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.)