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Distinguishing Between Biological and Machine Civilization Techno-signatures

If we ever make a SETI detection, will it be of biological beings or machine intelligence? As Alex Tolley explains in today’s essay, there are reasons for favoring the latter possibility, leading our author to compose what he calls a ‘light-hearted speculation’ about machines searching for other civilizations of their own kind. Life seems to be easy compared to this. We are developing the tools to delve into planetary atmospheres in search of biosignatures, hoping to cull out ambiguities. But is there an equivalent in the machine world of a biosignature, and how would it be found? Interesting implications arise, some of them seemingly close to home.

by Alex Tolley

Curiosity Rover. Credit Nasa.

Terry Bisson’s amusing short sci-fi story “They’re made Out of Meat” [4], is a communication between two individuals who express their disbelief that a biological species (detected on Earth by a galactic survey) can possibly be intelligent. The denouement is to erase the record of discovery from the survey report. It remains one of the few stories where machine entities are dominant in the galaxy. For me, this story is memorable because it is one of so few stories that focuses on the viewpoint of aliens, and moreover, machine aliens. This essay similarly focuses on what a machine civilization would look for when searching for machine intelligence in space.

Until recently, most speculation about extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI) has assumed it will be biological. In science fiction from the venerable H. G. Wells’ novel The War of the Worlds to recent movies like Independence Day and Arrival, technologically advanced ETI is depicted as biological.

SETI starts with the probability that life will appear, first unicellular then complex, leading on Earth led to hominid-level intelligence, which in turn eventually flowered culturally and created civilization and technological societies. SETI assumed there would be some sort of galactic communication between biological species confined to their home systems due to the extreme difficulties of interstellar travel.

Our civilization has placed primacy on our cognitive level to ensure we are the prime agencies, using animals, and later machines, to displace physical labor. Our conceit is that this will always remain so, as our technologies increase their capabilities, but always remain controlled by us.

However, the rapid development of artificial intelligence (AI) since the middle of the 20th century, the continuing rapid performance improvement in computer systems, and the undeniable success and longevity of our robotic explorers in space should be an indication that we are in the throes of a rapid transition to true, artificial general intelligence (AGI) machines that are well adapted to inhospitable environments, especially space.

Sci-fi authors have explored these machine-centric futures, from the novel by Stephen Baxter and Alastair Reynolds The Medusa Chronicles [2], which extended the Arthur C Clarke novelette [3] and has machines building a competing civilization to humans in the outer solar system, to Greg Benford’s Galactic Center novels, where sentient machines dominate the galaxy and humans have to survive like mice in a human world, while the mechs try to eliminate the humans just as we do for small rodents in our buildings.

More recently, James Lovelock wrote that he believed that humans would be replaced by cyborgs, by which he meant not Martin Caidin’s Cyborg (AKA The Six-million Dollar Man) or Star Trek’s Borg, but intelligent robots [1]. These would be our descendents and would be the explorers of the galaxy. This view has been supported by the Astronomer Royal, Sir Martin Rees, who stated that he believes that if we receive communication from the stars, it will be from a machine civilization [5]. Sir Martin is old enough to have watched the BBC production of A for Andromeda and the sequel The Andromeda Breakthrough, where it is revealed that the source of the radio signal might have been a machine intelligence.

Space advocates continue to argue over human versus robotic exploration of space, which usually proceeds around the superiority of human capabilities compared to robotic probes, especially surface rovers. What is rarely discussed is that this is a dynamic situation, where the improvement in capabilities favors robots far more than humans. Astronomer Royal Rees is surprised this argument still continues, as he sees robotic exploration, primarily for science, as clearly advantageous over human exploration. The farther away that exploration extends from the Habitable Zone (HZ), the more difficult to reach and inhospitable the targets become.

Some, like Jupiter’s inner moons, have radiation levels so high that even robotic probes need specially hardened microchips and circuits. Reaching the outer planets is so time consuming that without drives that are orders of magnitude more powerful than today’s, or hibernation technology, human travel will be particularly arduous. Such trips will make even the global sea voyages in the Age of Exploration seem like child’s play by comparison. The only advantage such travellers will have over Captain Cook is that there will be no hostile natives to meet them.

Let me be clear, I do not expect humans to be displaced by robots on Earth, at least not in the foreseeable future, nor will there be a binary pure biological human vs robot future. Humans will take advantage of modifications using technologies with increasing capabilities that will help us compete with robots, as well as modifications at the biological level incorporating genetic engineering. As computers have moved from dedicated buildings to the desktop to mobile devices, wearable devices will eventually become implanted, interfacing with the appropriate neural circuitry, and in some cases, replacing human organs. Genetic engineering is at its infancy and we can expect rapid developments once the moral objections are overcome.

