Humans May Have One Thing that Advanced Aliens Don’t: Consciousness


It May Not Feel Like Anything To Be an Alien

Susan Schneider writes: Humans are probably not the greatest intelligences in the universe. Earth is a relatively young planet and the oldest civilizations could be billions of years older than us. But even on Earth, Homo sapiens may not be the most intelligent species for that much longer.

“Why would nonconscious machines have the same value we place on biological intelligence?”

The world Go, chess, and Jeopardy champions are now all AIs. AI is projected to outmode many human professions within the next few decades. And given the rapid pace of its development, AI may soon advance to artificial general intelligence—intelligence that, like human intelligence, can combine insights from different topic areas and display flexibility and common sense. From there it is a short leap to superintelligent AI, which is smarter than humans in every respect, even those that now seem firmly in the human domain, such as scientific reasoning and social skills. Each of us alive today may be one of the last rungs on the evolutionary ladder that leads from the first living cell to synthetic intelligence.

What we are only beginning to realize is that these two forms of superhuman intelligence—alien and artificial—may not be so distinct. The technological developments we are witnessing today may have all happened before, elsewhere in the universe. The transition from biological to synthetic intelligence may be a general pattern, instantiated over and over, throughout the cosmos. The universe’s greatest intelligences may be postbiological, having grown out of civilizations that were once biological. (This is a view I share with Paul Davies, Steven Dick, Martin Rees, and Seth Shostak, among others.) To judge from the human experience—the only example we have—the transition from biological to postbiological may take only a few hundred years.

AI robot Ava in the film Ex Machina. Photograph: Allstar/FILM4/Sportsphoto Ltd./Allstar

I prefer the term “postbiological” to “artificial” because the contrast between biological and synthetic is not very sharp. Consider a biological mind that achieves superintelligence through purely biological enhancements, such as nanotechnologically enhanced neural minicolumns. This creature would be postbiological, although perhaps many wouldn’t call it an “AI.” Or consider a computronium that is built out of purely biological materials, like the Cylon Raider in the reimagined Battlestar Galactica TV series.

The key point is that there is no reason to expect humans to be the highest form of intelligence there is. Our brains evolved for specific environments and are greatly constrained by chemistry and historical contingencies. But technology has opened up a vast design space, offering new materials and modes of operation, as well as new ways to explore that space at a rate much faster than traditional biological evolution. And I think we already see reasons why synthetic intelligence will outperform us.

Silicon microchips already seem to be a better medium for information processing than groups of neurons. Neurons reach a peak speed of about 200 hertz, compared to gigahertz for the transistors in current microprocessors. Although the human brain is still far more intelligent than a computer, machines have almost unlimited room for improvement. It may not be long before they can be engineered to match or even exceed the intelligence of the human brain through reverse-engineering the brain and improving upon its algorithms, or through some combination of reverse engineering and judicious algorithms that aren’t based on the workings of the human brain.


In addition, an AI can be downloaded to multiple locations at once, is easily backed up and modified, and can survive under conditions that biological life has trouble with, including interstellar travel. Our measly brains are limited by cranial volume and metabolism; superintelligent AI, in stark contrast, could extend its reach across the Internet and even set up a Galaxy-wide computronium, utilizing all the matter within our galaxy to maximize computations. There is simply no contest. Superintelligent AI would be far more durable than us.

[Read the full story here, at Cosmos on Nautilus]

Suppose I am right. Suppose that intelligent life out there is postbiological. What should we make of this? Here, current debates over AI on Earth are telling. Two of the main points of contention—the so-called control problem and the nature of subjective experience—affect our understanding of what other alien civilizations may be like, and what they may do to us when we finally meet.

Illustration by Norwegian cartoonist and illustrator, Kristian Hammerstad, from “Rise of the Robots,” a New York Times Sunday Book Review article, May 11, 2015.

Illustration by Kristian Hammerstad

Ray Kurzweil takes an optimistic view of the postbiological phase of evolution, suggesting that humanity will merge with machines, reaching a magnificent technotopia. But Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates, Elon Musk, and others have expressed the concern that humans could lose control of superintelligent AI, as it can rewrite its own programming and outthink any control measures that we build in. This has been called the “control problem”—the problem of how we can control an AI that is both inscrutable and vastly intellectually superior to us.

Superintelligent AI could be developed during a technological singularity, an abrupt transition when ever-more-rapid technological advances—especially an intelligence explosion—slip beyond our ability to predict or understand. But even if such an intelligence arises in less dramatic fashion, there may be no way for us to predict or control its goals. Even if we could decide on what moral principles to build into our machines, moral programming is difficult to specify in a foolproof way, and such programming could be rewritten by a superintelligence in any case. A clever machine could bypass safeguards, such as kill switches, and could potentially pose an existential threat to biological life. Millions of dollars are pouring into organizations devoted to AI safety. Some of the finest minds in computer science are working on this problem. They will hopefully create safe systems, but many worry that the control problem is insurmountable.

In light of this, contact with an alien intelligence may be even more dangerous than we think. Biological aliens might well be hostile, but an extraterrestrial AI could pose an even greater risk. It may have goals that conflict with those of biological life, have at its disposal vastly superior intellectual abilities, and be far more durable than biological life.

That argues for caution with so-called Active SETI, in which we do not just passively listen for signals from other civilizations, but deliberately advertise our presence. In the most famous example, in 1974 Frank Drake and Carl Sagan used the giant dish-telescope in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, to send a message to a star cluster. Advocates of Active SETI hold that, instead of just passively listening for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence, we should be using our most powerful radio transmitters, such as Arecibo, to send messages in the direction of the stars that are nearest to Earth…(read more)

Source: Cosmos on Nautilus

Susan Schneider is an associate professor of philosophy and cognitive science at the University of Connecticut and an affiliated faculty member at the Institute for Advanced Study, the Center of Theological Inquiry, YHouse, and the Ethics and Technology Group at Yale’s Interdisciplinary Center of Bioethics. She has written several books, including Science Fiction and Philosophy: From Time Travel to Superintelligence. For more information, visit


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