Comparing AI to ET: Evolution is the Common Denominator

October 24, 2014

There was an interesting talk by SETI enthusiast Morris Jones, who pointed out that we would need to learn about alien biology before we could understand how the aliens think. This is equally true for AI machines! The AI won’t be biological, but let’s just say “evolved” instead.

Steel panels at Nagata-cho Station - Feb. 3, 2014

Steel panels at Nagata-cho Station – Feb. 3, 2014 (Enlarge)

It’s kind of cool to compare AI with ET, huh? And this also reminds me of what PZ Myers was saying recently about how the AI won’t have human-like hygiene problems. Of course not – but that doesn’t mean we’ll have nothing in common at all.

Jones points out that communication is a form of social behavior, and social behavior is an extension of biology. I said to myself, “Great! That means we’ll find it easy to communicate with aliens.”

See, if we have biology in common, then we should be able to use that as a common denominator for communication. After all, biology means evolution. Any species that evolves by natural selection will be pursuing its own species survival – just like us. I think this is a good basis for inter-stellar communication.

As one commenter on io9 wrote:

For aliens who have no concept of sexual reproduction, half of human behavior will make no sense. For aliens who have no sense of hierarchical power structures, the other half of human behavior will make no sense.

That’s just my point. Any alien life we meet will certainly understand reproduction (not necessarily sexual), and any alien life will also understand competition (not necessarily hierarchical), simply due to their evolution. We understand such things because we evolved, and any alien species – if it is alive – will also understand these fundamental things due to their own evolution.

I don’t mean to brush aside all the wonderful differences between living species, and I don’t want to suggest that alien life will necessarily look like Earth life. I’m just saying that there’s a strict limit to how strange alien life can possibly be. The basic phenomenon of life – self-organizing structures that evolve by natural selection – is the same throughout the universe, just as the laws of physics are the same everywhere. That’s uniformitarianism. And the fact of evolution will give us a pretty broad basis for communicating with any alien life we ever meet.

We’ll communicate about growth and reproduction, illness and healing, death and rebirth. We’ll communicate about food (or whatever energy inputs the aliens require) and we’ll also communicate about the lack of food. We’ll communicate about diversity, about all the competitive advantages or disadvantages that diversity gives to different individuals. Indeed, we’ll communicate with aliens about competition, the struggle for supremacy – or the struggle for cooperation and mutual understanding.

Every alien species we ever meet will understand all these concepts in exactly the same way we do. The aliens will understand these concepts because they are fundamental aspects of life. Because any alien life we meet will necessarily have evolved. If it didn’t evolve, then it isn’t life – that’s what I’m saying.

And again, the same thing is true for any AI machines that we might meet out there in space, or that we create here on Earth. Any true AI machine will have to be alive, or else it will just be another robotic algorithm without a will of its own. And in order to be alive, an AI machine must evolve by natural selection. Just like ET.