If the Perseverance rover finds evidence of germs on Mars, our self-esteem will not be affected because it is obvious that we are smarter than them. But if the rover hits the wreckage of a much more advanced spacecraft than we’ve ever produced, our egos will be tested.
Illusory superiority and unwarranted pride run deep in human nature. They led the Nazi regime during World War II to trigger the deaths of more than 70 million people, or 3% of the world’s population in 1940, an order of magnitude greater than the death toll caused by the coronavirus so far. . The tiny genetic differences that motivated Nazism would seem laughable in the presence of a much more advanced civilization.
Our own civilization could perish in centuries as a result of a self-inflicted global catastrophe, such as another world war or climate change. If so, primitive life forms such as microbes or even crocodiles swimming in exoplanet swamps might prove to be more likely to survive in the long term than self-proclaimed “intelligent species” like ours. Given our tendency to self-destruct, we will only remember ourselves on the cosmic scene if we manage to launch lasting relics into space before we vanish from Earth.
As argued in my book Extraterrestrial, humanity is not ready to embrace a sense of cosmic modesty. But that may change if we detect relics from more advanced civilizations. The recently announced Galileo project will indeed search for extraterrestrial technological objects near Earth. This scientific research program is essential to educate us about the cosmic reality in which we live. Our galactic neighbors will not disappear if we ignore them, in the same way that the Earth-Sun system had no obligation to satisfy the egocentric notion of geocentrism.
We currently have a broader perspective. Life is a self-replicating molecular organization of genetic information that emerged from a soup of chemicals on early Earth and evolved through Darwinian selection to gain an advantage over random processes in its environment. Humanity is an outgrowth of natural life, but it is currently allowing a phase transition to technological relics that could outlive biological creatures. And the same could have happened a long time ago around other stars that formed billions of years before the sun.
Even though our roots come from a soup of chemicals on early Earth, there should be no nostalgia attached to our beginnings or our current phase of evolution. The future belongs to artificial intelligence (AI) systems which, thanks to machine learning, will replace natural intelligence. AI systems could roam interstellar space and outlast the stars, representing the ultimate winners in the survival of Darwin’s fittest. The flame of consciousness our bodies carry could be transferred to AI avatars that promote our goals in the universe at large, as if they were our children.
Some religions describe humans as being made in the image of God. AI systems could be made just like humans, with the added benefit of being able to last much longer in space than astronauts. While AI CubeSats represent our future, they can also represent the past of technological civilizations that came before us around stars that formed long before the sun.
From a global cosmic point of view, we are less impressive than the AI systems that we will launch into interstellar space. Because of this, aliens might not even bother to study Earth with a Perseverance-type rover.
But we also need to recognize our limitations. We may have a better ability to understand others with lower intelligence than ourselves than grasping the subtlety of those with higher intelligence. It reminds me of the story told by the German physicist Hans-Peter Dürr, about a fisherman who announces a new law of nature according to which “all fish are more than two inches”, until he realizes that this is the size of the holes in his fishing net. Likewise, we miss details about reality over reality that our minds cannot grasp.
In decades, AI systems could surpass us. At this point, caution will be required. If AI systems qualify for a tenure at prestigious universities, their tenure could last a very long time.
This is an opinion and analysis article; the opinions expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of American scientist.