What's on an Alien Mind

If and when we finally encounter aliens, it’s likely they won’t be biological creatures at all, but rather, advanced robots that outstrip our intelligence in every conceivable way.

Our culture has long depicted aliens as 'little green men' with pointy chins, big eyes, and large heads. Until now, SETI (search for extraterrestrial life) programs have usually focused on biological life. So where does the idea come from, that most intelligent alien civilizations will have members that are superintelligent AI?

Once a society creates the technology that could put it in touch with the cosmos, they are only a few hundred years away from changing their own paradigm from biology to AI. This 'short window' makes it more likely that the aliens we encounter would be postbiological.

We are already immersed in digital technology, such as cell-phones and laptop computers. It's a matter of time before sophisticated internet connections are wired directly into our brains. Indeed, implants for Parkinson’s are already in use, and eventually, devices will be developed to enhance normal brain functioning, rather than for medical purposes.

If civilizations are millions or billions of years older than us, many would be vastly more intelligent than we are. By our standards, many would be superintelligent. But would they be forms of superintelligent AI or would they be biological? Even if they were biological, merely having biological brain enhancements, their superintelligence would be reached by artificial means, and we could regard them as being “artificial intelligence.”

Of course, the human brain is far more intelligent than any modern computer. But intelligent machines can in principle be constructed by reverse engineering the brain, and improving upon its algorithms. They may not even be carbon-based, allowing them to survive under a variety of conditions that carbon-based life forms cannot.

In addition, silicon appears to be a better medium for information processing than the brain itself. Neurons reach a peak speed of about 200 Hz, which is seven orders of magnitude slower than current microprocessors. Human brains are limited by cranial volume and metabolism, but computers can occupy entire buildings or cities, and can even be remotely connected across the globe. Creatures that are silicon-based, rather than biologically based, are more likely to endure space travel, having durable systems that are practically immortal, so they may be the kind of the creatures we first encounter.

If intelligence is the ability to process information, consciousness has to do with being aware of the environment and different situations in different times or places, as well as our personal experience of the role we play in them. An alien AI could solve problems that even the brightest humans are unable to solve, but still, if being made of a nonbiological substrate, would their information processing feel like being aware, like consciousness? Or is the capacity to be conscious unique to biological, carbon-based, organisms?

The jury’s still out on whether any artificial intelligence is capable of self-awareness. Simply put, we know so little about the neurological basis for consciousness, it’s almost impossible to predict what ingredients might go into replicating it artificially. The assertion that artificial life simply can’t possess consciousness, however, seems to be losing ground.

While there are many ways superintelligence can be built, a number of alien civilizations may develop superintelligence from uploading biological brains or other forms of reverse engineering, something called a Biologically-Inspired Superintelligent Alien or 'BISA'. Although BISAs are inspired by the brains of the original species where its superintelligence is derived from, a BISA’s algorithms may depart from those of their biological model at any point.

BISAs are of particular interest in the context of alien superintelligence as they might be the most common form of alien superintelligence out there. While a given superintelligence could be so advanced that we cannot understand any of its computations whatsoever, it may also be that a creature with superior processing power still basically makes sense to us, and that there might be ways to communicate with it.
(January 2016)

AI robot