatively cheaply by ‘listening’.

  7. david martindale

    so long as its not the borg

  8. I think that we have to get stronger in terms of technology, i think intelligence life out there it’s possible but rare i also think that we should listen Steven Hawking as he says: WE May Want To Avoid Hailing Them Down For Coffee and learn how to be listeners ONLY.

  9. I know Stephen Hawking has me by about 30 IQ points, regardless I have to disagree with his latest theory.

  10. Malcolm MacIver

    exegetical: let’s say one AI develops (surely it has somewhere in the universe!), and that it has a desire to expand. Your interesting feedback raises the question of how rapidly this AI will grow, and how to quantify its prevalence. Let’s say it grows exponentially. Such growth, the same as bacterial growth under optimal conditions, proceeds until resources are exhausted, and then slows (or, collapses, depending on how rapidly the exhaustion occurs) to match the rate of resource acquisition. How rapidly this occurs all depends on how resource rich the locality of the AI is, and how fast they can travel to new resources. Let’s suppose that this exhaustion doesn’t occur until 100 trillion of these AIs exist. This assumes they can be individuated. Our own individuation seems easy enough: one envelope of squishy stuff (each strange in his own leather body, as Marge Piercy wrote in her poem “Simple Song”), per individual. And, based on reproduction, we can say we are one species. It’s unclear how we might count future AI instances. But putting that to the side, do we count instances, or something else (clearly, species won’t be a useful concept for AI), for quantifying prevalence? Which form of counting matters here?

    Despite the liklihood of at least one, and possibly more, forms of AI in the universe, searching for something is going to be successful in proportion to how widespread it is. To be specific, let’s quantify this by probability of occupation within one cubic parsec (a parsec is a bit over 3 lightyears). So what has higher probability per cubic parsec, AI or life? Even with exponential growth patterns of extant AIs up to resource depletion, their reach is going to be limited by how fast they can travel. On the other hand, the basic dead star material forming planets pervades the known universe. Work on the origin of life suggests that these materials, with the right planetary conditions, can form simple amino acid chains which may be the precursors to living things. It’s all very hand wavy and not well grounded by fact, but in my opinion, the pervasiveness of the right constituents for life to evolve throughout the universe tilts things toward a higher probability per parsec of life over AI.

    J.R.: That’s true, SETI depends upon radio waves. In suggesting we tweak our search strategy, I was not suggesting we tweak our radio wave listening strategies: rather, that we move away from that strategy toward others, such as detection of extra-solar planets and detection of red edges.


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