Researchers working on Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) efforts hunt for the same thing that their predecessors sought for decades—a sign that life arose, as Carl Sagan would say, on another humdrum planet around another humdrum star and rose up into something technologically advanced.
It could happen any day. A strange radio signal. A weird, brief flash in the night sky. A curiously behaving star with no natural explanation.
It could be anything, so SETI researchers are casting a wide net, tracking down as many promising leads as they can. But one thing they’ve started to realize is that if a civilization from another world follows a similar path to our own, then we may be dealing with a whole different form of brainpower. Not a little green person, Vulcan, or strange organism we aren’t yet fathoming, but an artificial intelligence.
To understand why the first intelligence we meet might be artificial, we have to go back to early efforts to look for life around other stars. SETI researchers started listening to the cosmos on the assumption that aliens might begin radio transmissions as a first advanced technological step if they’re at all like us. There’s reason to believe that, like our own path, getting from the era of radio to the computing era is a small jump.
“By 1900 you had radio; by 1945 you had computers,” Seth Shostak, senior scientist at the SETI Institute, says. “It seems to me that’s a hard arc to avoid.”
And from there, it may just be a matter of getting those computers smaller and smaller as they get smarter and smarter. Automated processes learn to adapt on their own, and someday, rudimentary intelligence arrives, just as it has here.
“There’s currently an AI revolution, and we see artificial intelligence getting smarter and smarter by the day,” Susan Schneider, an associate professor of cognitive science and philosophy at the University of Connecticut who has written about the intersection of SETI and AI, says. “That suggests to me something similar may be going on at other points in the universe.”
So what will that actually look like from our perspective here on Earth?