Saturday, 1 October 2016

Intelligent Machines are Watching Earth

Sending crewed missions to other stars is difficult and expensive. And relying on delicate and unpredictable elements such as biological lifeforms is more often than not going to lead to failure. It would be far better to send artificial 'life' - a synthetic intelligence - that could plan its own observations on arrival, making judgments based on what it finds. It would need none of the messy and error prone life support systems that biological life requires.

When this is considered it does seem to be the most likely means by which an extra-terrestrial civilisation would explore our Solar-System, especially when the huge distances and timeframes are taken into account. It would certainly be the simplest means of exploration. Given the age of the universe there are likely to have been many technologically advanced civilisations that developed long before ours. There is a strong likelihood that we have been observed in the past in this manner, and we could still be under observation now.

An alien interstellar space probe enters orbit around our sun

Such an idea is similar to the concept of a Bracewell Probe, first discussed in 1960. But unlike a Bracewell Probe, which would try to actively contact any technological civilisation that it found, I suspect in reality an alien civilisation would be much more cautious. Their probe would be hidden and undetectable, and it would watch us carefully, recording our transmissions and tracking our activities. It would then transmit its findings back to its home world, making sure such transmissions were undetectable by us.

We should be actively trying to find evidence of such probes.

If such probes are designed to be hard to find, as I would expect them to be, there will be no obvious signs of their existence. We may already have observed them directly without realising it. But the fact that they are artificial and manufactured, and highly technological in nature, will eventually betray their identity. And as they are highly likely to be self-replicating machines, there will be many of them. Once we find one many others are likely to be found soon after.

Alien probes may well be organic in appearance, and hard to identify

How such a probe will react when discovered is unknown. Will it attempt to flee, or self-destruct in a violent manner? I think either is unlikely. I think the following series of events will happen:
  • The probe will alert other probes in its vicinity that it has been compromised.
  • It will transmit to them the data of its observations.
  • The probe will then render itself inoperable, wiping clean it's memory, and even its programming. Its artificial intelligence - its mind - would be rendered inert.
  • The other nearby probes that had been alerted would inform their creators on their home world of what has happened.
  • Those probes would then continue their observations as before.
If that series of events occurred we would still be able to examine the physical construction of the probe, but we would not be able to learn anything about its most important qualities: what it knows, where it comes from, and how it thinks. We would have to find a way of approaching the probe that would not trigger such a suicidal action. To do so we would have to persuade the probe that we are no threat, and to submit willingly to examination.

But how could we possibly learn to communicate with it at all, let alone convince it to cooperate with our requests?

The only way to do that would be to develop an equivalent artificial intelligence of our own. It would have to be close to the complexity of the probe's mind, and flexible enough to adapt rapidly to the probe's responses. Of course, it would have to be a very fast learner of a complex and utterly alien language (the extra-terrestrial probe would also need this ability).

We are a long way from developing such an artificial intelligence, and the current fears of the potential harm such an intelligence could do to our civilisation has the potential to hamper its development. It's a valid fear, but despite that fear such technology needs to be created. The development needs to be very carefully monitored and controlled, of course, if we are to avoid rendering our species irrelevant to superior artificial minds. We could achieve this by developing very specialised artificial intelligences that are only suitable for specific tasks, rather than artificial general intelligence (where the artificial intelligence can perform the same intellectual tasks that humans can), which should be avoided.

But why should artificial general intelligence be avoided?

One idea I find interesting, and a bit unsettling, is that intelligent extra-terrestrial probes may actually be the primary 'life-form' on their home planet. After a civilisation develops an advanced artificial intelligence, that intelligence eventually starts to improve on itself at an ever increasing rate, soon surpassing the intelligence of its creators. Such an event is known as a technological singularity. Soon the creators (the biological life-forms that built the initial artificial intelligence) do not have the ability to even understand the rapidly improving artificial intelligence. Its complexity and ability is beyond their comprehension. The artificial intelligence becomes the dominant 'species' on the planet, and eventually sets out to explore and colonise neighbouring star systems and beyond. Its creators become, at best, second class citizens, or at worst, extinct.

An extra-terrestrial civilisation where artificial intelligence is the dominant life-form

We should certainly push ahead with the development of sophisticated artificial intelligence, but as I stated earlier it should never be given the general intelligence ability of humans. It should be specialised for health care, engineering, exploration, construction or any other specific tasks we require to progress, maintain and expand our biological human civilisation.

And it certainly should be developed to facilitate communication with extra-terrestrial interstellar probes that are quite possibly watching our planet right now.