Documenting the Coming Singularity

Monday, August 23, 2010

Looking for ET in all the wrong places

We've all heard of SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. We're talking here about a search that utilizes the scientific method and that began, in a sense, with the discovery of radio. As far back as 1896 Nikola Tesla spoke about the possibility of using radio to make contact with intelligent life on other worlds.

This article by Jason Palmer, writing for BBC News, highlights the suggestion by an experienced astronomer that we may have been looking in the wrong places, for the wrong kind of intelligent life.

Writing in Acta Astronautica, he says that the odds favour detecting such alien AI rather than "biological" life.

Many involved in Seti have long argued that nature may have solved the problem of life using different designs or chemicals, suggesting extraterrestrials would not only not look like us, but that they would not at a biological level even work like us.

However, Seti searchers have mostly still worked under the assumption - as a starting point for a search of the entire cosmos - that ETs would be "alive" in the sense that we know.

That has led to a hunt for life that is bound to follow at least some rules of biochemistry, live for a finite period of time, procreate, and above all be subject to the processes of evolution.

But Dr Shostak makes the point that while evolution can take a large amount of time to develop beings capable of communicating beyond their own planet, technology would already be advancing fast enough to eclipse the species that wrought it.

"If you look at the timescales for the development of technology, at some point you invent radio and then you go on the air and then we have a chance of finding you," he told BBC News.

"But within a few hundred years of inventing radio - at least if we're any example - you invent thinking machines; we're probably going to do that in this century.

"So you've invented your successors and only for a few hundred years are you... a 'biological' intelligence."

From a probability point of view, if such thinking machines ever evolved, we would be more likely to spot signals from them than from the "biological" life that invented them.

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