Despite the naive storylines about interstellar travel in science fiction, biological creatures weren’t picked by Darwinian evolution to survive journeys between the stars. Such a journey would necessarily span many generations, since even at the speed of light it would take tens of thousands of years to travel between stars in the disk of our galaxy and ten times longer through its halo. If we ever come across traces of aliens, it will likely come in the form of technology rather than biology. Technological debris may have accumulated in interstellar space over the past billion years, just as plastic bottles have accumulated on the surface of the ocean. The chance of discovering extraterrestrial technological relics can easily be derived from their Number per volume unit near us instead of the Drake equationwhich applies only to communication signals from living civilizations.
In a recent podcast about my book Extraterrestrials, I was asked whether extraterrestrial intelligence should be expected to follow the rational underpinning of morality, as the German philosopher neatly put it Immanuel Kant. This would worry us during an encounter. Based on human history, I have expressed doubts that morality would bring a global commitment to all intelligent beings in the world Milky Way.
Instead, a code of conduct that enables systems of extraterrestrial technology to use the galaxy would also make it more likely that we would encounter aliens for the first time. In practice, this rule will function as a kind of Darwinian evolution by natural selection, favoring systems that can last for long periods and distances; and multiply quickly and spread at the highest speed with self-repairing mechanisms that reduce damage on their journey. Such systems may by now have reached the habitable zones around all the stars in the Milky Way, including our sun. Most of the stars educated Billions of years ago ours, and technological equipment sent from habitable planets in their vicinity, may have preceded us by enough time to rule the galaxy before we exist as a technological species.
Our own artificial intelligence systems are likely to replace many functions of human intelligence in the next decade. It is therefore reasonable to imagine AI systems connected to 3-D printers that replicate on planetary surfaces and adapt to changing circumstances through machine learning as they travel between planets. They could hibernate during long journeys and turn on near stars using starlight to recharge their energy supplies. With this in mind, it is conceivable that the flat thin structure that could have characterized the interstellar object ‘Oumuamua was meant to collect sunlight and recharge its batteries. The same dish could also have served as a receiver for communication signals from probes already deposited on habitable planets such as Earth or Mars.
And when we talk about such probes – if one or more of the unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP) discussed in the Pentagon report to Congress are potentially extraterrestrial in origin, then scientists have an obligation to decipher their purpose by collecting more data on their behavior . Because of the long time delay of any signals from their place of origin, these objects are likely to act autonomously. How can we tell if an autonomous alien AI system is a friend or an enemy?
First impressions can be misleading, as in the story of the Trojan Horse used by the Greeks to invade the city of Troy and win the Trojan War. Hence, we should first examine the behavior of alien probes to find out what kind of data they are looking for. Second, we should examine how they react to our actions. And since we have no other choice, we should draw their attention in ways that advance our interests.
But most importantly, humanity should avoid sending mixed messages to these probes as it would confuse our interpretation of their response. Any decision on how to act must be coordinated by an international organization such as the United Nations and consistently monitored by all the world’s governments. In particular, it would be wise to invoke a forum made up of our most accomplished experts in computers (to interpret the meaning of any signal we intercept), physics (to understand the physical properties of the systems with which we interact) and put together strategy (to coordinate the best policies to achieve our goals).
Ultimately, we may need to use our own AI to properly interpret the alien AI. The experience will be as humble as relying on our children to understand new content on the internet by admitting that their computer skills are better than ours. The quality of expertise and AI could be more important than physical strength or natural intelligence in determining the outcome of a technological battlefield.
Since we are the smartest species on earth, we have our fate under control so far. This may no longer apply after our encounter with alien AI systems. Hence, technological maturity acquires a sense of urgency for Darwinian survival in the global competition of Milky Way civilizations. Only when we are sufficiently advanced can we overcome threats from alien technological devices. We hope that our AI systems will outsmart the aliens in the galactic race. Just like in the Shootings of the Wild West, the Survivors could be the first to draw a gun without hesitation.
This is an opinion and analysis article; the views of the views Author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.