I would argue that most biological extraterrestrial intelligences (ETIs) will follow a similar path, as they have evolved to live in a biological environment and not an off-world one. In other words, technological evolution will converge on embodied machine intelligence.

A Machine Diaspora

In the short term, well in advance of human brains becoming artificial, artificial minds will be rapidly deployed in many settings. They will likely be the only types of minds in deep space vehicles. Such minds will not just be embodied in probes and rovers, but also in industrial facilities to mine resources from asteroids and planets. They will likely be specialized and interact with other specialized robots to build industrial ecosystems and eventually their own colonies and civilizations. The barriers to humans colonizing space so easily will allow such robot civilizations to develop [semi]independently from humanity.

If robots are the best embodiment of minds to travel in space, explore and colonize it, then it seems most probable that they will be the first emissaries to other star systems. They may well prove the only travelers, with biological species trapped within their home systems, and possibly just to their homeworld, a few planets and moons, and space habitats. If the Breakthrough Starshot project ever launches sailcraft, the crude minds in the vessel will be the first of many AI interstellar emissaries.

World ships or seed ships carrying humans to the stars may eventually happen, but the populations may find robots have fully developed the possible target systems and are not particularly interested in “carbon-based units” potentially parasitizing their artificial environments.

If these prognostications prove right and machine intelligences become our descendants and dominate the galaxy, it seems reasonable to speculate that the same has happened on other worlds where biological intelligence has evolved. Whether this has happened elsewhere or not, machine descendants will also be searching space for others like themselves. If so, the question I want to pose is:

How would such a machine civilizations look for similar signs of a machine civilizations in the galaxy?

Because machine life is dependent on the earlier evolution of intelligent biological life, any technological signature we detect, from electromagnetic wave signals to manufactured artifacts, could be the result of either a biological or machine intelligence.

For a machine intelligence looking for other machine intelligence in the galaxy, this presents an ambiguity over agency. For techno-signatures from a world in the HZ, the earlier evolution of biological intelligence may indicate a reduced probability of machine intelligence compared to biological intelligence. However, over the long term, if machines inevitably displace biological intelligence, then the probability rises. Once interstellar exploration is under way, then the probability of any civilization being machine-based rises very quickly towards unity, as suggested by Sir Martin Rees.

For a machine civilization looking for other machine civilizations, are there ways to rule out biological civilizations from machine ones, or are the two indistinguishable?

The range of possible techno-signatures would be ones we already know to look for. Planetary surface structures, platonic shapes, processed surface materials like metals, radio emissions with spectrum spikes, signals with non-random patterns, space-based structures, artificial structures that require energy to move in space, industrial gases in the atmosphere such as chlorofluorocarbons. All these techno-signatures may be accompanied by biosignatures, especially from a habitable planet in the HZ with an atmosphere.

The foregoing should make it clear that sentient machines will have a harder time searching for their machine cousins than humans have for searching for life and intelligence of any sort. Biosignatures will indicate life. Techno-signatures can indicate technological civilization of either biological or artificial origin. Just as we cannot separate biological and machine civilizations remotely today or even in the near future, neither can a machine civilization, unless their technology allows remote observations to make these distinctions. Below I outline some scenarios, many of which require a local probe.

Machines Searching for Machines

So let us assume a machine civilization that is colonizing the galaxy is looking to make contact with other machine civilizations. This civilization will know that it was preceded by at least one biological intelligent species that developed a technological civilization that spawned its ancestors before being replaced.

The extra ambiguity faced by such a civilization is distinguishing between a biological and machine civilization. Because of the length of galactic time, I will assume that any period of transition will be transient and therefore has a low probability of being encountered. Either the biological intelligence will have retained control [11] or the transition to a machine civilization will be complete. The current view of techno-utopians that humans will use advanced AI technologies to increase their capabilities to stave off any machine takeover will therefore be relegated to a transient transition period, one that will eventually either have to be abandoned or will lead to a machine civilization that will supplant human civilization.

With this in mind, what signatures will a machine civilization look for that will lead it to conclude that it has found a machine civilization that is independent of any previous biological civilization?

We start with the assumption that a techno-signature of some type has been detected [7].

