Goodbye, Little Green Men

They’re big-eyed and slight of build. They’re the grim, greenish beings that every moviegoer recognizes as aliens — the inscrutable inhabitants of a distant world. Playing supporting roles in countless films and TV shows, these hairless homunculi have become iconic.

But we’ve never seen a real alien. Indeed, we don’t even know if real aliens exist.

However, astronomers have recently discovered several thousand planets in our galactic neighborhood. Consequently, the idea of intelligent life in space has eased from the realm of science fiction to scientific plausibility. Telescopes could receive signals at any time that would tell us they’re out there.

What would they be like?

Is it possible that real aliens would resemble the smooth-skinned anthropomorphs of the movies? Simple engineering arguments suggest that having two eyes, an upright stance and a small number of flexible appendages make sense for any active and intelligent animal. Consequently, some biologists have sided with Hollywood, and claimed that the process of convergent evolution, a tendency for design to follow function, will ensure that aliens might vaguely resemble us.

This line of argument, as flattering as it is, misses the boat. More likely is that most advanced alien civilizations will be a special kind of artificial intelligence (“A.I.”) called “superintelligence” – synthetic cognition that vastly exceeds the best that humans can manage in every category: social skills, general wisdom, scientific creativity, and so on.

We suspect this could be true based on analogy with our own near future, as we may be near to developing superintelligence ourselves. Making such machines may be the most transformative event of the 21st century, or perhaps of any century in human history. It could be as natural an evolutionary step as the emergence of land-dwelling animals 370 million years ago.

In a similar vein, we suspect that once a society —> Read More