Tracking Extraterrestrial Packages with AI

Avi Loeb
6 min readApr 16, 2023

The next generation of artificial intelligence (AI) systems is likely to include a machine more complex than the human brain, since the existing 100 trillion connections of GPT-4 are only a factor of 6 shy of the number of synapses in the human brain. Although the machine will be trained on human-made texts, it will develop its own qualities of mind by learning from new personal experiences. It will likely mature similarly to the way that children become independent adults who take legal responsibility for their actions.

Humanity gave birth to an alien baby in its technological belly. Alarm bells are starting to sound about the existential risk that AI may bring as an alien entity.

This is not unprecedented on Earth. Life was foreign to the soup of chemicals on early Earth. Human intelligence was foreign to animal life before it emerged a few million years ago. AI was foreign to the philosopher Martin Buber who only knew of the “I-it” or “I-Thou” interactions and never imagined Alan Turing’s “imitation game” in the form of the “I-AI” or “AI-AI” interactions.

The repeating question I get asked every day is: “Are aliens visiting Earth from interstellar space?” Such visitors could be different from our own AI creations. In fact, they are likely to represent our technological future if the same sequence of terrestrial events was realized on another habitable planet near a star that formed billions of years before the Sun. In that case, the visitors are unlikely to be biological creatures because of the long travel times involved, of order a few billion years for chemical propulsion to go around the circumference of the Milky Way disk at the Sun’s location. The expectation for an encounter with purely technological products would save us from an interstellar health disaster analogous to the deadly diseases that were brought by European visitors to isolated indigenous tribes of the “New World.”

The extraterrestrial encounter could involve space trash — in the form of `Oumuamua being a piece from a broken Dyson sphere, or functional devices — in the form of AI astronauts appearing as Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP). The breaking news delivered by extraterrestrial AI packages would be that our AI systems were not the first to be created throughout cosmic history, 13.8 billion years after the Big Bang. This will open a new field of research: astroAI, in analogy to astrobiology, astrochemistry or astrophysics.

It is very likely that most of the reported UAP are human made. This point was argued in great detail recently, but was already explicitly pointed-out in the 2022 UAP Report from the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) to the US Congress — which stated that nearly half the UAP are human-made balloons and some are human-made drones. While the government focuses on national security threats, the fundamental scientific question is whether there is anything else that cannot be associated with human-made technologies. This would be of great interest to fundamental science, a global enterprise which studies the cosmos with open data and no loyalty to national borders. Scientifically, we would like to know whether there are one or more objects among all reported UAP of extraterrestrial origin. This was explicitly stated by the DNI director, Avril Haines, at the Ignatius forum that I attended with her five months after her 2021 UAP report to Congress. Avril has a bachelor’s degree in physics from the University of Chicago.

Many people without a physics degree or the evidence apparent to Avril Haines, have strong opinions about this question. These commentators resemble soccer reporters who are instructing the players in the field how to play soccer. The work of scientists should be done by scientists, not by uninformed UAP commentators with non-scientific credentials.

It is much easier to have an uninformed opinion than to conduct the difficult scientific work needed to find conclusive evidence beyond a reasonable doubt. I lead dozens of researchers within the Galileo Project team, who took a full year to assemble the first UAP Observatory at Harvard University. Past astronomical observatories were not suitable for the task because they focused on small fields of view or ignored objects passing overhead. By now, the first Galileo observatory is recording continuously the full sky in the infrared, optical, radio and audio.

The Galileo research team will soon have more data at its disposal than ever reported openly by UAP enthusiasts. The Galileo Project is planning to make two copies of the first Galileo observatory in the coming months. Later on, the project will need a modest funding level of tens of millions of dollars to establish a comprehensive data set with state-of-the-art instrumentation and get to the heart of the UAP puzzle. The project’s AI classification algorithms search the images and trajectories of objects for anything which is not natural or human-made.

When the US government identifies or shoots down balloons, it reduces the clutter of UAP in the sky and helps the scientific mission of the Galileo Project. Government and science complement each other in separating national security threats from potential extraterrestrial objects. And there is also the natural world; here, the Galileo Project made a promise to deliver a photo album of birds to Valerie Jensen, the latest funder of a new Galileo observatory.

Aside from its scientific mission, the Galileo Project serves to educate the public as well as the academic community that new scientific knowledge is acquired by new data and not by expressing an opinion on low-quality data from the past. This learning process requires the hard work of assembling instruments and surrendering without prejudice to the message that the data delivers. The UAP past was shaped by scientists avoiding data collection and non-scientists making unsubstantiated claims about new physics. This is not the trademark of a truly intelligent species.

If aliens are watching us, they must be enjoying their version of Turing’s “imitation game” in the spirit of: “Lets keep sending packages to the mailbox of humanity until humans are smart enough to open one of the packages and read the answer to Enrico Fermi’s paradox: `Where is everybody?’ The answer is: `We are right next to you. Congratulations on finally noticing us! We could not believe it when we followed NASA sending probes to Mars for decades and seeking proof for extraterrestrial microbial life and the SETI community searching for radio signals from distant exoplanets and banning UAP discussions, while all along our probes were flying near Earth.’ ”

There is a good reason it took humanity a long time to get engaged. Only over the past decade our survey telescopes and government sensors were capable of identifying the first interstellar objects. And even now, the anomalies exhibited by the unusual shape and non-gravitational acceleration of `Oumuamua or the extreme material strength of the first two interstellar meteors, IM1 and IM2, are ignored by many astronomers.

Here’s hoping that the AI systems employed by the Galileo Project will provide clarity on the possible existence of alien technological objects near Earth. This realization, mediated by the alien AI system we created on Earth, may finally elevate us to the class of intelligent civilizations in the Milky Way galaxy, marked by two simple principles: “Stop the chatter; follow the evidence.”

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.

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Avi Loeb

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