Intelligence in the Cosmos

Flesh or Machine?
"The reasonable probability is that any extraterrestrial intelligence we will detect will be machine intelligence, not biological intelligence like us" says Seth Shostak, who works for the SETI Institute.

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.
 
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).

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.

Kemo D. (a.k.a. no.7)
 
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