In a dinner I had with the brilliant Harvard psychologist, Mahzarin Banaji, she mentioned the words of the physicist Murray Gell-Mann: “Think how hard physics would be if particles could think.” “This makes my profession far more difficult than yours,” Mahzarin noted. “Perhaps,” I replied, “but the thinking individuals you deal with are fundamentally made of elementary particles that cannot think.” Imagine constructing a complex structure out of Lego pieces. The final product is composed of the nature of its parts. The ability of large language models (LLM) to generate a form of artificial intelligence (AI) that emulates original intellectual content after being trained on vast amounts of text, suggests that human intelligence is merely a manifestation of complex systems.
But what makes a genius an outlier in the landscape of intellect? It is the exceptional efficiency of arriving at the truth through shortcuts that save a tremendous effort on behalf of typical humans. So far, LLM do not show the qualities of a genius, but rather those of a hard-working learner. When AI will acquire the quality of a genius system or an oracle, we will need a new branch of AI-psychology to guide us. And human-AI interactions would constitute new relationships akin to a colony of ants on a pavement trying to make sense of the speed of bikers that pass by.
A similar experience would accompany an encounter with alien technology that is far more advanced than ours. We would recognize this technology as complex but have a difficult time making sense of it. As with genius-AI systems, we might need psychologists to translate their complexity to simpler terms that we can follow.
I was asked by reporters in recent days what we should imagine aliens to be like and I said: “All we can imagine is based on what we experienced on Earth, but otherwise the sky’s the limit.” The best we can do in preparing for an encounter with the unknown is to be open-minded and not stick to prejudice.
The dinner was in a steakhouse and Mahzarin noted that we are both not afraid of eating sacred cows.
Indeed, for now I need to convince my colleagues in academia that if interstellar objects, like `Oumuamua or IM1, appear different from familiar rocks from the solar system, we should be intrigued to collect new data about them and not argue that the US Space Command data must be wrong because it does not fit models for stones. Mahzarin explained to me that the latter response reflects cognitive dissonance, a mental discomfort that people feel when their behavior does not align with their beliefs. These astronomers seek consistency between the government data and their past knowledge and the conflict generates unease and discomfort to the point where they tell the New-York Times reporter, Katrina Miller: “People are sick of hearing about Avi Loeb’s wild claims.”
However, it was not my claim but rather that of the US Space Command that the speed of IM1 was high enough to make it interstellar in origin at the 99.999% confidence. I simply used known physics to deduce that their data implies a speed faster than 95% of all stars in the vicinity of the Sun relative to the Local standard of Rest of the Milky Way, and moreover that this object must have material strength larger than all 272 space rocks in the CNEOS catalog of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. That this makes some astronomers unhappy is a subject for discussion with their therapists. While they adopt the strategy of raising dust and claiming that they cannot see very far, I see the inconsistency with past knowledge as an opportunity to learn something new.
As a physicist, I am focused on physical objects like `Oumuamua or IM1, and cannot cater the laws of physics to the wishes of my colleagues. Five years ago, after leaving the lecture hall where an astronomer described the anomalies of `Oumuamua, a colleague of mine who worked for decades on space rocks said: “`Oumuamua is so weird, I wish it never existed.” Clearly, `Oumuamua generated a cognitive dissonance for him.
As I noted to attendees of the Galileo Project’s annual conference last week, “I did not want to make some of my colleagues sick. On the contrary, I wish them good health and prosperity. But we have to respect data verified by the US Space Command which receives more funding than NASA to watch out for ballistic missiles and which used satellites to record IM1’s fireball. Thanks to their data we have an opportunity to learn something new.”
As some colleagues push back, I adopt the attitude of eagles who do not fight the crows pecking on their necks but instead rise to greater heights where the oxygen level is so low that the crows cannot survive and drop off their backs. For me, the greatest heights are those of science properly-done, namely seeking the detailed analysis of more than 700 spherules collected by the expedition team I led to IM1’s crash site. The results from the analysis of their materials will be reported in a future paper to be submitted to a peer-reviewed journal. At the heights of the scientific methodology, the “crows” will hopefully drop off my back.
The biggest challenge in making sense of interstellar objects is the barriers to new knowledge placed by people who are trying to protect science from evidence. I respect the data from the US Space Command because the expedition team already collected an enhanced spherule count near the claimed meteor path and can now figure out whether the composition of this material is different from solar system materials.
The promise of science should not be diminished by bullying on social media or by academic jealousy stemming from public attention. In fact, communicating the scientific process to the public while it happens removes the misconception that science is an occupation of the elite, because people connect to detective stories with twists and turns, where the detective might make mistakes along the way but eventually resolves the case based on evidence.
Those who pretend to know the answer without seeking evidence or those who claim that the evidence must be wrong because it does not conform to their prejudice, are not real scientists. I leave the analysis of their motivations to psychologists like Mahzarin. As I discuss in my new book, Interstellar, objects like IM1 cannot think but they might provide us with clues about extraterrestrials who think better than us. One could therefore argue that just like Mahzarin — I am interested in thinking entities. The difference is that they might possess intellectual qualities far more exciting than those of some of our colleagues in academia.
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. His new book, titled “Interstellar”, is scheduled for publication in August 2023.