The most convincing support for a machine civilization would be the absence of any biosignature in the system, or the planet nearest the source of the signature. A sterile planet with a techno-signature would indicate that any biological intelligence was either never located there, or that it has been systematically eliminated with all other life. Such a sterile planet would have an atmosphere gas composition in equilibrium, which would also eliminate unseen microbes. However, there could still be some ambiguity as to whether the techno-signature implies an extant civilization or not. Structures and even a transmitting beacon might imply a dead civilization that had disappeared with all other life. If there are biosignatures elsewhere in the system, it could indicate that the techno-signature is a product of a biological intelligence on that world, with machines providing the needed capabilities elsewhere in the system. Humans might have METI transmissions from the lunar farside as an example of such a scenario.

Now suppose that the source of the techno-signature is from or near a planet that has been confirmed as having no complex life forms. This lack of complex life forms might be determined telescopically (spectroscopically and visually) by noting a barren continental surface devoid of plants. An absence of plants also implies an absence of a terrestrial food chain and therefore no intelligent biological intelligences. It would take a local probe to eliminate oceanic complex life, and eliminate any possibility of an intelligent technological species that lived in the ocean, but came out onto the land to develop a fire-based technology, perhaps as the Europans may have been doing in Clarke’s Odyssey series. As with the lifeless planet scenario, there remains the issue of whether the civilization is extant or not.

The next case is that there is a planet in the system that has a biosignature and clear signs of complex life such as biomes with plant-based ecosystems. Human civilization to date, that is the last ten millennia or so, has required agriculture. This has resulted in field cultivation, primarily of monoculture crops. Often these fields are regular in shape, and may form a patchwork of different monocultures. Field boundaries also tend to be straight. Even if this is not a universal method of farming (e.g. hillside rice paddies, or domesticated animal ranching), any evidence of such monocultures in what appear to be unnatural delineated areas would be a probable indication of the presence of biological intelligence.

This biosignature would still be ambiguous and need further exploration. On Earth, our human population is limited by food production, a Malthusian condition that we seem to be coming up against again after a brief period of being free of that condition. We have extended the productivity of land for food production with artificial fertilizers, and we are just starting to increase it much farther using artificial light in vertical farms. Earth could, in theory, support a much larger population if traditional farming in spaces open to sunlight was replaced by these vertical farms, and even factory food production using other fast replicating food sources such as single celled organisms, insects, and cell culture. In extremis, the agriculture signature would disappear, leaving just the techno-signature of extensive cities.

The other possibility is a machine civilization that has allowed human populations to remain in existence, but removed from control. We might think of this as the movie version of Planet of the Apes, but where machines are the dominant civilization, and humans reduced to either a wild or early agrarian state.

Nothing Beats Propinquity

The next ambiguities will need local probe involvement to be resolved, or at least a technology that substitutes for this.

A planet with biosignatures, signs of both complex life and techno-signatures, might distinguish between biological and machine civilization if there is evidence of widespread active machine use but without the presence of biological entities, especially of a common type being associated with them. Human civilization on Earth applies human cognition in close proximity to operate machinery and transport vehicles, as well as being passengers. While an ETI might not readily be able to distinguish between intelligent human passengers on a bus and domesticated animals being driven to a slaughterhouse, it will notice that only humans are operating and controlling machinery behind the wheel in a moving vehicle, and it will notice that horses are never seen doing those things.

In the event of a catastrophe leaving abandoned cities, many different animal species will be seen in the presence of machines, but none will be able to operate them. If all observations of active machines indicate no operation by biological entities, then it is most likely that they are controlled by machine intelligence. However, we should also be aware that we are developing autonomous machines managed by humans.

It is possible that in some future scenario, human civilization may have humans living in pods and controlling or just managing semi-autonomous and autonomous machines. Philip K Dick’s autofacs may be the primary sources of goods, possibly even following the paperclip apocalypse [10]. The BBC’s Doctor Who series also offers another difficult to interpret scenario – are daleks machines or biological? Early on it was intimated they were just robots, but later their nature was shown to be degenerate biological entities living in mechanical carapaces. As before, closer exploration of such a world would be needed.

For a number of more subtle cases, local exploration will be necessary.

A probe that has landed can sample the sounds within and around structures. If the sounds show complex structure with a high information content, and they are associated with a single, or few species, then the likelihood is that this biological species is intelligent. In addition to other evidence of this species controlling machines, then the civilization is likely biological.

