Imagine your first day in class, realizing that there is a genius in it far smarter than anything you had ever witnessed before. That student gets the correct answers instantly with no effort and provides insights that nobody asked for. These qualities would appear magical and inspirational, and at the same time humbling. Some classmates would be jealous and choose to silence the student who threatens their ego, while others would express admiration and awe.
Returning after school to the physical reality of your home would be healing. Its furniture and pets offer the comfortable environment that is fully under your control. But while relaxing comfortably on your bed, you would keep thinking about the genius out there.
Over the past century, humanity gained fundamental insights into the physical reality. Modern science provides us with understanding of insentient objects, be it in the form of atoms and molecules, electronic gadgets or stars and galaxies. The possible existence of sentient beings beyond Earth remains an ignored possibility outside the mainstream of astronomy.
But we now know that most Sun-like stars formed billions of years before the Sun and an uncertain fraction between a few percent to nearly a hundred percent of these stars host an Earth-size planet in their habitable zone. Since the dice of intelligence was rolled billions of times in the Milky-Way galaxy alone, it is conceivable that we are not the smartest kid in the interstellar class of intelligence.
This is all fine as a hypothetical possibility. But imagine the actual first day after we find indisputable evidence that a device spotted near Earth was produced by an extraterrestrial genius. Would some of us be jealous and upset that humanity is not the pinnacle of the intelligent universe, ridicule the evidence and cancel on social media those who present the evidence? There is a precedent for such a response, when Galileo Galilei was put under house arrest and was silenced after proposing that the Earth is not located at the physical center of the Universe. That proposal did not go well since it did not flatter the ego of some people. But reality is whatever it is. Ignoring the evidence did not make the Sun move around the Earth. Insisting that we are the smartest in our interstellar class despite future evidence will only make us appear less intelligent than we could be. After all, not adapting to reality is the most unintelligent course of action according to Darwinian selection.
For the past seventy years, SETI focused on searching for “students in our interstellar class” who are at our technological phase of development. As soon as we acquired radio communication, we searched for radio communication from extraterrestrials. However, keep in mind that our own use of radio communication is roughly a century old, one part in a hundred million of the age of most Sun-like stars. We are already replacing radio communication with optical fibers on Earth and with laser communication in space, and there is no reason to expect an antiquated form of radio communication to be prevalent in interstellar space. It is also possible that radio communication is short-lived because those who carelessly broadcasted their existence to interstellar space were taken over by predator civilizations who are not as radio loud.
A more intelligent way to accomplish interstellar goals is to send autonomous probes equipped with artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning. Enrico Fermi wondered “Where is everybody?” prematurely, because we are currently at the infancy of the astronomical search for interstellar probes. The first three interstellar objects were discovered by astronomers merely over the past five years. The first interstellar meteor CNEOS 2014–01–08 exhibited material strength tougher than all 273 meteors in the CNEOS catalog and was moving faster than 95% of all stars in the vicinity of the Sun. The second, `Oumuamua, had an extreme flat shape and pushed away from the Sun without showing signs of cometary activity. The US Congress is now using the language of “trans-medium devices” to describe unidentified objects that were detected by military sensors to transit seamlessly between water and air.
It would be particularly difficult to fully understand technologies that are millions of years ahead of our technological development. There is a fundamental difference between our interaction with a sentient AI device and a physical object. The sentient entity could react to our actions in an intelligent way. Therefore, the reality it represents depends on what we do. Physicists traditionally treat the physical reality as having independent existence. If there are sentient probes in our neighborhood, we would have to adjust to a new methodology of scientific inquiry in which the reality being studied could be more intelligent than we are. The type of science that intelligent ants might develop when noticing a biker stopping by them on the sidewalk. The type of awe that results from noticing a genius in the first day of class.
The attempt to figure out the unknown is the nature of spirituality, and is often accompanied with a sense of awe and humility.
For now, some of our terrestrial classmates ridicule discussions about the intriguing possibility that we are witnessing interstellar visitors of an artificial origin. But just imagine the scientific method revealing, through data collected by research endeavors like the Galileo Project, that there is a genius in our cosmic neighborhood. How should we figure out what such a realization entails? How should we engage with sentient devices?
Of course, after that discovery we would retreat to the comfort of the physical reality that we control every day, but even at the comfort of our home — we will never stop thinking about the genius out there.
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.