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Artificial Intelligence Among the Stars

Talk of a ‘singularity’ in which artificial intelligence reaches such levels that it moves beyond human capability and comprehension plays inevitably into the realm of interstellar studies. Some have speculated, as Paul Davies does in The Eerie Silence, that any civilization we make contact with will likely be made up of intelligent machines, the natural development of computer technology’s evolution. But even without a singularity, it’s clear that artificial intelligence will have to play an increasing role in space exploration.

If we develop the propulsion technologies to get an interstellar probe off to Alpha Centauri, we’ll need an intelligence onboard that can continue to function for the duration of the journey, which could last centuries, or at the very least decades. Not only that, the onboard AI will have to make necessary repairs, perform essential tasks like navigation, conduct observations and scientific studies and plan and execute arrival into the destination system. And when immediate needs arise, it will have to do all of this without human help, given the travel time for radio signals to reach the spacecraft.

Consider how tricky it is just to run rover operations on Mars. Opportunity’s new software upgrade is called AEGIS, for Autonomous Exploration for Gathering Increased Science. It’s a good package, one that helps the rover identify the best targets for photographs as it returns data to Earth. AEGIS had to be sent to the three transmitting sites and forwarded on to the Odyssey orbiter, from which it could be beamed to Opportunity on the surface. A new article in h+ Magazine takes a look at AEGIS in terms of what it portends for the future of artificial intelligence in space. Have a look at it, and ponder that light-travel time to Mars is measured in minutes, not the hours it takes to get to the outer system.

Where do the early AI applications like AEGIS lead us? Writer Jason Louv asked Benjamin Bornstein, who leads JPL’s Machine Learning team, for a comment on machines and the near future:

“We absolutely need people in the loop, but I do see a future where robotic explorers will coordinate and collaborate on science observations,” Bornstein predicts. “For example, the MER dust devil detector, a precursor to AEGIS, acquires a series of Navcam images over minutes or hours and downlinks to Earth only those images that contain dust devils. A future version of the dust devil detector might alert an orbiter to dust storms or other atmospheric events so that the orbiter can schedule additional science observations from above, time and resources permitting. Dust devils and rover-to-orbiter communication are only one example. A smart planetary seismic sensor might alert an orbiting SAR [synthetic aperture radar] instrument, or a novel thermal reading from orbit could be followed up by ground spectrometer readings… Also, for missions to the outer planets, with one-way light time delays, onboard autonomy offers the potential for far greater science return between communication opportunities.”

One-way light delays are obviously critical as we look at the outer planets and beyond. Voyager 1, for example, as of April 12, was 113 AU from the Sun, having passed the termination shock. It’s now moving into the heliosheath. At these distances, the round-trip light time is 31 hours 34 minutes. That’s just to the edge of the Solar System. A probe to the Oort Cloud will have much longer delays, with round-trip signal times ranging from 82 to 164 weeks. Pushing on to the Alpha Centauri stars obviously lengthens the round-trip time yet again, so that we face up to 4.2 years delay just in getting a message to a probe at Proxima, with another 4.2 years for acknowledgement. The chances of managing short-term problems from Earth are obviously nil.

Image: Comet Hale Bopp’s orbit (lower, faint orange); one light-day (yellow spherical shell with yellow Vernal point arrow as radius); the Termination Shock (blue shell); positions of Voyager 1 (red arrow) and Pioneer 10 (green arrow); Kuiper Belt (small faint gray torus); orbits of Pluto (small tilted ellipse inside Kuiper Belt) and Neptune (smallest ellipse); all to scale. Credit: Paul Stansifer/84user/Wikimedia Commons.

Just how far could an artificial intelligence aboard a space probe be taken? Greg Bear’s wonderful novel Queen of Angels posits an AI that has to learn to deal not only with the situation it finds in the Alpha Centauri system, but also with what appears to be its growing sense of self-awareness. But let’s back the issue out to a broader context. Suppose that a culture at a technological level a million years in advance of ours is run by AIs that have supplanted the biological civilization that created their earliest iterations.

Think it’s hard to guess what an alien culture would do when it’s biological? Try extending the question to a post-singularity world made up of machines whose earliest ancestors were constructed by non-humans.

