Alien life
If life is out there, could we see it?Creative Commons

The search for intelligent alien life has so far been centered around looking for radio signals and detectable techno-signatures, but that only means humans expect aliens to have communication methods similar to the kind used on Earth. This might not necessarily be the "sign of intelligence" that organizations like the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) should look for anymore.

This is where Artificial Intelligence (AI) comes into the picture. According to a report by the Scientific American (SA), SETI believes it could be used to look for life in ways that humans are not familiar with, or have even thought of yet.

The idea stems from the fact that even on Earth, humans are not the only intelligent species. Based on similar ideologies, it is easy to see how "intelligent life" does not necessarily have to equate to "human intelligence."

AI has been used in the past to help create a simulation of what alien radio signals could possibly look like. With the intention to change this point of view, SETI now seeks to use AI to unfold things that humans have not even thought of looking for, yet.

According to the SA report, Graham Mackintosh, an AI consultant at the SETI Institute workshop, said that if alien technology does exist, it could have far exceeded the kind on Earth. He went on to state that it could be so vastly different than our current tech that we would not even be able to recognize it.

While it might not be possible to make humans smarter right away, machines can be made smarter, Mackintosh added.

The day that AI exceeds human intelligence is not far off. Often referred to as "the singularity," that event is not more than 20 years away, said Ray Kurzweil, Google's Director of Engineering in a conference last year. It was added that once the line is breached, there is no turning back.

Astrophysicist Martin Rees shared a similar hope, that AI could lead to "intelligence which surpasses humans as much as we intellectually surpass slime mold."

Intelligence could appear in the form of alien slime, it could be microbial in nature, or it could be geological at a planetary scale. The Scientific American report also notes that alien intelligence could manifest as an astrophysical phenomenon. If humans were to look at life and intelligence at this scale, we are unlikely to even register its presence.

Crows to Chimpanzees, intelligent all the way

The report points out how complex intelligence is already observed everywhere on our planet. Chimpanzees are known to have culture, create and use complex tools, and are also the only animal apart from humans to wage war –it lasted four years. Crows are known to understand analogies, beavers are known to be exceptional engineers, and spiders are known to process information through their webs. Language, culture, and technology outside of the human race are everywhere, notes SA.

Similarly, alien intelligence need not manifest itself in human form - broadcasting radio signals and launching golden disks. It can be similar to octopus, dolphin, or ants or, even something else entirely, something that is yet to be seen and experienced on Earth.

The report points out that while the search for intelligence has so far been relative to what humans think and feel, that line of reasoning is not really valid with regard to other species on Earth. In that case, it is not likely to be valid in the interstellar space of the vast universe.

AI could actually conceptualize the difference between a human-centered approach to alien intelligence and take an objective and critical look at life in its various forms.

This paper was published in the journal The Conversation.