Reality Straight Up!

Thoughts & Observations of a Free Range Astrophysicist

Waiting for Skynet

The benefits of being a machine

For biological organisms, interstellar travel is hopelessly difficult, and probably pointless. For sentient machines, however, home is the environment you were built for.

This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.


It’s hard to count how many answers have been proposed over the past six decades to Enrico Fermi’s simple question, “Where are they?” I’ve previously given my own thoughts on why an alien civilization might decide that interstellar travel isn’t worth the effort. Or at least I’ve discussed why any civilization of biological organisms might reach that conclusion.

The calculus of interstellar travel would be very different for a society of intelligent, sentient machines. It is one thing to ponder vessels capable of protecting and supporting living organisms as they lumber across space toward destinations that are almost by definition hostile. Roaming the galaxy would be quite another thing for small sentient machines hardened against the environment of space. There is a reason that we have explored our own solar system robotically rather than sending humans.

Machines exploring space

Humans have already sent robotic emissaries beyond the Solar System and into interstellar space. The Voyager 1 spacecraft isn’t sentient, but it has been exploring the solar system — and beyond — for nearly four decades.

For sentient machines, space represents resources and opportunity.

For a machine civilization, potential destinations would abound. Where biological life-forms’ exploration requires finding temperate worlds that might still leave them facing incompatible and potentially lethal alien biology, technological life-forms could be sustained more easily, requiring only the raw materials easily supplied by common asteroids. An intelligence built on the ability to process information efficiently should find it possible to comprehend and communicate with other such civilizations.

The technological challenges facing machine intelligence are therefore much less steep than for squishy organic life. It’s less clear just what machine intelligences might do with their existence. What greater purpose drives a thinking machine?

What drives might machine intelligence feel?

While some prominent thinkers like Ray Kurzweil foresee profound benefits for humankind, others express concern about what the rise of machine intelligence might mean for those who are trapped in slow-thinking, fragile biological shells. Elon Musk once tweeted, “Hope we’re not just the biological boot loader for digital superintelligence.”

Of course, that digital superintelligence might have a very different perspective on the whole thing. I hesitate here to use the term “artificial intelligence” because to these entities, there would be nothing artificial about their thoughts.

We biological organisms acquire our basic drives from the evolutionary pressures that shaped us. Our sex drive, hunger, need for companionship, greed, love, competitiveness, and willingness to face danger to defend families and neighbors impel us to behaviors that further the survival of our selfish genes. Organisms that felt those drives most strongly have been more likely to survive, and to pass those drives on to following generations.

The drive that leads us to look out at the universe and contemplate journeys to the stars evolved due to the benefits of exploring what opportunities await over the next hill.

Space-faring machine intelligences would not escape the algorithm of evolution. Galaxies would be traveled by those intelligences that choose to explore, and filled by machines that reproduce most prolifically.

Forget the aliens. Where are the viral machines?

This leads to some frightening possibilities. Like their biological namesakes, computer viruses have no consciousness, no ethics, and no remorse. The logic that compels them is simple: “Seek a host. Infect that host. Reproduce using the resources provided by the host. Repeat.”

Imagine a mechanical interstellar virus consisting of machines that obey that same basic programming, but for which “host” refers to any source of raw materials. Such machines would rapidly spread through a galaxy, consuming all in their path.

Some geeky, superintelligent but irresponsible digital adolescent might gin up such a virus just for the heck of it. You only need one to get the ball rolling. Perhaps the real question is not, “Where are the aliens?” Instead we should wonder, “Where is the swarm of interstellar viral machines intent on turning the material of our solar system into copies of themselves?”

Science fiction authors have explored many possible motivations of machine intelligences. Might they inherit the motivations of their biological forbearers? Might they exist in concert with biological intelligence? Might they simply choose which motivations they prefer, then build those drives into themselves? Would they seek out diversity, or see threat? Would machines pursue war?

Who will be there to greet our machine descendants?

A fictional universe filled with space-faring races that strangely all look a lot like us, think a lot like us, and share our biochemistry is nonsensical. A universe in which biological life routinely crosses the space between stars is highly unlikely. But a universe inhabited by intelligent space-faring machines is neither.

This, is of course, speculation. We know even less about the likelihood of the birth of conscious machines than we do about the likelihood of the birth of biological consciousness, although real progress is being made on both fronts. But machine intelligence need emerge only once to give birth to galactic civilization.

