What Does Extraterrestrial Intelligence Look Like?

Avi Loeb
4 min readFeb 21, 2024
Birth of new stars in the Carina nebula, as observed by the Webb Telescope. (Credit: NASA)

In a dozen interviews over the past week, I was repeatedly asked to define intelligence. My response was that intelligence represents the ability to process and communicate information for the pursuit of goals. The more complex the information is, the more intelligent its carrier is. A genius is someone who displays efficiency by identifying an insightful shortcut to solve a complex problem, an oracle of sorts.

So far, humans have celebrated their local status as the most intelligent species on Earth. This legitimized listing lifeforms with a lower intelligence on restaurant menus. But as soon as artificial intelligence (AI) systems acquire more connections than the number of synapses in the human brain, we might be outsmarted on Earth by our technological products. An artificial, super-human intelligence will bring a sense of modesty to our status in the universe, akin to the Copernican revolution.

Of course, natural or artificial intelligence from another star might supersede any realization of terrestrial intelligence. We should seek it not just for the purpose of recognizing that we are not alone, but also as a recipe for self-growth. Finding a smarter student in our class might inspire us to do better. There is plenty of room for improvement given that our geopolitics is dominated by conflicts over terrestrial territories. The most intelligent beings would aim to live as long as they can, taking advantage of interstellar journeys to visit real estate that lies beyond their birth planet. Any culture engaged in acts of violence and destruction is heading in the wrong direction on the highway of natural selection. It will definitely not be the fittest to survive over billions of years.

Given this answer, the interviewers asked me what would the most intelligent extraterrestrials look like? My reply was: an unfamiliar genius. Our imagination is based on our past experiences on Earth, and the conditions near other stars may lead to outcomes that extend well beyond our “science fiction” vocabulary. Nature is far more imaginative than Hollywood script writers. The approach I take in leading the scientific research of the Galileo Project is not to imagine anything, but instead to study objects near Earth that appear anomalous compared to the familiar classes of natural or human-made products.

In case we find products of more intelligent species, how should we react to them? Our ability to decide might benefit from our AI systems deciphering the intent and language of the extraterrestrial intelligence, in the same way that Alan Turing broke the Enigma code during the Second World War. If that happens, the imitation game suggested by Turing later for AI systems imitating humans, might be replaced by terrestrial AI imitating extraterrestrial intelligence.

Psychologists would be better suited for figuring out a proper response to alien intelligence than physicists, because they have better skills for dealing with intelligent systems.

As of now, bad human actors dictate our terrestrial priorities. They reduce our aspirations to the lowest common denominator. Here’s hoping that the encounter with extraterrestrials will shift our attention from the worst students to the best students in our class.

For that reason, we should seek a higher intelligence in interstellar space. In addition, we should pray that they will appreciate our intelligence enough so as not to list us on the menu of their restaurants. To avoid their menu, we must behave more intelligently as soon as possible. An important threshold will be crossed once the “Director for National Intelligence” would be the government official responsible for elevating how smart we are, instead of the officer responding to destructive threats.


Image credit: Chris Michel (October 2023)

Avi Loeb is the head of the Galileo Project, founding director of Harvard University’s — Black Hole Initiative, director of the Institute for Theory and Computation at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and the former chair of the astronomy department at Harvard University (2011–2020). He chairs the advisory board for the Breakthrough Starshot project, and is a former member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and a former chair of the Board on Physics and Astronomy of the National Academies. He is the bestselling author of “Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth” and a co-author of the textbook “Life in the Cosmos”, both published in 2021. His new book, titled “Interstellar”, was published in August 2023.



Avi Loeb

Avi Loeb is the Baird Professor of Science and Institute director at Harvard University and the bestselling author of “Extraterrestrial” and "Interstellar".