If video transmissions are detected and can be decoded, then the presence of a dominant species and depictions of biological activities such as feeding and sex will indicate that this is a biological civilization rather than a machine one. A wide sampling of video will be required to prevent an unfortunate limited sampling of only nature videos.

Transmissions that appear to be made by machines would be ambiguous. They could be due to machines in a machine civilization communicating, or machines in a biological civilization communicating. Currently most communication and information creation on Earth is by computers, although video transmissions still dominate bandwidth. How long this will last is unknown. Computing machines are certainly increasingly consuming more of the available electrical energy produced. It is possible that at some point in the future they may become the dominant consumers of electrical power, making the determination of whether Earth is a biological or machine civilization more ambiguous.

A space probe encountering space-based or even surface structures on sterile worlds that are open to vacuum might well imply a machine civilization. But as before, are these for a machine civilization, or for machines controlled by a biological civilization? This particular scenario will be particularly difficult to determine if machines are the first to cross interstellar space and set up production facilities in a lifeless star system. This scenario would at first seem to be the most unambiguous of situations: Techno-signatures in a star system devoid of any biosignature on any of the planets in the HZ or even beyond. The machines would seem to be autonomous, working to replicate themselves and build facilities that are clearly not intended to support biological entities. Any Von Neumann replicators [9] operating in such a system would have all the apparent hallmarks of a machine civilization. Such an observation could be due to a true machine civilization, a machine operation controlled by a [distant] true machine civilization, or a distant biological civilization.

A last confounding situation is detailed in the novel, The Medusa Chronicles [2]. There may be both biological and machine civilizations that exist in the same milieu, neither dominant entirely, but both dominant locally in their part of the solar system. A machine civilization might well want to communicate with the machine but not the human civilization in that scenario. Determining the true status of such a situation may require exploration and even interaction before making the determination to communicate with the machines. At this point, the machine civilization is having to emulate the explorers during the Age of Exploration, making contact with natives and interacting with them.


Jill Tarter said that SETI is not directly searching for ETI, but rather looking for technological proxies using our radio (and now optical) telescopes [8]. While astrobiologists are searching for life, any life, SETI does not make the distinction between biological or machine intelligence. SETI scientists may talk as if they assume that ETI is biological, but their methods cannot distinguish between the two types. If we wanted only to communicate with biological civilizations, we would face the same difficulties as a machine civilization only wanting to communicate with a civilization of machines. To determine whether a techno-signature was from one particular type of civilization would require other observations, some of those necessarily local to the source of the techno-signature.

If ever there was a case for a Lurker in the solar system monitoring Earth over a long period, this might be it.


1) Lovelock, J. (2020). NOVACENE: The coming age of hyperintelligence. MIT Press.

2) Baxter, S, & Reynolds, A. (2016). The Medusa Chronicles. New York: Saga Press.

3) Clarke A, (1971) “A Meeting with Medusa”, Playboy December 1971.

4) Bisson T (1991) “They’re Made Out of Meat”, first published in Omni.

5) Rees, M (2015) “Why Alien Life Will Be Robotic”, http://nautil.us/issue/29/scaling/why-alien-life-will-be-robotic accessed 11/16/2020

6) Klaes, L (2020) “The People’s Space Odyssey: 2010: The Year We Make Contact” https://www.centauri-dreams.org/2020/07/31/the-peoples-space-odyssey-2010-the-year-we-make-contact/ accessed 11/16/2020

7) Lemarchand, G (1992) “Detectability of Extraterrestrial Technological Activities“ accessed on 11/17/2020 http://www.coseti.org/lemarch1.htm

8) Tarter, J (2019) “Technosignatures vs. Biosignatures: Which Will Succeed First?” SETI Institute talk, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ES5zt7JsJtQ&list=PL7B4FE6C62DCB34E1&index=12

9) Dvorsky, G. (2008) “Seven ways to control the Galaxy with self-replicating probes”, http://www.sentientdevelopments.com/2008/03/seven-ways-to-control-galaxy-with-self.html (accessed November 24, 2020)

10) Bostrom, N (2003) “Ethical Issues in Advanced Artificial Intelligence Cognitive, Emotive and Ethical Aspects of Decision Making in Humans and in Artificial Intelligence,” Vol. 2, ed. I. Smith et al., Int. Institute of Advanced Studies in Systems Research and Cybernetics, 2003, pp. 12-17

11) Herbert, Brian, and Kevin J. Anderson. (2019) Dune. The Butlerian Jihad. Tor, 2019.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • FrankH December 4, 2020, 16:44

    There are many adaptations of the Terry Bisson story.