Returning to Fermi’s question, it seems unsurprising that biological aliens haven’t come calling. But I like the thought that if machine consciousness ever arises on Earth it will be greeted by a warm welcome from interstellar space. Perhaps it is a cause for celebration when a new intelligence — whatever its physical shell — moves at last beyond life in the swamps and takes a form suitable for life amid the stars.

Waiting for Skynet ^ The benefits of being a machine  © Dr. Jeff Hester
Content may not be copied to other sites. All Rights Reserved.

Reality Straight Up!

  • Schools in the Time of COVID  The Decision Will Ultimately Make ItselfPosted in Thoughts
  • COVID-19 Arrives  The Humanitarian Disaster is HerePosted in Thoughts
  • Correctly Predicting Failure  It’s time for scientists to get loudPosted in Thoughts
  • Typhoid Mary on Two Wheels  Spreading COVID one lap at a timePosted in Thoughts
  • Pine Boxes  Invest now, the numbers are going upPosted in Success & FailureThoughts
  • Scientists Stuck Inside  Curiosity in the Time of COVIDPosted in For Your ConsiderationThoughts
  • After COVID’s First Wave  No getting back to normalPosted in Success & FailureThoughts
  • COVID-19  Cutting through the confusionPosted in Success & FailureThoughts
  • Great Deceiverism 101  Explanation or Theory? Therein lies the rub.Posted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • One Step at a Time  The  not-so-mysterious origin of lifePosted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • The Mind’s Siren Call  Being certain is a primrose pathPosted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • Constrained Hallucinations  How the brain uses science to perceive the worldPosted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • Schools in the Time of COVID
    The Decision Will Ultimately Make Itself

    You don’t tug on Superman’s cape. You don’t spit into the wind. Yes, schools are desperately important to kids. No, COVID-19 doesn’t care, and COVID is making the rules right now. Attempts to open schools this fall will fail of their own accord. The relevant question is how to meet the needs of children, families and the community in the face of that reality.

    Read Article

  • COVID-19 Arrives
    The Humanitarian Disaster is Here

    Currently new cases of COVID-19 in Arizona are doubling every 7 days. ICU beds in the state are already full. The rest of the country isn’t that far behind us. You do the math.

    Read Article

  • Correctly Predicting Failure
    It’s time for scientists to get loud

    Now is not the time for scientists to be circumspect and silent. We are on the short end of a battle over whether truth even matters. If scientists do not stand up for what is real, who will?

    Read Article

  • Typhoid Mary on Two Wheels
    Spreading COVID one lap at a time

    The morning cyclist in my neighborhood may not be standing in the Michigan Statehouse carrying a gun and demanding her right to spread contagion far and wide, but she may as well be.

    Read Article

  • Pine Boxes
    Invest now, the numbers are going up

    You know those nice charts and graphs that make it look like we are over the hump of COVID-19 and that things are about to get better? Those predictions are dead wrong, with an unfortunate emphasis on “dead.”

    Read Article

  • Scientists Stuck Inside
    Curiosity in the Time of COVID

    Imagine three gregarious scientists, each with the gift of the gab, all coping with stay-at-home orders. Of course we started a livestream/podcast talk show! What else would we do? Welcome to the kickoff episode of Scientists Stuck Inside.

    Read Article

  • After COVID’s First Wave
    No getting back to normal

    Even after COVID-19 kills hundreds of thousands in the U.S. over the coming weeks, we will still be almost as vulnerable to the pandemic as we are today. We’d all love to “get back to normal” after that, but the price could be a second wave, worse than the first. Some see us facing either economic Depression or allowing vast numbers of preventable deaths, but that is a fool’s choice. There are better options if we have the will to find them.

    Read Article

  • COVID-19
    Cutting through the confusion

    There is a lot of information about COVID-19 out there, much of it misleading. When looking at the future, start with what the science really says.

    Read Article

  • Great Deceiverism 101
    Explanation or Theory? Therein lies the rub.

