What Does It Mean to Be Intelligent?

Avi Loeb
4 min readMay 16, 2024
(Image credit: Medical Group)

There are many good reasons for imagining a higher level of intelligence than we possess. The examples below suggest that our natural intelligence has room for improvement:

· We live for less than 120 years, a part in a hundred million of the age of the Universe. Yet, we insist on engaging in conflicts and wars that shorten our lifespan.

· We divide the land on Earth through national borders, instead of appreciating the much larger real estate available in outer space.

· We get our pride from looking down at other terrestrials, instead of looking up and searching, with a sense of humility, for extraterrestrials.

· We develop artificial intelligence that exceeds our natural intellectual capabilities. Yet, we insist that we are the most intelligent entities that have existed since the Big Bang.

· We ignore history out of hubris, and focus on the present as if it is unprecedented. For example, we discuss global warming as an unprecedented catastrophe from which life on Earth will never recover. However, Earth went through an increase in greenhouse gases at the end of the Permian period, 252 million years ago, which resulted in a sudden change of global climate and in a mass extinction of 95% of all species. Terrestrial life recovered from that, as we all witnessed.

· We know that the Sun will boil off all oceans on Earth within about a billion years, yet we do not develop a plan B for long-term survival on an alternative space platform.

· We believe that we understand the Universe, even though we have no clue about the nature of its major constituents: dark energy and dark matter. We also do not know what happened before the Big Bang. We do not have a predictive theory of quantum gravity, nor a good understanding of the meaning of quantum mechanics.

· We believe that life started on Earth in isolation from the rest of the Universe, starting from a terrestrial soup of chemicals. However, we know that rocks from Mars and interstellar space landed on Earth and that Earth passed through dense molecular clouds and was exposed to objects from other star systems throughout its history.

· We know of exoplanets and estimate that a substantial fraction of sunlike stars host a rocky, Earth-size planet in their habitable zone. Yet, we insist that the existence of extraterrestrial life-as-we-know-it is an “extraordinary claim.”

· Most scientists do not support the investment of resources in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI), even though they know that exoplanets are common and agree that finding such evidence will change the future of humanity.

· We know that some technological signatures are much easier to recognize from a large distance than atmospheric spectral signatures of microbial life, yet mainstream astronomers allocate federal resources only towards the search for microbial life.

· We believe that Earth is at the intellectual center of the Universe, even though most stars formed billions of years before the Sun. Most likely, the party started long before we joined it.

· We imagine that Albert Einstein was the smartest scientist who ever lived since the Big Bang, 13.8 billion years ago, without searching for a better scientist in our cosmic neighborhood.

· We have been waiting for a radio signal from an extraterrestrial civilization for more than 70 years, yet the SETI community stigmatizes discussions on the search for extraterrestrial technological objects near Earth. This is equivalent to dark matter experimentalists not finding weakly-interacting massive particles and maintaining a stigma on the search for axions.

· We let politicians lead us to conflicts associated with zero-sum games instead of seeking better role models in the form of extraterrestrial civilizations that may have had millions of years of science and technology and could offer us infinite-sum games.

· We worry about the threat from extraterrestrial predators rather than appreciate the opportunity to learn from a smarter kid on our cosmic block.

In conclusion: what does it mean to be intelligent? As far as I am concerned, the signatures of intelligence are humility and curiosity — the two engines that propel learning. We must acknowledge how much we do not know and seek evidence that will guide us towards knowing more.

Being intelligent means maintaining a beginner’s mind, living the life of an eternal student, approaching the world with an optimistic mindset of cooperation, admitting our limitations and seeking to be better.

Fundamentally, our knowledge is just an island in an ocean of ignorance. We are not at the center of the cosmic stage and we arrived at the end of the cosmic play. Common sense suggests that the cosmic play is not about us. Alas, common sense is not common in academia.


(Image credit: Chris Michell, 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".