One of the creepiest aspects of pondering life in the universe is when we remove biology from the equation entirely. Explored many times in science fiction, the concept of machine life can go from benign and almost human, such as Mr Data from Star Trek, or it can also go the opposite way as in Fred Saberhagen’s Berserkers, or the reapers from Mass Effect. Underlying these sci-fi concepts is the genuine possibility of a civilisation being able to create an intelligent machine. It may be a while, or not long at all depending on whom we ask before humanity can develop such machines. Moreover, it is also possible that such devices might eventually form a civilisation of their own. Machine civilisations may end up being the dominant form of intelligent life in the universe.
We tend to think of aliens in the sense of biology that they would be like us in at least some ways, such as having evolved to be intelligent. However, we are in an unusual situation where we have only recently become an advanced technological civilisation. We do not yet know what our future is going to be, but we are technologically advanced enough to predict certain things about it, such as that artificial intelligence on our level, or for that matter superintelligence, is at least hypothetically possible and may not lie not too far in the future.
How far is uncertain? A lot of it depends on whether we go through a technological singularity, where we exponentially advance until we reach a point where the future becomes utterly unpredictable. An opposing viewpoint would be that we make careful choices to avoid a singularity and remain in control of our destiny, or that something prevents us from ever reaching that stage, such as unforeseen problems in developing advanced machine intelligence.
However, going along with this is the nature of biology. As
The universe is well old enough for civilisations to be out there that hit this stage of development far earlier than we did by millions or more years and may have long-ago transitioned to a post-biological existence. However, that is only one class of potential machine life. The other is machine life that never was biological, though a biological species may have initially created them. This type is perhaps more sinister. There are two options here. One is a civilisation tracing back to artificial intelligence that escaped, or destroyed, its creators like the Cylons of Battlestar Galactica. The other is a machine civilisation created by another, older machine civilisation for some unknown purpose that somehow became independent of the original culture. Perhaps the spookiest aspect of machine civilisations, should they turn out to be the more common form of intelligence in the universe is that they are not governed by the same environmental needs of biological life like that on earth. Machines do not need atmospheres, are not dependent on liquid water, can handle high radiation environments better than biologicals and only need access to raw materials to exist.
This would mean that most of the galaxy is habitable to a machine civilisation, including places much closer to the centre of the universe, or in a star cluster, where biological life would find it very difficult to exist but do possess lots of raw materials. These are also places that we tend not to look for signs of alien life, opening up the possibility that the reason we have not spotted evidence of alien civilisations yet is that most of them are machine civilisations and we are simply looking in the wrong places.
However, what if we did detect a machine civilisation? Would they wish to interact with us at all? Do biology and technology eventually divorce from each other and go their separate ways, or would a machine civilisation have any interest in the activities of a complex, primitive society such as our own. Alternatively, would they seek to destroy us, and find biology to be the chief existential threat to machine civilisations. These are questions that cannot be answered before interacting with one. However, the question that nags me most is how do we see life. Would a machine civilisation indeed be life? Alternatively, would it be something else, intelligent but not genuinely conscious? I don’t know, but it’s something to think about because if the first contact with an alien civilisation ever happens, they may more likely be machines than biologicals.
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