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Biological Intelligence is Only a Transitory Phenomenon
Giulio Prisco   Jun 5, 2012   Turing Church  

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 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.

Giulio Prisco is a writer, technology expert, futurist and transhumanist. A former manager in European science and technology centers, he writes and speaks on a wide range of topics, including science, information technology, emerging technologies, virtual worlds, space exploration and future studies. He serves as President of the Italian Transhumanist Association.


Convincing stuff, this is the type of future worth reading about!

“Apprehension” arises when we speculate this loss of humanity and that which really makes us human, (emotions Captain?)

You last paragraph states there need be no loss of humanity at all, it really is all down to what we really want, (to be) - After we’ve finally decided “who we are” that is?

Solaris.. a kind of dream?

Inspirational writing, well done!

Thanks CygnusX1.

Re “it really is all down to what we really want, (to be) - After we’ve finally decided “who we are” that is?”

Often it is much easier to decide what you want to be, than to decide what you are. The latter is a metaphysical, perhaps meaningless question, but the former is a practical question.

I don’t think we must give a single collective answer to this question. The best future scenario that I can imagine is that the Cosmist move to the stars to become what they want to become, and the Terrans stay at home as humans1.0. There should be, however, a Cosmist Embassy to support those, born Terrans, who want to become Cosmists.

If this is already true and the Cosmist embassy officers are reading this… please email me and tell me where the Embassy is, and how I can apply for a Cosmist immigration visa! I want to move.

Giulio— I nominate you to be an officer of the Cosmist Embassy.
Get some certificates printed out.

@Hank - I am happy to serve, but I wish to get a tour or the nation that I will represent.

(half-)Seriously… perhaps we are the Terrans whose ancestors took the (very stupid if you ask me) decision to stay at home, perhaps there are ex-human Cosmists out there, and perhaps they have a secret embassy here on Earth and every now and then they invite some people to emigrate…

If talk were money, we’d have colonized Mars already.

@Intomorrow re “If talk were money, we’d have colonized Mars already.”

Right. Well, I haven’t lost hopes to see people walking on Mars.

Governments don’t have money for space, and the private sector cannot be expected to fund ambitious space missions without the certainty of an immediate return (read public funding).

But there are innovative funding schemes. I love Mars One idea: “Mars One plans to fund the mission by making it a reality TV show, in the “biggest media spectacle in history” with help from Mars One ambassador Paul Römer, co-creator of the globally successful Big Brother reality TV show.”

I wish the very best to this deliciously creative, irreverent, and subversive project, and I will follow it with a lot of attention.

Of course I suspect that the real business plan may be cashing out and disappearing after the first reality show for the selection of astronauts, but I really hope it is for real.

Mining asteroids would probably give the most bang for the buck.

But here we are, over 45 years after Apollo 8—when things got exciting—yet we are stuck in politics befitting that ancient era.
There’s no JFK to say
“go to the Moon by the end of the decade”,
instead we will continue to go to Afghanistan and Iraq to throw good money after bad.

“To Defy The Laws Of Tradition”

What if Christmas didn’t come this year
and no one paid for Christmas cheer?
Who would cry the biggest tear,
the child or the store?
Why do brides wear virgin white?
Most do not deserve that right.
But to choose a color of their delight
would surely bring on the frowns.
To defy the laws of tradition
is a crusade only of the brave.
Suppose the taxman, he comes to town,
and you don’t lay your money down.
Yet Mr. Jones he killed Mr. Brown the other day.
Well I wonder, who’s gonna go to hell.

I think John Smart has a good idea of where we go.

See Tool’s “Vicarious” video on youtube for a better representation of what it might be like from a subjective perspective.

We go to inner space, not outer space.

I would suggest that rather than biology being sub-optimal to mechanical (for lack of a better word), it is probably more accurate to distinguish designed vs. randomly selected.  Currently, we believe that we are more capable of designing “fast-thinking”, durable “entities” in non-biological materials—but I don’t believe that there is any real reason to assume that this will continue.  Further, even if “machines” were the wave of the future, I would expect them to be made of more and more exotic (and optimal) materials and become more and more fractal in composition until they “seemed” biological.  I think that the currently obvious distinction between biological and mechanical is merely a manifestation of where our civilization and abilities are currently.

@Mark re “I would expect [machines] to be made of more and more exotic (and optimal) materials and become more and more fractal in composition until they “seemed” biological.  I think that the currently obvious distinction between biological and mechanical is merely a manifestation of where our civilization and abilities are currently.

I agree. 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.

I’ve speculated internally on this matter to a certain extent—not necessarily to the extent of a professional sci-fi writer—and I always come back to the idea that biology most definitely will be transcended ... AND included in some significant manner. It seems to me that even in our most technologically integrated state, biology will remain our taproot into consciousness, which I believe is derived from much more than a ever-increasing speed of the crunching of 1s and 0s. We’re hardwired in some way into the mystery dimension of our being through our biology (if Nassim Haramien is to be believed, the “event horizon” between the physically very small and the very large) and that connection would be severed once biology is completely transcended; thus severing our truest will to be. I have a very difficult time imagining a machine with “imagination” or being able to enter into a “shamanic” state of consciousness. From whence the longing for and creation of objects of aesthetic beauty; the appreciation for the sublime? Even if what remains of our biology is a carefully protected and integrated mass of neurological protoplasm deep within the recesses of the machine, it seems we can never be completely free of biology and still retain a connection to the ethereally transcendent. All this said, I am ultimately open-minded. I am very interested in understanding how this connection could be maintained in a state of being that has left biology completely behind. Is it a synthetic form of biology, that is even more refined than what we possess now? Or perhaps this transcendent connection is not even considered valid in these particular circles of speculation. Thanks!

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