Sign in

From Musings:

Where Are Our Alien Friends?

Saturday, May 9 2009 UTC

In an age when the dizzying progress of science and technology is pushing our world onto progressively gnarlier trajectories, do you ever wonder where exactly it’s going to lead us?

The two questions in science which interest me the most are perhaps not even scientific: (1) is there anybody else out there? (“Where Are Our Alien Friends?”) and (2) can one make a machine which thinks and communicates 'like we do’?

It occurred to me this morning, while reading about Eurisko, that maybe the two questions are related.

Space is so big, and things like spacecraft and light travel so slowly, that most astronomy consists of looking back in time and our chances of physically going to distant places in our Universe are pretty slim. No evidence in physics for faster-than-light travel has surfaced and, in fact, one thing you learn early on when studying physics is that if anything could travel that fast, it could violate causality, introduce time travel, and all sorts of nasty contradictions would ensue. My suspicion is that “warp drive” is not in the picture, for anyone.

And, if someone 'out there’ did solve the problem, where are they? Why do we see no evidence of them? (Never mind the fact that, between Dark Matter and Dark Energy, we can only 'see’ a very small fraction of the matter/energy in the Universe — the rest of existence is still pretty murky territory for us.) One possibility, of course, is that some intelligent civilizations blow themselves up with nukes, or bioweapons, or…., which is certainly an option for us as well. But do all civilizations come to such an end?

Which brings me to the second question, that of Artificial Intelligence… not just AI, but also the question of what happens when our nascent abilities to alter our own form and that of other organisms mature.

My work keeps me so steeped in computer technology that it can be hard to see how fast things evolve (just as a parent who lives with her children may not see their rapid growth as clearly as occasionally-visiting grandparents do), but as someone who was born to the sound of shuffling punch cards and the chirring of mainframes (Dad worked at IBM and my brother and I used to make flip-books out of the punch cards he brought home), I occasionally look back with slight sense of vertigo at how far we’ve come in my own lifetime. I am not as close to biology as to the physical sciences, but I understand things are moving even faster there.

Trends ranging from 3D graphics in games and other virtual worlds, to virtualization of computer systems inside of large (and small) data centers, to robotics, prosthetics, stem cell research, and so on make me wonder if the Final Frontier for any intelligence is not the physical exploration of space but the transformation from organic/biological to informational entities. If it takes too long to travel to other worlds, why not just make them, and live in them?

This brings me to my final, and ultimately wholly speculative question — what is the ultimate fate of consciousness in a world where the vehicle of consciousness can be transformed at will? Will consciousness remain (seemingly) separate, as it is in humans (and animals…?), or will it merge into One Consciousness? One sees hints of this not just in Buddhism but in other (many? most?) religions. The mind can be trained (or untrained?) to experience the world in such a way that distinctions betweeen 'self’ and 'other’ grow transparent and fall away. I wonder, then, if civilizations which self-transform to progressively newer and richer states of virtual experience, ultimately demonstrate collectively that which some human individuals have gotten glimpses of throughout history. Perhaps the fates of other civilizations among the stars have already taken them to that ultimate place… and when we arrive there, we will recognize them as ourselves.

Followup: this presentation by Phillip Rosedale at TED touches on the connection between exploration of outer space and virtual worlds. Oddly, I saw this video just a few days after writing the above.

Second followup: am reading Kurtzweil’s “Approaching the Singularity” which sweeps across some of this territory as well.