Congress Just Proposed Legislation to Search for Alien Life – How AI Can Overcome the Biggest Obstacle of Our Own Human Bias

Friday, 11 May 2018 - 12:03PM
Technology
Artificial Intelligence
Alien Life
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Friday, 11 May 2018 - 12:03PM
Congress Just Proposed Legislation to Search for Alien Life – How AI Can Overcome the Biggest Obstacle of Our Own Human Bias
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The biggest obstacle to the search for alien life may be humanity's own limited imagination.

When all we know is Earth, how can we conceive of an alien civilization that doesn't look anything like Earth life? Furthermore, how do we search for signals of alien life if we can't even imagine what sorts of signals to look for? Right now, a lot of SETI resources scanning the cosmos for radio waves based on the assumption that alien civilizations will develop along the same lines as ours – which means they'll probably develop radio at some point... But what if they're a collaborative fungus hivemind that uses spores to communicate? Hopefully, this is where AI could help.

Earlier this year, the SETI Institute brought together a diverse group of scientists interested in alien life – including neuroscientists, anthropologists, astronomers, and AI researchers – to participate in the "Decoding Alien Intelligence" conference. At the heart of the discussion was a paper authored by Nathalie Cabrol, called "Alien Mindscapes." The paper points out that the "search for extraterrestrial intelligence" usually ends up being a "[search] for other versions of ourselves." One of the key points of the paper is that most life may start the same way but, as it becomes more complex (and potentially intelligent), the number of different paths it can take become incredibly diverse:

Opening quote
"Taking life's evolution on Earth as a guide, there is likely a universal probabilistic law of evolutionary convergence that is inversely proportional to life's complexity; that is, the simpler life is, the greater chances are that similar life-forms will be abundant throughout the Universe. The more complex life is, the more rare convergence is likely to be."
Closing quote


"Convergence" is the idea that most alien civilizations will end up looking like ours. In all likelihood, however, they're going to be quite different from us – and so will the signals their civilizations send out. Lucianne Walkowicz, however, has a potential solution. Instead of looking for a narrow type of signals (like radio waves), why not train artificial intelligence to scan the universe for all types of signals, then allow it to find any anomalies? This is a bit similar to the idea of "data fusion" in military satellites, in which multiple satellites examine the same area through different methods (like optical, thermal, and radio) and then collate all the disparate information into a single, well-rounded picture that can be understood by humans.

Scanning cosmic signals holistically using AI is the key to what Walkowicz calls "signal agnostic searching," and it may only be possible with the incredible analytic power of AI. This creates an elegant solution to the problem of escaping the biases of the human mind: humans may not be able to adapt their thinking to the utterly alien mindset of an extraterrestrial civilization (and the signals they might be sending), but we can design an artificial mind that can.

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