paul_saffo's picture
Technology Forecaster; Consulting Associate Professor, Stanford University

Accelerating change is the new normal. Even the most dramatic discoveries waiting in the wings will do little more than push us further along the rollercoaster of exponential arcs that define modern life. Momentous discoveries compete with Hollywood gossip for headline space, as a public accustomed to a steady diet of surprises reacts to the latest astonishing science news with a shrug.

But there is one development that would fundamentally change everything — the discovery of non-human intelligences equal or superior to our species.  It would change everything because our crowded, quarreling species is lonely. Vastly, achingly, existentially lonely. It is what compels our faith in gods whose existence lies beyond logic or proof. It is what animates our belief in spirits and fairies, sprites, ghosts and little green men. It is why we probe the intelligence of our animal companions, hoping to start a conversation.  We are as lonely as Defoe’s Crusoe. We desperately want someone else to talk to.

The search for extraterrestrial intelligences — SETI — began 50 years ago with a lone radio astronomer borrowing spare telescope time to examine a few frequencies in the direction of two nearby stars. The search today is being conducted on a continuous basis with supercomputers and sophisticated receivers like the SETI Institute’s Allen Telescope Array. Today’s systems search more radio space in a few minutes than was probed in SETI’s first decade. Meanwhile, China is breaking ground on a new 500-meter dish (that’s a receiving surface the size of 30 football fields, or 10 times the size of Arecibo) whose mission explicitly encompasses the search for other civilizations.

Astronomers are looking as well as listening. Over 300 extrasolar planets have been detected, all but 12 in the last decade and over 100 in the last two years alone. More significantly, the minimum size of detectable extrasolar planets has plummeted, making it possible to identify planets with masses similar to earth. Planetary discovery is poised to go exponential with the 2009 launch of NASA’s Kepler spacecraft, which will examine over 100,000 stars for the presence of terrestrial-sized planets. The holy grail of planet hunters isn’t Jupiter-sized giants, but other Earths suitable for intelligent life recognizable to us.

The search so far has been met only by a great silence, but as astronomers continue their hunt for intelligent neighbors, computer scientists are determined to create them. Artificial intelligence research has been underway for decades and a few AIs have arguably already passed the Turing Test. Apply the exponential logic of Moore’s Law and the arrival of strong AI in the next few decades seems inevitable. We will have robots smart enough to talk to, and so emotionally appealing that people will demand the right to marry them.

One way or another, humanity will find someone or some thing to talk to. The only uncertainty is where the conversations will lead. Distant alien civilizations will make for difficult exchange because of the time lag, but the mere fact of their existence will change our self-perception as profoundly as Copernicus did five centuries ago. And despite the distance, we will of course try to talk to them. A third of us will want to conquer them, a third of us will seek to convert them, and the rest of us will try to sell them something.

Artificial companions will make for more intimate conversations, not just because of their proximity, but because they will speak our language from the first moment of their stirring sentience. However, I fear what might happen as they evolve exponentially. Will they become so smart that they no longer want to talk to us? Will they develop an agenda of their own that makes utterly no sense from a human perspective? A world shared with super-intelligent robots is a hard thing to imagine. If we are lucky, our new mind children will treat us as pets. If we are very unlucky, they will treat us as food.