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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Friday, December 23, 2016

Have Super-advanced Extraterrestrials Become Robots, Or Something Even Weirder?

The universe is billions of years old, and there has been at least a billion years for intelligent life to arise on other planets. But if there are extraterrestrials vastly more advanced than us, what form would they take? Some scientists say they probably look like some protoplasmic life form totally different from ours. But other scientists think that advanced extraterrestrial civilizations have probably advanced “beyond the flesh.” The idea is that the extraterrestrials have evolved into robots. Some scientists have said that if an extraterrestrial spaceship lands on our planet, we should not expect some weird biological form to emerge from the spaceship. We should instead expect to meet nothing but robots coming out to greet us.

Such an idea is advanced in a recent essay by Susan Schneider, who says this:

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.)

But while it may seem like a reasonable extrapolation of Darwinian ideas, the idea of a biological race of beings evolving into robots has great difficulties. The main difficulty is that we have no evidence that any type of robot or computer can actually possess the slightest bit of consciousness, understanding, insight or comprehension. Computers are good at information processing, but that's not the same as real understanding. A computer may be able to instantly answer the question,”On what day was the fattest American president born?” But the computer has no actual understanding of what it is to be fat, what it is to be born, what it is to be an American, or what it is to be an American president.

And contrary to those who say, “Computers will start understanding once they get better or faster,” there is every reason to doubt that this will happen. Consider a large modern computer consisting of many chips and many bits of software called subroutines. It is hard to imagine any type of situation like this happening: the machine will have no understanding of anything while it has less than a million chips and a billion subroutines, but once you get to a million and one chips or a billion and one subroutines, then suddenly it will be able to understand for the first time.

Contrary to what you may have heard, we have no understanding of how the comprehension of a mind could arise from nerve cells. Some people reason that even though we don't understand this, we can assume that consciousness and understanding will occur in computer units that might be made so that they are rather similar to nerve cells. This assumption seems no more valid than this reasoning: “Since we know that cracks will occur in a block of ice when we strike it with a hammer, we can assume that cracks will occur in a pond of water when we strike it with a hammer.”

Part of the problem is that we are not actually sure that consciousness does arise purely from the brain itself. It is all too possible that our consciousness involves something much more than the brain – perhaps something like a soul, or some mysterious cosmic infrastructure that enables consciousness. As discussed here, there are reasons for thinking that our bodies or brains are more of a receptacle or a receiver for consciousness rather than the sole generator of it. Considering that we cannot account for how our brains could possibly be storing and retrieving so quickly memories that are decades old (as discussed here and here), it seems all too reasonable to doubt that the brain is the sole generator of our consciousness.

Given all these factors, there seems to be little plausibility in the idea of an extraterrestrial civilization making a transition from a biological state to a robotic state. Biological organisms with consciousness would never want to transition into a robotic state that did not have consciousness (that would be like suicide for them). And if computers and robots never gained consciousness, we would never see the “robots wipe out their creators and take over the planet” type of scenario. A set of robots would never be programmed to wipe out their creators. If they lacked the consciousness necessary for independent initiative and independent ideas, they would not independently come up with the idea of doing such a thing.

In Schneider's essay advancing the “super-advanced extraterrestrials will be robots” idea, she seems to get all mixed up about consciousness, intelligence, and understanding, advancing the very wrong idea that you can have superintelligence without consciousness. She states the following:

Further, it may be more efficient for a self-improving superintelligence to eliminate consciousness. ... A superintelligence would possess expert-level knowledge in every domain, with rapid-fire computations ranging over vast databases that could include the entire Internet and ultimately encompass an entire galaxy. What would be novel to it? What would require slow, deliberative focus? Wouldn’t it have mastered everything already? Like an experienced driver on a familiar road, it could rely on nonconscious processing. The simple consideration of efficiency suggests, depressingly, that the most intelligent systems will not be conscious. On cosmological scales, consciousness may be a blip, a momentary flowering of experience before the universe reverts to mindlessness.

This thinking involves a great confusion. While people sometimes use the word “intelligent” to describe a computer that performs well, such a use is rather metaphorical. A computer has no real intelligence in the sense of understanding or comprehension. When we talk about intelligence, comprehension, consciousness, and understanding, we are largely talking about the same things. So the unconscious “superintelligence” imagined by Schneider would not actually be an intelligence at all. It would be a lot of information processing incapable of actually understanding anything. Actual understanding is something that can only occur in a conscious entity. If Schneider is advancing the idea that you don't need consciousness to be superintelligent, I think that's all wrong, and does nothing to substantiate the idea that an extraterrestrial civilization might evolve to become robotic.

But if we are thinking about far-out ideas about how extraterrestrials might evolve, there's another idea that might be worth considering: the idea that extraterrestrials might have evolved to be beings of pure energy or pure spirit. This would be the ultimate way of achieving immortality. If you are an extraterrestrial with a robot body, you will still have to worry about your electronic or metal parts wearing out one day. But if you are an extraterrestrial that is pure energy or pure spirit, you will have no such worries.

In his novel 2001: A Space Odyssey, Arthur C. Clarke imagined a race of extraterrestrials that first were biological, and then evolved to become robots. But then this race of extraterrestrials eventually evolved into pure energy beings that were “beyond the reaches of time.”

We actually have some evidence from psychic phenomena (such as near-death experiences) suggesting that consciousness can exist outside of the brain. As is very well-documented in the recent book The Self Does Not Die, quite a few people undergoing near-death experiences report floating above their bodies, and observing their bodies, often while medical personnel were attempting cardiac resuscitation. Such evidence may suggest that the idea of a pure energy consciousness or pure spirit consciousness may be quite viable.

When people think about consciousness separating from the body, they typically imagine progression to some afterlife realm. But what if some race of super-advanced extraterrestrials was able to achieve such separations through some technological means? They might stay around their planet, and live as a race of pure energy beings or pure spirit beings. 

We see no sign of any physical tinkering by extraterrestrials in the galaxy. The most promising possible case was the case of Tabby's Star, but a recent analysis suggests that strange star has a natural explanation.  Perhaps this lack of galactic reorganization is a sign that super-advanced extraterrestrials are beings of pure energy or pure spirit. Such entities might have little need to create structures for themselves. 

Extraterrestrials of pure energy or pure spirit might be able to temporarily inhabit different biological bodies or robotic bodies, in a kind of “possession.” Think of the advantages of that. On any day you could try being a male, a female, a flying animal, an underwater creature, a flying car, or a speeding spaceship. When you were bored with that, you could just go back to being an unattached pure energy being.

I may note that the idea that super-advanced extraterrestrials will be robots would seem to imply that there would be extraterrestrial robots all over the galaxy. But we see no signs of such robots in our galaxy. When UFO “close encounters of the third kinds” occur, witnesses virtually never report seeing robots. We do, however, see mysterious energies in our skies, and mysterious orbs that show up in photos. Could such things be signs of pure-energy extraterrestrials touring around our planet?