In recent months, it became fashionable to virtually go on a date in the metaverse. By wearing the proper headset, you enter a Virtual Reality (VR) domain where your avatar meets the avatar of your date.
Would this be a good training ground for the first date of humanity with extraterrestrials? Not really, since that meeting would occur in the actual physical reality without VR glasses. For the foreseeable future, any extraterrestrial device must meet us near our home, since our chemically-propelled spacecraft will require tens of thousands of years to exit the entire Solar system out to a hundred thousand times the Earth-Sun separation. Therefore, it is not our avatar that might meet their avatar. Rather, it would be us meeting with their avatar in the form of a physical device.
What would their avatar look like on the first interstellar date? Since our modern science and technology is only a century old and their device had to travel across interstellar distances, it is likely that their device would represent technological capabilities that are far superior to what we possess. This is implied by extending natural selection on Earth to the more challenging technological realm of “survival of the fittest” under the harsh conditions in interstellar space.
Of course, there is a chance that humanity would be “ghosted” after a date and nobody would ever show up again. But let’s stay positive. Without searching agnostically in the spirit of the Galileo Project, we will not find anyone. Dismissing the value of the effort associated with interstellar dating by surrendering in advance to Enrico Fermi’s doubt: “where is everybody?”, would resemble the self-fulfilling prophecy of daters who decide to give up and stay single.
Consider the case in which a sentient extraterrestrial device adjusts its interaction to our level of understanding in order to camouflage its technological gap relative to us and avoid conflict. This would resemble a chameleon adjusting its skin color to the environment in order to improve the prospects for survival. A Trojan Horse strategy would enable our sentient date to collect information about us while hiding its technological superiority. If extraterrestrial avatars wanted to control our resources or change human history, they could have done so long ago. Therefore, a better dating strategy is for us to relax and reach our independent conclusions from such an encounter without displaying distress.
The scientific method is different in its nature from dating strategies. Physicists consider the reality of physical objects as dictated by a universal set of rules or equations. This removes the familiar ambiguity of “free will” that injects unpredictability into the dating scenes of sentient beings.
Fundamentally, the laws of physics might be all that reality entails. In that case, the unpredictability in dating scenes stems merely from the complexity of sentient beings, even if their material makeup is fully described by the equations of physics. But given that physicists cannot forecast the behavior of sentient beings, the emergent phenomenon of “free will” implies that encounters between such beings are enshrouded with mystery. The same unpredictability could extend to sufficiently complex technological devices.
In his 1949 book “The Concept of the Mind”, the philosopher Gilbert Ryle coined the “ghost in the machine” to describe Rene Descartes’ mind-body dualism. This concept might apply to our next generation of artificial intelligence (AI) systems. If extraterrestrials reached this milestone a billion years ago, our date with their sentient AI devices might not be qualitatively different from dating biological beings with “free will”.
Irrespective of its roots, the emergent phenomenon of “free will” requires a revision of the scientific method used by physicists. Even if technological and not biological in origin, the devices being studied might not behave in a predictable way, changing their behavior just like temperamental dating partners. Under these circumstances, physicists might need to give up on the notion of reproducibility of results.
Dealing with unpredictable sentient beings is the day job of psychologists. They have the proper skillset to analyze dates among humans. Therefore, humanity’s encounter with sentient extraterrestrial devices should be analyzed by psychologists rather than by physicists. The related research frontier could be labeled: “psychology of interstellar dating”.
Psychologists might figure out how to interpret the behavior of sentient extraterrestrial devices long before physicists would explain how these devices actually operate. Although the latter task might be more challenging, it could be more rewarding. The extraterrestrial devices could reveal new technologies or even new physics, without the need to fund expensive experiments in which we smash elementary particles at ever increasing energies. Learning such insights might feel like looking over the shoulder of a smarter classmate for the answers to fundamental questions, but it could also save many years of taxpayers funding for research and development here on Earth.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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.