“Judging by the history of life on Earth and the possible futures we think we can see coming, it is indeed quite possible that most, or effectively all, civilizations in the universe are comprised of machine intelligences,” wrote astrobiologist David Grinspoon in an email to The Daily Galaxy.
“However, it also strikes me that these categorizations we make “biological vs. machine” may be narrow minded artifacts resulting from our perception of our own peculiar time in this planet’s history,” explains Grinspoon. “Just as life on Earth went from microbial to multicellular, in a sense, but life is still predominantly microbial and animal life could not exist without a thriving microbial biosphere within and beyond our bodies, perhaps “machine life” will become an integrated extension of “biological life” to the point where this binary distinction will not describe the future evolution.
A New Kind of Life Evolves
“It seems that the crucial development is from biologically evolving organisms to *designed* machines which may become self-reproducing and evolving, and thus a new kind of life.” Grinspoon concludes his email. “This seems quite plausible to represent a real shift, a break from the past, which may well have counterparts elsewhere in the universe. However, the aftermath of this shift may not be to a wholly new kind of life – machine life – which leaves biology in the dust but, echoing past transitions in the trajectory of Earth’s biosphere, a new kind of hybrid which is very much “alive” and “biological” but also contains designed and self-designed elements. Such entities and their civilizations would not be so much “beyond biology” as they would have taken biology into new realms of life-machine symbiosis which we can scarcely imagine.”
AI — “They Could Be Just About Anywhere”
“We’ve always envisioned extraterrestrials as slightly different versions of ourselves,” SETI Institute astronomer, Seth Shostak told The Daily Galaxy. “But this is probably as silly as trilobites imagining that aliens would all be bilaterally symmetric creatures, living at the bottom of the ocean. The 21th century will be remembered as that moment in hominid evolution when we designed and built our own successors – generalized, artificial intelligence. Surely this is the path that advanced beings have taken elsewhere. And unlike their soft-and-squishy ancestors, thinking machines are not restricted to ‘habitable worlds’. They could be just about anywhere.”
“An Evolutionary Moving Target”
Earth’s current technological civilization is a model for alien-planet evolution, observed Shostak “But having now looked for signals for 50 years, we are going through a process of realizing the way our technology is advancing is probably a good indicator of how other civilizations – if they’re out there – would’ve progressed. Certainly what we’re looking at out there is an evolutionary moving target, If AI-powered machines evolved, we would be more likely to spot signals from them than from the “biological” life that invented them,” he added.
“But maybe it takes to 2100, or 2150, or 2250. It doesn’t matter,” Shostak said during a presentation at the Dent:Space conference in San Francisco in 2016 about the time-frame Earth-based singularity might occur. “The point is, any society that invents radio, so we can hear them, within a few centuries, they’ve invented their successors. And I think that’s important, because the successors are machines.”
Shostak has suggested that artificially intelligent alien life would be likely to migrate to places where both matter and energy – the only things he says would be of interest to the machines – would be in plentiful supply. That means the search may need to focus its attention near hot, young stars or even near the centers of galaxies.
Target –Hot stars, Black Holes and Neutron stars
“I think we could spend at least a few percent of our time… looking in the directions that are maybe not the most attractive in terms of biological intelligence but maybe where sentient machines are hanging out.” Shostak thinks SETI ought to consider expanding its search to the energy- and matter-rich neighborhoods of hot stars, black holes and neutron stars.
Data centers like this generate a lot of heat, and keeping them cool is a major challenge for modern computing. Intelligent computers would likely seek out a low-temperature habitat. Bok globules (image at top of page) are another search target for sentient machines. These dense regions of dust and gas are notorious for producing multiple-star systems. At around negative 441 degrees Fahrenheit, they are about 160 degrees F colder than most of interstellar space.
This climate could be a major draw because thermodynamics implies that machinery will be more efficient in cool regions that can function as a large “heat sink”. A Bok globule’s super-cooled environment might represent the Goldilocks Zone for the AI powered machines, said Shostak. But because black holes and Bok globules are not hospitable to life as we know it, they are not on SETI’s prime target list.
“Machines have different needs,” he says. “They have no obvious limits to the length of their existence, and consequently could easily dominate the intelligence of the cosmos. In particular, since they can evolve on timescales far, far shorter than biological evolution, it could very well be that the first machines on the scene thoroughly dominate the intelligence in the galaxy. It’s a “winner take all” scenario.”
The biggest and obviously unknown question about the evolution of machine life is whether the AI goes on to become conscious –the ultimate unintended consequence.
Image credit: Bok Globules in the Rosette Nebula NGC2237