The Role of Intelligence in the Cosmos

Avi Loeb
5 min readJun 10, 2024


Merav Opher (right) and Avi Loeb discussing their paper on the collision of the Solar system with a dense interstellar cloud a few million years ago, published today in Nature. (Image credit: Kris Snibbe, Harvard Gazette)

Today I received an interesting question from Carl Devito, Associate Professor Emeritus in the department of Mathematics at the University of Arizona: “What, if any, is the role of intelligent life in the cosmos?

In my view, the role of intelligence is to understand the cosmos and decipher its blueprint. Naively, this task sounds like the role of a theater critic who reviews a play that lasts a lifetime. But our scientific responsibility goes well beyond that, because the tools of science allow us to not only interpret the cosmic plot that unravels now on stage but also to figure out the process that led to this grand production as we observe the universe at earlier times, all the way back to the Big Bang. This allows us to infer the materials and the initial conditions that enabled the cosmic play we witness.

The quest for understanding the cosmos must be evidence based, because our experience on Earth limits our imagination. This implies that the job will not be completed unless we venture to interstellar space and find other actors who may know better what the cosmic play is about. If they are more intelligent or simply have a longer scientific lineage, they might have a better perspective than we. Finding them might trigger an imitation game of them, similar to that envisioned by Alan Turing in the context of artificial intelligence (AI) imitating us. Learning from smarter students in our interstellar class of intelligence would allow us to earn a higher grade in understanding the cosmic playbook.

As much as we feel pride in discovering the nature of quantum mechanics, spacetime or quantum-gravity, it is abundantly clear that there are major gaps in our understanding, such as the nature of dark matter and dark energy, the origin of the Big Bang and the making of black hole singularities. These are a few examples of what we know that we do not know, or the “known unknowns” in the words of former U.S. Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld. But I wonder what the “unknown unknowns” are. Here again, aliens can educate us on what we had missed.

The more we learn, the more questions we will have on what we do not fully understand. But the implications are bigger. If we realize how the Universe came to exist, we might be able to produce a baby universe in the laboratory using the same recipe. This act would be equivalent to recreating a new play on a new stage with a new audience to observe it, out of the materials we find on our own cosmic stage. Intelligence allows us to recreate what we witness.

But even before we reach this ultimate milestone, being intelligent brings practical benefits as it allows us to adapt better to reality. Intelligence manifests the ability of a cognitive system to respond to its environment in an efficient way that avoids the missteps of a random walk or wishful thinking. Reading the daily world news makes it clear that human intelligence is compromised by the toxicity of ego-driven politics and zero-sum games. We can improve our performance by either recognizing that science is better than politics, or by attending to the advice we get from AI or extraterrestrial superhuman intelligence.

Speaking about the response to our cosmic environment, I just had the privilege of co-authoring a new paper with Merav Opher and Josh Peek that was published today in Nature magazine. We discovered that the solar system may have passed through a dense gas cloud a few million years ago. The cloud pressure could have shrunk the heliosphere where the solar wind is stopped, to be inside the Earth’s orbit around the Sun, allowing energetic cosmic-rays and interstellar gas to affect climate and life on Earth. This event was roughly around the time when the human species arrived on the cosmic stage. The Harvard Gazette reported:

We don’t often discuss the impact of astrophysics on Earth because the astronomical timescales are very long, and the human species emerged on Earth just a few million years ago,” Loeb said. “But a few million years ago there was the potential for us to be passing through a very dense cloud. We didn’t work out the biological implications, but it’s clear that if you shrink the heliosphere to within the orbit of the Earth around the sun, we are not protected anymore. It could have significant implications for life on Earth.”

There is nothing more intelligent than attempting to understand where we came from and where we are going.

In this vein, my brilliant friend and colleague, Dr. Frank Laukien, noted today after reading my previous essay: “It is so curious and remarkable that with all of our intellectual prowess, and with neither being particularly religious, somehow our cultural roots are undeniable:

First, we subscribe to a Big-Bang origins or ‘creation story’, where the world was created either by a creator (God, quantum gravity engineer), or by a vacuum fluctuation with ‘let there be light’ cosmic inflation and creation of all mass and radiation.

Now, you are waiting for the Messiah with extraterrestrial super-intelligence from interstellar space to bring us peace! Just like the rabbis have been predicting for millennia!

Isn’t this confluence of scientific curiosity and analysis, and deep cultural-religious roots remarkable?”

To which I answered: “Yes, I agree with your linkage. Our modern science and technology provide a fresh perspective on the same ideas that were previously in the realm of religion.

Earlier, shortly after my morning jog at sunrise today, I was interviewed for an hour-long podcast titled “The Focus” with John Bruni from Australia. The interview ended with me describing the confluence of religion and science if we discover interstellar superhuman intelligence. “So, in the end, God might be an extraterrestrial robot with AI?”, John asked. “Indeed, there might be nothing more intelligent than something like that,” I noted and added: “We just need to find it in order to understand more.


(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 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".