March 11, 2011 | David F. Coppedge

If Pigs Have Wings, SETI Could Be Robots

The SETI program is still waiting to catch a sentient signal from deep space, but in the absence of data, people are free to speculate.  Michael Dyer, a computer science professor at UCLA, is certain that the first aliens to visit Earth will be robots.  He even attached a probability to it, according to Adam Hadhazy, a reporter published on Live Science.  “If an extraterrestrial spaceship ever lands on Earth, I bet you that it is 99.9999999 percent likely that what exits that ship will be synthetic in nature.”
    Has Dyer watched too many science fiction movies, or does his prediction have any scientific grounding?  His reasoning involves several ideas.  For one, space travel is hard on biology.  For another, robots are not as vulnerable to harsh environments and poison gas.  A third is his belief, based on the inevitability of artificial intelligence (AI), that humans will eventually replace themselves on Earth by robotic progeny.  That implies that advanced aliens will have already reached that point in their evolution.  Seth Shostak was quoted in the article in agreement with Dyer’s idea that alien visitors will be made of hardware and software, not cuddly biology.
    While speculating about alien evolution (see also the 07/21/2010), Dyer continued wondering whether futuristic robots could ever have empathy.  Will they be programmed, like Hal 9000 in A Space Odyssey to follow the mission, even if it means killing humans?  (That idea seems so 2001).  Will they destroy the freedom of the remaining humans, even if programmed with mercy?  “I think the most we can hope for is to embed software into all intelligent synthetic entities to cause them to want to protect the survivability of biological entities, with humans at the top of the list for protection,” Dyer said.
    Every speculation brings new dilemmas, however.  Dyer looked into his crystal ball: “I can foresee my robotic master not letting me do any activities that it deems will be harmful to my long-term survival,” he said, “so I’m no longer allowed to eat ice cream while lying on the sofa watching junk TV shows.”  Or allowed to watch the latest Hollywood alien-invasion flick, Hadhazy added.

  Dyer did not explain if alien synthetic life implies intelligent design (12/03/2005).  He also did not place a value on his bet, or explain how or when he would have to pay up.  Presumably, there is a .0000001 percent chance it is not synthetic; that would give him an out.
    Question: why is this on Live Science?  Are we to the point where, in the name of science, there are no restraints on speculation, no requirements to test ideas against evidence, no distinctions between science and science fiction, no epistemic modesty, no restraints on hubris?  Has the mission of science been usurped by storytellers with limitless imaginations?  Answer: “I think you know what the problem is just as well as I do.” (see IMDB.com).

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Categories: Mind and Brain, SETI

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