Will machine intelligence work side by side with the beings that created it, or will it render them obsolete? If Paul Davies’ conjecture that a SETI contact will likely be with a machine civilization proves true, are we safe in believing that the AIs that run it will act according to human logic and aspirations? There is much to speculate on here, but the answer is by no means obvious. In any case, it’s clear that work on artificial intelligence will have to proceed if we’re to operate spacecraft of any complexity outside our own Solar System. Any other species bent on exploring its neighborhood will have had to do the same thing, so the idea of running into non-biological aliens seems just as plausible as encountering their biological creators.


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  • tesh May 10, 2010, 15:37

    Eniac May 9, 2010 at 23:14
    The outsourcing of mfg to cheap Third World labor will be a thing of the past, with all the social disruption that will cause.
    I completely agree.

    Though I agree and hope for this , I’m not sure it is a given. For example, if a very, very, very cheap source of space travel was conceived and we were able to colonize other planets in Sol, then it could possibly also result in the formation of sub-populations that are ripe for outsourcing to. For example, a company builds a manufacturing plant of some description on Mars (say to make and sell bricks) and requires people – even a small number of them. Then will these people always be the pioneers/scientists/technicians that will be needed? Even if they always are, will they take their families? If they do then communities will start to spring up? Eventually, there will be poor people that will work for less than the machines cost to do some menial task or another. As long as there is an economy, there will always be cheap labour. Another possibility os that cheap labour may come to be seen as status symbol. Either way, I fear that the use of cheap labour will not die out. It is in our nature to exploit others. More over, dare I say it, it is in our genes! I hope we can over come our basest attributes but sometimes I have my doubts.

  • Eniac May 10, 2010, 17:29


    But ” The growth of productivity is proportional to productivity, because” — because! — “the means of production are themselves products.” is not conclusive. This is too simplistic.

    Simplistic, yes, as any mathematical model. I still think it makes sense, though. As the means of production get better, productivity rises, leading to more and better means of production, further increasing productivity. Just the recursive feedback required for exponential growth.

    If the growth of productivity depends on productivity in a superlinear way, you get hyperbolic growth instead of exponential, ending in a singularity. Maybe not THE singularity, but pretty close, actually, in spirit.

    Realistically, the concerns about labor and productivity and cost of goods will just go away and be replaced by something else, just as we do not worry anymore about horse manure clogging our streets because of increased traffic. Or engine exhaust suffocating our cities. Or fossil fuels overheating our planet… Ooops, skipped ahead here, a little ;-)

    The point being, after this has happened, it will be much easier to move into space. One reason is the cost factor will be gone, just as it is much easier to cross the Atlantic these days than 100 years ago. Another is that a labor-free (aka robotic) economy is much better suited for taking with us into space than one where you have to take people along for labor.

  • kurt9 May 10, 2010, 21:10

    You see, the kind of society that we want to create is the Chironian society depicted in Jim Hogan’s “Voyage from Yesteryear”. This society does not require AI or nanotechnology, but does require the kind of automation and robotics that I mentioned earlier. It is my desire to create this kind of society and to live in it that fuels my interest in space development and of all things technical. It is my life’s desire.

  • Administrator May 11, 2010, 9:48

    kurt9, I haven’t read any Hogan. So is Voyage from Yesteryear the best place to start?

  • kurt9 May 11, 2010, 18:10

    So is Voyage from Yesteryear the best place to start?


    This is his best novel and is my all time favorite novel of any kind.

  • Duncan Ivry May 11, 2010, 21:14

    Eniac: “As the means of production get better, productivity rises, leading to more and better means of production, further increasing productivity. Just the recursive feedback required for exponential growth.”

    This will not work, because you need more things than better and more products leading to better and more products in a feedback loop.

    As an example, for producing computers you need energy and raw materials (silicon and a lot of others in a very complicated composition) as input. These are preconditions based on physical laws you cannot circumvent just like that. The more computers you produce, the more energy and raw materials you will need, even if production gets more efficient. And in order to increase the efficiency of the production and the sophistication of the products, you need some very important inputs: capable engineers and scientists (even if they are the notorious AI-entities, which I don’t believe in anyway). Above that you will have the problem of maintenance. Supplying all this is far from easy, let alone the unsolved and the unsolvable problems.

    There will be no exponential growth except for short time periods.

  • Eniac May 12, 2010, 12:18

    This will not work, because you need more things than better and more products leading to better and more products in a feedback loop.

