The Search for Life Not as We Know It

Advanced Alien Life


NASA’s mantra is that we should be open to search for life not as we know it.  Arik Kershenbaum at the University of Cambridge and author of The Zoologists Guide to The Galaxy believes that “the bizarre and the unexpected – aliens made of gas, or with properties and abilities we’ve never dreamed of – are always possible, but they will always be rare.” 

“Most life in the galaxy,”  Kershenbaum wrote in an email to The Daily Galaxy, “will have evolved according to the simple and reproducible laws of physics and biology. For example, they will have well defined boundaries, because life in its essence involves containing and making use of energy. They will have offspring, because without reproduction, gradual change by natural selection can’t occur. But most importantly, complex life will live in complex ecosystems. 

“There is no reason for complex life to exist at all,”  Kershenbaum continued, “unless it has to deal with complex problems, and live in a complex environment. Everything from tardigrades to whales, and their alien equivalents, only have such complexity because of their complex interactions with other organisms (mostly, feeding on other creatures, and avoiding becoming their food in turn). So while surprises always await us on other planets, when we do find extraterrestrial life, the chances are it will be more recognizable than we expect.”

Four billion years ago, the first primordial organisms emerged, eventually evolving into today’s complex web of life of which the human species with our destructive impact on the biosphere is playing what perhaps may prove to be a fleeting role. Or, we may not even be at the halfway stage, where in a posthuman future our evolution could extend billions of years.

Earth-like Organic Intelligence as an Interlude

If Darwinian evolution has occurred on a planet orbiting a star older than the Sun, life could have had a head start of a billion years or more where Earth-like organic intelligence was just a brief interlude before machines learned to replicate and take over.

These ‘alien brains’ may package reality in a fashion that we can’t conceive. Where ET might be a single integrated intelligence. Even if signals were being transmitted, we may not recognize them as artificial because we may not know how to decode them. How could we tell whether a signal is intended as a message or ‘leakage’?


Alien Mindscapes

In 2017, astrobiologist Nathalie Cabrol, Director of the Carl Sagan Center at the SETI Institute, held a workshop titled “Decoding Alien Intelligence”, organized around Cabrol’s 2016 paper, “Alien Mindscapes” which challenged SETI to pursue “the search for life as we do not know it.”

A challenge that the workshop confronted is the tendency to hold assumptions or expectations about what we might find. Cabrol’s paper suggests we could be missing something: that the “search for extraterrestrial intelligence” usually ends up being a “search for other versions of ourselves.”

Searching for other versions of ourselves, says Cabrol, makes perfect sense as a starting point. After all, this is the only model of life we know, and a model that has been proven on our planet. Such an exploration strategy is further vindicated by the fact that the basic elements of life as we know it are common in the universe, and habitable environments for life as we know them seem plentiful.

Complex Life does not Necessarily Mean Technologically Advanced Life

The Kepler mission and ground-based data suggest that there could be as many as 40 billion Earth-like planets in our galaxy alone, 25% of them around Sun-like stars. Other models suggest that there could be up to 700 trillion planets in the universe, but the vast majority would be far older than Earth. A Biological Complexity Index, proposes the existence of about ∼100 million planets in the Milky Way where complex life could have evolved. However, as they note, complex life does not necessarily mean technologically advanced life.

Darwin’s Dice –“Origin of Life was Non-Biological”

Beyond an Earth-centric Perspective

The evolutionary pathways that lead to complex life on Earth, observes Cabrol, strongly suggest that advanced life as we know it may be rare in the universe and unlikely to be in a state of advancement that is temporally in sync with us. However, that does not mean that other types of advanced intelligences are as rare. Limiting our search to something we know and can comprehend leaves no room for an epistemological and scientific foundation to explore alternate hypotheses. To find ET, we must expand our minds beyond a deeply rooted Earth-centric perspective and reevaluate concepts that are taken for granted.

Cabrol suggests that we try to access unknown concepts and archetypes that are literally alien to us (not part of our own evolutionary heritage) through imagination and discourse. This is what science fiction attempts to do in its depictions of alien worlds and civilizations. Not surprisingly, this process results in more or less elaborate versions of ourselves, since these representations are generated by neural systems wired to our own planetary environment. To conceptualize a different type of life, we have to step out of our brains.

Most advanced alien species will likely have developed forms of communication completely unrecognizable to us.

AI Might Decipher the Inexplicable

One way of cutting through human-centric bias is through the use of AI. Graham Mackintosh, a NASA AI consultant, says that extraterrestrials might be doing things we can’t even imagine, using technologies so different we don’t even think to look for them. AI, he proposed, might be able to do that advanced thinking for us.

 “We may not be able to make ourselves smarter, but perhaps,” Mackintosh suggested, “we can make machines that are smarter for us.”

Could Artificial Intelligence Be Billions of Years Old?

Enter Frontier Development Lab

The SETI Institute, in partnership with NASA, Intel, IBM, Google Cloud, Microsoft, Trillium Technologies and others, organized an accelerated research and development program called the Frontier Development Lab, with the aim of applying AI technologies to the challenges of space exploration. While there is incredible promise in the use of AI in the realm of planetary defense, such as asteroid detection and solar storm modeling, there may be rich potential in its applications for understanding alien communications.

Although there is plenty of habitable real estate out there, “habitable” is not the same as “inhabited,” says Arizona State University Regents Professor and noted cosmologist Paul Davies. Because nobody knows how non-life transitioned to life on Earth, it is impossible to estimate the odds of it springing forth elsewhere in the universe.

Artificial Intelligence of the Future Could Reveal the Incomprehensible

In its most advanced forms, says Arizona State University Regents Professor Paul Davies,. life may exists in forms beyond matter as we know it. That it might have no fixed size or shape; have no well-defined boundaries. Is dynamical on all scales of space and time. Or, conversely, does not appear to do anything at all that we can discern. Does not consist of discrete, separate things; but rather it is a system, or a subtle higher-level correlation of things.

Are matter and information, Davies asks, all there is? Five hundred years ago, Davies observes, “the very concept of a device manipulating information, or software, would have been incomprehensible. Might there be a still higher level, as yet outside all human experience, that organizes electrons?

If so, this “third level” would never be manifest through observations made at the informational level, still less at the matter level.

We should be open to the distinct possibility that advanced alien technology a billion years old may operate at the third, or perhaps even a fourth or fifth level -all of which are totally incomprehensible to the human mind at our current state of evolution in 2018.

Perhaps we’ll one day find evidence of alien intelligence—or even (though this is less likely) ‘plug in’ to some cosmic mind, says astrophysicist Martin Rees. On the other hand, he concludes, “our Earth may be unique and the searches may fail. This would disappoint the searchers. But it would have an upside for humanity’s long-term resonance. Our solar system is barely middle-aged, and if humans avoid self-destruction within the next century, the posthuman era beckons. Intelligence from Earth could spread through the entire galaxy, evolving into a teeming complexity far beyond what we can even conceive. If so, our tiny planet—this pale blue dot floating in space—could be the most important place in the entire cosmos.”

The Last Word

“I wouldn´t go quite as far as Paul Davies or Caleb Scharf, but I also do think that we should expect the unexpected and try very hard to NOT be constrained by Earth-centric thinking and the one type of life we experience on our planet,” Dirk Schulze-Makuch, Professor for Astrobiology and Planetary Habitability at Technical University Berlin, and co-author of Life in the Universe, told The Daily Galaxy.

Image credit: Alexander Mozymov, Shutterstock

Avi Shporer, Research Scientist, with the MIT Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research via Arik Kershenbaum, On Our Future and Alien Mindscapes—A Perspective on the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence

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