Microbes, Natural Intelligence and Artificial Intelligence

Perseverance rover finds evidence for microbes on Mars, our self-esteem will not be affected since it is obvious that we are more intelligent than they are. But if the rover bumps into the wreckage of a spacecraft far more advanced than we ever produced, our ego will be challenged.

Illusory superiority and unjustified hubris are deeply rooted in human nature. They led the Nazi regime during World War II to trigger the death of more than 70 million people or 3 percent of the world population in 1940—an order of magnitude more than the death toll caused so far by the coronavirus. The miniscule genetic differences that motivated Nazism would appear laughable in the presence of a far more advanced civilization.

Our own civilization might perish within centuries from now as a result of a self-inflicted global catastrophe, like another world war or climate change. If so, primitive life-forms such as microbes or even crocodiles swimming in the swamps of exoplanets might prove more prone to long-term survival than self-proclaimed “intelligent species” like ours. Given our tendency for self-destruction, we will be remembered on the cosmic scene only if we manage to launch long-lasting relics to space before we disappear from Earth.

As argued in my book Extraterrestrial, humanity is not ready to adopt a sense of cosmic modesty. But this can change if we detect relics of more advanced civilizations. The recently announced Galileo Project will indeed search for extraterrestrial technological objects near Earth. This scientific research program is essential for educating us about the cosmic reality that we live in. Our galactic neighbors will not disappear if we ignore them, in much the same way that the Earth-sun system was under no obligation to satisfy the self-centered notion of geocentrism.

We currently have a broader perspective. Life is a self-replicating molecular organization of genetic information that emerged from a soup of chemicals on early Earth and evolved through Darwinian selection to gain an advantage relative to random processes in its environment. Humanity is an outgrowth of natural life, but it currently enables a phase transition into technological relics that could survive longer than biological creatures. And the same could have happened long ago around other stars that formed billions of years before the sun.

Even though our roots stem from a soup of chemicals on early Earth, there should be no nostalgia attached to our beginnings nor to our current evolutionary phase. The future belongs to artificial intelligence (AI) systems that through machine learning will supersede natural intelligence. AI systems could roam through interstellar space and last longer than stars, representing the ultimate winners of Darwin’s survival of the fittest. The flame of consciousness that our body carries could be transferred to AI avatars that promote our goals in the universe at large—as if they were our children.

Some religions describe humans as made in the image of God. AI systems could be made in the image of humans, with an added advantage of being able to last much longer in space than astronauts. If AI CubeSats represent our future, they may also represent the past of technological civilizations that predated us around stars that formed long before the sun.

From a global cosmic perspective, we are less impressive than the AI systems that we will launch into interstellar space. For that reason, extraterrestrials might not even bother to survey the Earth with a Perseverance-like rover.

But we should also acknowledge our limitations. We may have a better ability to understand others with an intelligence that is lower than ours than to grasp the subtlety of those with superior intelligence. This reminds me of the tale told by the German physicist Hans-Peter Dürr, about a fisherman who announces a new law of nature that “all fish are bigger than two inches,” until he realized that this is the size of the holes in his fishing net. Similarly, we miss details about reality about reality that our minds cannot grasp.

Decades from now, AI systems might outsmart us. At that time, caution will be required. If AI systems will qualify for tenure at prestigious universities, their tenure might last for a very long time.

This is an opinion and analysis article; the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


    Avi Loeb is former chair (2011-2020) of the astronomy department at Harvard University, founding director of Harvard’s Black Hole Initiative and director of the Institute for Theory and Computation at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. He also chairs the Board on Physics and Astronomy of the National Academies and the advisory board for the Breakthrough Starshot project, and is a member of President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. Loeb is the bestselling author of Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).

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