If we ever encounter aliens, they will resemble AI and not little green martians
I'm an astronomer at the Seti Institute, a nonprofit research organization in California's Silicon Valley. My colleagues and I are looking for extraterrestrial life, including intelligent beings - or, more popularly, extraterrestrials. These are exciting times for people like me as there is now much discussion about extraterrestrial life in the run-up to the highly anticipated Pentagon report on so-called inexplicable aerial phenomena.
However, I must say right away that I do not expect any major revelations from the report. I think the possibility of extraterrestrials being present in our galaxy is overwhelmingly overwhelming. But I don't think they're hanging out in our airspace. Not now and not in historical times.
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Claims that extraterrestrials helped build large, pointed monuments in the Egyptian desert 5,000 years ago are frankly ridiculous. And I don't think videos taken by cameras on marine F-18 Hornets actually show alien ships soaring in the skies over the Pacific. There are more prosaic explanations for these videos: no aliens required.
But in a galaxy where every third star is likely to be home to an Earth-sized planet, it hardly seems possible that our world is the only sport. Which increases the possibility that one day we might get in touch. If that happens, what could the inhabitants of other worlds be like? The question is particularly relevant when - as is so often the case in science fiction - the aliens pay us a visit.
When aliens come to earth, the following scenario would be very different from picking up an alien radio signal or detecting a blinking laser in the sky, with my colleagues and I following the discovery method. The aliens that generate such signals will be light years away, and their looks and intentions wouldn't matter much. But it would be anyone who lands their spacecraft on our territory.
Look at their appearance. Nature has produced a multitude of life forms on earth and would presumably do so wherever multicellular life exists. All people on earth have DNA blueprints and have similarities in molecular composition. Even so, few of our Terrans resemble us. The aliens wouldn't either.
This speaks against the iconic aliens of film and television, those little gray guys who are just modified humans. Their four appendages, their upright posture and the lack of body hair are simple extrapolations of ourselves. Yes, Hollywood offers these beings as inhabitants of distant worlds. But in reality, they're just the guy next door who lacks eyebrows and white in their eyes.
All extraterrestrials that migrate on our planet are probably not carbon-based life forms, neither hairy nor hairless. Your cognitive abilities are likely not powered by a spongy mass of cells that we would call the brain. You will likely have gone beyond biological intelligence and, in fact, beyond biology itself. You will not live.
The reason is a simple consequence of the amazing distances to the stars. Even the closest, Proxima Centauri, is 40 tn miles from Earth. It would take our fastest rockets 75,000 years to reach it. Neither humans nor Klingons are built to withstand such travel.
You may think that the aliens have much faster spaceships. Without a doubt it is possible. But there are natural limits to high-speed missiles. Suppose an alien wants to cover the distance between Proxima Centauri and Earth in 10 years. Your rocket would have to generate 600 m times as much energy as a Saturn V rocket. Double that number if he plans to stop on earth and engage with the locals.
This may sound like an annoying practical matter that can be dismissed by stating that aliens may be far more advanced than we are. And that's easily possible: the universe is three times as old as our solar system, so the galaxy can host societies that are millions or even billions of years ahead of Homo sapiens. Although their technology may be in a different league, the aliens must operate by the same laws of physics. Star Trek and similar scenarios aside, it is extremely difficult to traverse light years in space in less than one life - everyone's life. You can call Scotty in engine room, but he can't help.
Traveling from one solar system to another is incredibly difficult and expensive. However, if you're not in a hurry, the prospects for an interstellar journey will improve significantly. Such leisurely journeys will not appeal to biological passengers who will die long before they reach their destination. Machines, on the other hand, do not complain when they are locked in a spaceship for tens of thousands of years. They don't need food, oxygen, hygiene, or entertainment. And they don't insist on a round-trip ticket.
Artificial intelligence aliens may not be as attractive as those who are warm-blooded and squishy, but we shouldn't hold onto an anthropocentric point of view. Researchers working in AI estimate that by the middle of the century, machines that can beat people on an IQ test will come out of the lab. If we can do it, some aliens will already have.
Hence, it is reasonable to expect that any cosmic intelligence that pays us a visit is synthetic. This rules out any speculation about what the "aliens" will look like. But if it's a machine, who cares?
More important would be his intentions. Most science fiction stories posit that visitors would be harmful and would arrive with the original urge to obliterate Los Angeles or London. Honestly, if that's on their mechanical minds, it's probably impossible to keep them in check. Chimpanzees could not outsmart humans in serious confrontations. Likewise, devices that can make a trip to Earth will have the ability to do anything they want once they get here.
It's a safe bet that any personal alien encounter will be strained. So if alien ships ever settle on the White House lawn, you can hope that everything inside is friendly. If not, there is always negotiation.
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