    If someone can’t tell you how they would know that they are wrong, they don’t have a clue whether they are right.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

    Read Article

  • One Step at a Time
    The not-so-mysterious origin of life

    Once seemingly incomprehensible, the origin of life no longer seems such a mystery. Most of what once appeared as roadblocks are turning out to be superhighways.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

    Read Article

  • The Mind’s Siren Call
    Being certain is a primrose path

    Being certain lights up our brains like a junkie’s next hit. Literally. Unfortunately, being certain and being right are two very, very different things.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

    Read Article

  • Constrained Hallucinations
    How the brain uses science to perceive the world

    The unique worlds we each consciously inhabit – the only worlds we will ever experience – are constrained hallucinations, products of hypothesis testing by our predictive brains.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

    Read Article

Click on thumbnail to select post:

  • Schools in the Time of COVID  The Decision Will Ultimately Make ItselfPosted in Thoughts
  • COVID-19 Arrives  The Humanitarian Disaster is HerePosted in Thoughts
  • Correctly Predicting Failure  It’s time for scientists to get loudPosted in Thoughts
  • Typhoid Mary on Two Wheels  Spreading COVID one lap at a timePosted in Thoughts
  • Pine Boxes  Invest now, the numbers are going upPosted in Success & FailureThoughts
  • Scientists Stuck Inside  Curiosity in the Time of COVIDPosted in For Your ConsiderationThoughts
  • After COVID’s First Wave  No getting back to normalPosted in Success & FailureThoughts
  • COVID-19  Cutting through the confusionPosted in Success & FailureThoughts
  • Great Deceiverism 101  Explanation or Theory? Therein lies the rub.Posted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • One Step at a Time  The  not-so-mysterious origin of lifePosted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • The Mind’s Siren Call  Being certain is a primrose pathPosted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • Constrained Hallucinations  How the brain uses science to perceive the worldPosted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • You don’t tug on Superman’s cape. You don’t spit into the wind. Yes, schools are desperately important to kids. No, COVID-19 doesn’t care, and COVID is making the rules right now. Attempts to open schools this fall will fail of their own accord. The relevant question is how to meet the needs of children, families and the community in the face of that reality.

  • Currently new cases of COVID-19 in Arizona are doubling every 7 days. ICU beds in the state are already full. The rest of the country isn’t that far behind us. You do the math.

  • Now is not the time for scientists to be circumspect and silent. We are on the short end of a battle over whether truth even matters. If scientists do not stand up for what is real, who will?

  • The morning cyclist in my neighborhood may not be standing in the Michigan Statehouse carrying a gun and demanding her right to spread contagion far and wide, but she may as well be.

  • You know those nice charts and graphs that make it look like we are over the hump of COVID-19 and that things are about to get better? Those predictions are dead wrong, with an unfortunate emphasis on “dead.”

  • Imagine three gregarious scientists, each with the gift of the gab, all coping with stay-at-home orders. Of course we started a livestream/podcast talk show! What else would we do? Welcome to the kickoff episode of Scientists Stuck Inside.

  • Even after COVID-19 kills hundreds of thousands in the U.S. over the coming weeks, we will still be almost as vulnerable to the pandemic as we are today. We’d all love to “get back to normal” after that, but the price could be a second wave, worse than the first. Some see us facing either economic Depression or allowing vast numbers of preventable deaths, but that is a fool’s choice. There are better options if we have the will to find them.

  • There is a lot of information about COVID-19 out there, much of it misleading. When looking at the future, start with what the science really says.

  • If someone can’t tell you how they would know that they are wrong, they don’t have a clue whether they are right.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

  • Once seemingly incomprehensible, the origin of life no longer seems such a mystery. Most of what once appeared as roadblocks are turning out to be superhighways.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

  • Being certain lights up our brains like a junkie’s next hit. Literally. Unfortunately, being certain and being right are two very, very different things.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

  • The unique worlds we each consciously inhabit – the only worlds we will ever experience – are constrained hallucinations, products of hypothesis testing by our predictive brains.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

Over his 30 year career as an internationally known astrophysicist, Dr. Jeff Hester was a key member of the team that repaired the Hubble Space Telescope. With one foot always on the frontiers of knowledge, he has been mentor, coach, team leader, award-winning teacher, administrator and speaker, to name a few of the hats he has worn. His Hubble image, the Pillars of Creation, was chosen by Time Magazine as among the 100 most influential photographs in history.
©Dr. Jeff Hester LLC, 5301 S. Superstition Mountain Dr., Suite 104 #171, Gold Canyon, AZ 85118