Why alien life will probably be engineered life

Martin Rees has an interesting article at Nautilus: When We Find Aliens, We Might Find Something Like the Borg

This September, a team of astronomers noticed that the light from a distant star is flickering in a highly irregular pattern.1 They considered the possibility that comets, debris, and impacts could account for their observations, but each of these explanations was unlikely to varying degrees.2 What their paper didn’t explore, but they and others are beginning to speculate, is that the flickering might be caused by enormous structures built by an advanced civilization—whether the light might be evidence of ET.

In thinking about this possibility, or other similarly suggestive evidence of extraterrestrial life, an image of an alien creature might come to mind—something green, perhaps, or with tentacles or eye stalks. But in this we are probably mistaken. I would argue that any positive identification of ET will very likely not originate from organic or biological life (as Paul Davies has also argued), but from machines.

Few doubt that machines will gradually surpass more and more of our distinctively human capabilities—or enhance them via cyborg technology. Disagreements are basically about the timescale: the rate of travel, not the direction of travel. The cautious amongst us envisage timescales of centuries rather than decades for these transformations.

A few thoughts.

First, I haven’t commented yet here about KIC 8462852, the star Rees mentions in the first paragraph.  It would be beyond cool if this turned out to be something like a partial Dyson swarm or some other megastructure.  But with these types of speculation, it pays to be extra skeptical of propositions we want to be true.  Possibility is not probability.  I think the chances that this is an alien civilization are remote, but I can’t say I’m not hoping.

On the rest of Rees’s article, I largely agree.  (I’m sure my regular readers aren’t shocked by this.)  I do have one quibble though.  Rees uses the terms “robotic” or “machine life”.  In cases where it would make sense to have a body of metal and silicon, such as operating in space or some other airless environment, I think it’s likely that’s what would be used (or its very advanced equivalent).

But when operating inside of a biosphere, I suspect “machine life” might be more accurately labelled as “engineered life”.  In such an environment, an organic body, designed and grown by an advanced civilization for the local biosphere, might be far more useful and efficient than a machine one.  An organic body could get its energy from the biosphere using biological functions such as eating and breathing.  This might be substantially more efficient than carrying a power pack or whatever.

If we met such life, they might well resemble classic sci-fi aliens in some broad fashion.  Nor do I think we should dismiss the possibility that the form of such aliens might not stray too far from their original evolved shapes.  Even the advanced machine versions might well resemble those original shapes, at least in some contexts.

Of course, that original shape might still be radically different than anything in our experience, such as Rees’s speculation about something that starts as an evolved integrated intelligence.  And after billions of years, engineered life may inevitably become an integrated intelligence, at least on the scope of a planet.  (The speed of light barrier would constrain the level of integration across interstellar distances.)

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13 Responses to Why alien life will probably be engineered life

  1. john zande says:

    Robert Reed in his excellent Great Ship novels, touches on this proposition of self-replicating robots exploring the universe. In his short story, Alone, he delves into a single entity. It’s a fascinating story.

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  2. James Pailly says:

    I’m not sold on the alien megastructures idea yet. Give astronomers a few more years to observe this star, and I suspect they’ll home in on a simple, naturally occurring explanation. If they can’t, or if they find additional anomalies, then I’ll take the megastructure hypothesis more seriously.

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    • I agree completely. Actually, I’d go a little further. Megastructures would be such an extraordinary explanation, that they’ll pretty much need to conclusively rule out every natural explanation first, before I think we should take idea of an advanced civilization too seriously.

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  3. Wyrd Smythe says:

    I, for one, shall welcome our alien overlord masters, no matter in what shape they build themselves!

    All seriousness aside, I think we’re already pretty close to starting to experiment with genetic mods on ourselves. We do it commercially with plant life now. Maybe genetically altered pets (fish?) are next. People already have cosmetic surgery to make radical — surreal — mods in their appearance (and think of the levels tats and piercing have gotten to). How long can it be until we have actual dog- and cat-people running around?

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