SETI Could Find Super-Intelligent Robots, Warns Astronomer Royal

British cosmologist and astrophysicist Martin Rees believes that machines powered by Artificial Intelligence (AI) will inherit the Earth – and the stars. He is also persuaded that advanced aliens could be inconceivably different from life as we know it, as different from us as we are from a bacterium.

Rees, also known as Lord Rees of Ludlow, Astronomer Royal since 1995, is a top scientist who often publishes clear and simple opinion pieces on the big issues and questions of our times. Writing in The Financial Times, he explains that our civilization is likely to evolve into a post-biological civilization of thinking machines way smarter than us.

“Humans and all they have thought might be a transient precursor to the deeper cogitations of another culture,” says Rees. “One dominated by machines, extending deep into the future and spreading far beyond earth.”

Interplanetary and interstellar space will be the preferred arena for the grand constructions of robotic fabricators, including the non-biological brains that might one day develop insights as far beyond our imaginings as string theory is for a monkey.

If life is widespread, worlds orbiting stars older than the sun could have had a head-start. If so, Rees explains, alien civilizations that originated in those worlds are likely long ago to have transitioned beyond the organic stage.

The “Earth 2.0” announced yesterday by NASA – Kepler 452b – orbits a star 1.5 billion years older than the sun. Therefore, according to Rees, an alien civilization out there is probably a machine civilization.

Signals Could Come From Super-Intelligent Computers

Martin Rees at the Breakthrough Initiatives announcementRees (in the picture) participated in the event at The Royal Society in London where Russian billionaire Yuri Milner announced the lavishly funded Breakthrough Initiatives for SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence).

“We should surely acclaim the Breakthrough Initiative’s major investment,” says Rees in The Guardian. “This will secure time on the world’s best radio telescopes and develop instruments to scan the sky in a far more comprehensive and sustained fashion than ever before.”

But advanced intelligences out there could be very different from from us. “Seemingly artificial signals could come from super-intelligent (though not necessarily conscious) computers, created by a race of alien beings that had already died,” warns Rees.

Real aliens could be very different from the anthropomorphized aliens of naive science fiction. They could be much more similar, for example, to the incomprehensible aliens described by Stanisław Lem in “The Invincible” and “Solaris” – beings whose consciousness is so different from ours that no understanding is possible. In Lem’s “His Master’s Voice,” SETI scientists receive a message that, despite promising initial attempts to decipher it, eventually eludes understanding.

Even if intelligence were widespread in the cosmos, we may only ever recognize a small and atypical fraction of it. “The only type of intelligence we could detect would be the (perhaps small) subset that used a technology attuned to our own parochial concepts,” says Rees.

Some ‘brains’ may package reality in a fashion that we can’t conceive.

Images from Breakthrough Initiatives and Wikimedia Commons.

Giulio Prisco is a freelance writer specialized in science, technology, business and future studies.