    I did say it was simplistic…

    There will be no exponential growth except for short time periods.

    Depends on what you mean by a short time period. Moore’s law has been going on for a while. As for productivity, here, for example:


    it says “Productivity has been increasing exponentially for more than a century.” Not sure where he got it from, but the statistics here:


    more or less confirm that historically productivity has increased at a rate of 2-3% annually. Over 100 years, that would make for a seven- to twenty-fold improvement. Recently, rates seem to have been increasing.

  • Ron S May 12, 2010, 14:42

    Make sure we’re talking about the same type of productivity measure. I believe Eniac’s references are correct for the economy as a whole, however the growth of any specific technology within an economy can only be briefly exponential (or geometric) until market saturation occurs.

  • kurt9 May 12, 2010, 16:02
  • Duncan Ivry May 12, 2010, 20:58

    Eniac: “Depends on what you mean by a short time period.”

    Well, Moore’s law and your other examples are ones running over a short time period, I would say.

    At university, I got lessons about the neoclassical economical theory, where, to my then surprise, nearly everything growths exponential. I soon got the impression, that this could be caused by the fact, that the economists are … er … not really versatile mathematics. It’s very easy to (a) set up theoretical equations with growth rates as variables, (b) do some transformations and calculations, and (c) draw interesting conclusions. But it’s much more difficult to do the same for variables which are not growth rates. A second important point is, that it’s very difficult to get sound measurements of economic variables (macro or micro) — even the economics professor said so quite frankly. As far as I can see, this isn’t much better today.

    Regarding the two examples “Productivity and the Workweek” by Erik Rauch, and “Productivity change in the nonfarm business sector, 1947-2009” by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. I don’t want to be negative, but, well, I have done a lot of statistics in the past, and (a) for me basing the conclusion of exponential growth of productivity on these data sets is a little bit questionable, and (b) statistics don’t tell that there *is* any underlying relationship between economic variables. Because of this, it would not only be *a little bit* questionable to predict a continuation of the assumed trend, but *very* questionable.

    I can’t resist: The current economic crisis will already appear as a short down turn in diagrams like the ones used in the examples. The wealth of people in Northern America and in Europe has been reduced substantially. In Europe, where I live, the crisis has been extended through the pertinent problems with the southern states of the European Union, especially Greece. We, the European working and taxpaying people will have to pay a *lot* of money — probably devalued by increasing inflation in the future — over *many* years. How many working hours will be necessary for, say, buying a car, a computer, a washing machine, and energy?

  • Duncan Ivry May 12, 2010, 21:01

    Arrrg … the economists are … not really versatile *mathematicians*.

  • ljk December 16, 2011, 18:01

    X-Tech and the Search for Infra Particle Intelligence

    By: Hugo de Garis

    Published: November 25, 2011

    This article continues a series of three previous articles on femtotechnology, femtocomputing and DNA-style femtocomputing.

    Computers are getting smaller and smaller by the year — today’s mobile phones are more powerful than yesterday’s mainframes. But we’re nowhere near the physical limits of miniaturization. In previous essays I explored the possibility of femtotechnology and femtocomputing.

    Here I will take some further steps in that direction, elaborating on attotechnology and beyond to zeptotechnology. And I will unravel some of the broader consequences of these technologies, which I collectively label “X-Tech”.

    X-Tech provides a potential solution to the Fermi Paradox (“where are all the nonhuman civilizations?”) … maybe they’re not out there living on other planets, but rather living inside atoms and particles! Perhaps we should be looking inside “elementary” particles because creatures constructed at these tiny scales would operate hugely faster, at far greater densities, and with vastly superior performance levels.

    We may need a paradigm shift away from outer space to inner space, from SETI to SIPI — the Search for Infra Particle Intelligence!

    Full article here:


    To quote from the article:

    “What impact does such thinking have upon SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence)? Well, I think it makes SETI look rather provincial. I’m not suggesting that the SETI effort be canceled, but the above thinking does suggest that the intelligences “out there” i.e. extra terrestrials (ETs), who might be primitive enough to bother sending radio signals to beings like us, are NOT the most intelligent specimens in the universe. The really smart ones I suggest are very very tiny.

    “Therefore I recommend that humanity start thinking about ways to detect their presence. We need a SIPI, a Search for Infra Particle Intelligence.”