Biological intelligence is only a transitory phenomenon

I support the space program, and I hope to see people walking on the Moon again, and then Mars. We need to see people in space to reboot our dreaming engine. At the same time I am persuaded that, ultimately, space will be colonized by our post-biological mind children, who will leave their flesh and blood bodies behind and become cyber angels living as pure software in robotic or virtual bodies. Many astronomers and space enthusiasts share this view.

Of course, Sir Arthur C. Clarke was one of the first to see it. In 2001 — A Space Odyssey, he wrote: “And now, out among the stars, evolution was driving toward new goals. The first explorers of Earth had long since come to the limits of flesh and blood; as soon as their machines were better than their bodies, it was time to move. First their brains, and then their thoughts alone, they transferred into shining new homes of metal and of plastic.” Other science fiction writers have described a universe populated by upload civilizations, and many scientists agree:

Paul Davies, a British-born theoretical physicist, cosmologist, astrobiologist and Director of the Beyond Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science and Co-Director of the Cosmology Initiative at Arizona State University, says in his book The Eerie Silence that any aliens exploring the universe will be AI-empowered machines. Not only are machines better able to endure extended exposure to the conditions of space, but they have the potential to develop intelligence far beyond the capacity of the human brain.

“I think it very likely — in fact inevitable — that biological intelligence is only a transitory phenomenon, a fleeting phase in the evolution of the universe,” Davies writes. “If we ever encounter extraterrestrial intelligence, I believe it is overwhelmingly likely to be post-biological in nature.”

If the human race manages to redesign itself, to reduce or eliminate the risk of self-destruction, we will probably reach out to the stars and colonize other planets. But this will be done, Stephen Hawking believes, with intelligent machines based on mechanical and electronic components, rather than macromolecules, which could eventually replace DNA based life, just as DNA may have replaced an earlier form of life.

“The time window during which detectable alien intelligence is biological is very, very short,” says Seth Shostak, Senior Astronomer at the SETI Institute, in Mountain View, California. “Machine intelligence — which could be durable and long-lasting far beyond the limits of a biological species — will dominate the universe.”

“NASA’s Kepler telescope is busy tracking down habitable planets around other stars. It’s likely that, within a year, it will discover other worlds that are very much like our Earth. Such planets would be obvious candidates for incubating life, and possibly intelligent life. But the incubator is not necessarily where intelligence will stay. It will, I think, leave the cradle rather quickly,” says Shostak. “In other words, biological intelligence might be only a stepping stone to something far cleverer, something that is both longer-lived and more widespread than its protoplasmic precursors.”

Shostak argues that the time between aliens developing radio technology and artificial intelligence (AI) would be short. Writing in Acta Astronautica, he says that the odds favour detecting such alien AI rather than biological life. He makes the point that while evolution can take a large amount of time to develop beings capable of communicating beyond their own planet, technology would already be advancing fast enough to eclipse the species that wrought it.

“If you look at the timescales for the development of technology, at some point you invent radio and then you go on the air and then we have a chance of finding you,” he told BBC News.

“But within a few hundred years of inventing radio – at least if we’re any example – you invent thinking machines; we’re probably going to do that in this century. So you’ve invented your successors and only for a few hundred years are you… a ‘biological’ intelligence.”

From a probability point of view, if such thinking machines ever evolved, we would be more likely to spot signals from them than from the “biological” life that invented them.

Biologically based technological civilization… is a fleeting phenomenon limited to a few thousand years, and exists in the universe in the proportion of one thousand to one billion, so that only one in a million civilizations are biological,” says former NASA Chief Historian Steven J. Dick.

If extraterrestrial intelligence exists, Stephen Dick concludes in an article in the International Journal of Astrobiology, it has probably evolved beyond biology to an advanced form of artificial intelligence that is the product of million or billions of years of technological and cultural evolution similar to the civilizations Arthur C Clarke envisioned that created the Tycho Monoliths in 2001 — A Space Odyssey. In a post-biological universe machines are the dominant form of intelligence.

If these scientists are right, and I think they are, the most advanced civilizations in the universe have transcended biology and moved on to a post-biological phase of their evolution. If we want to become an advanced civilization and colonize the stars, this is what we must do.

Hugo de Garis, author of The Artilect War, agrees that our cosmic destiny is to transcend biology and build/become “Artilects”, but thinks that flesh-and-blood humans (the “Terrans”) will resist and wage bloody wars against those who want to move on (the “Cosmists”). De Garis fears that “species dominance” wars may result in billions of deaths, and perhaps he is right — Ted Kaczynski was the first Terran, and other violent Terrans are emerging.

To avoid this, I think we should persuade as many people as possible to embrace our post-biological future with open arms as the next, necessary phase of our evolution. There is nothing to fear, and a universe to gain. Terrans fear that Artilects will destroy us, but they cannot destroy us because they will be us. The child that I used to be was not destroyed by the adult that I have become: he is still here, inside my current self.

  • kathy wilson

    What about the possibility of biological robots with reproducible and adjustable dna? The difference between the robotic machines you describe and the biological ones, would be the cell’s individual intelligence making up a body able to heal and evolve rather than a virtual or controlled one. One of the reasons I believe what I do is because I think the human body, our dna and brain are evolving along with our technical abilities.

  • Giulio Prisco

    @Kathy, I don’t imagine future post-biological persons as tin-can robots (remember those covers of science fiction novels in the 50s), and I don’t imagine their system software as a slightly evolved version of MS Windows.

    On the contrary, I think hardware, firmware and system software able to run living, thinking and feeling persons, will be very different from today’s primitive machines. Perhaps (as some thinkers suggest) our mind children will be based on quantum devices and software, perhaps they will be based on biological DNA circuits and biologically inspired software, and perhaps (more likely) on circuitry and software that we haven’t yet thought of.