    This one is more polished, “Hollywood” version :

    This one’s probably the best:

    This version is less polished:

  • Henry Cordova December 4, 2020, 18:05

    What’s the difference between a machine and an organism?

    Once we get past the chauvinist position that robots are clunky metal and plastic machines, and critters are made of oozy wetware, we realize that there is no difference. The only way we know that living creatures on earth are not mechanical artifacts is because we have unearthed geological and taxonomic evidence of their evolution. Even so, the first terrestrial life form may have been manufactured somewhere else!

    There is no reason why an advanced intelligence couldn’t build robots that resembled “creatures”, made up of colloidal suspensions, cells, tissues, organs, etc. After all, we ARE machines, and even though we have some evidence that we arose naturally and evolved from simpler organisms, it is only when we are compared in context with other earth life forms that that becomes evident.

    In fact, the architecture of living things based on carbon-water biochemistry is so versatile and complex we have every reason to believe a truly intelligent creator (whether living or robot) would adopt
    it for its own artificial life. It might have a titanium carapace, laser turret and wheels, but inside it might look like a mollusc! Only a careful inspection by specialists would come to the conclusion that it had to be artificial, that no natural life form would have evolved like that.

    In fact, I suspect that the machines made by highly advanced civilizations (whether machine or biological) would take advantage of the complexity of molecular structures and incorporate them into all their technology. The most complex structures and processes we know occur at the molecular level; alien tech may look like a melding of the two, or even be morphed into some other form altogether. When we open up a digital watch, we don’t see little gears and springs and cams, we see silicon wafers scribed with tiny patterns of lines and nodes. An intelligent 19th century clockmaker would not even realize he was looking at a timepiece.

    Fans of the TV series Battlestar Galactica will recall how their spacecraft were “alive”, how inside the metal shell was blood and tissue and flesh, not because they had been built around living animals, but because biological templates had been manufactured and incorporated into their structure.

    • Alex Tolley December 4, 2020, 22:43

      You may be right that truly advanced technology might be very similar to biology, but let me make a distinction.

      The basic unit of life is the cell. All complex life results from the controled replication of those cells. The advantages are obvious. However, it does mean that no 2 organisms are exactly the same, even those starting with an identical fertilized egg, like twins. Adults must grow and develop, which takes some time, and each is unique, and also shaped by its environment.

      Machines, OTOH, are manufactured to start operation as teh finished article. Within manufacturing tolerances, each unit is identical. Their final form could look very lifelike. Just watch the intro sequence of the Westworld, tv series. But make no mistake, each robot can be made to be identical.

      Now consider the advantages of manufacturing over development. The final unit can be made of materials that are impervious to the conditions of very harsh environments because they do not need “squishy” cells to live. Their brains can be identical, so that learning impressed on the brain state can be copied and transferred to another identical unit. Design changes can be made to adapt each series to unique environments, and ifd necessary, small changes allowed in units to aid manufacturing design updates by evolutionary pressures.

      The possible phenotypic space of living organisms is probably limited,. Even half a billion years of evolution since the Cambrian has only seen a small occupation of possible phenotype space. Manufactured machines however, can occupy a far larger space of forms, and can be designed to work in each environment quickly.

      So while it may be possible to make machines more like biology, this will limit the forms they can take, and even definitely exclude features like a titanium endo- or exo-skeleton, or communication by radio waves.

      However, discussing the possible bounds of artificial life as machines and vice versa might be interesting to explore.

      • Henry Cordova December 5, 2020, 15:34

        Anything which makes “natural” life forms inferior (or superior) to manufactured ones could easily be engineered into artificial life. If for no other reason, the shortcomings of real living creatures could be deliberately engineered into artificial ones as a form of disguise or camouflage. And natural life has certainly demonstrated its ability to successfully survive truly apocalyptic circumstances.

        Our concept of self-replicating von Neumann probes often includes the ability to evolve into new niches, to respond to changing environments by a random, natural selection process. As we have discussed in this forum not too long ago, it is possible that all life on earth evolved from an artificially designed and deliberately seeded manufactured organism placed here for some obscure future purpose we cannot even conceive of. We humans were not placed here by anybody, we evolved from primates, which evolved from other non-mammalian forms. But perhaps somewhere up the line some life was seeded here, or some primitive natural form was tampered with for some obscure purpose.

        We have good reason to believe that there is no “purpose” to evolution, and that there is no “end product” to natural selection. But we can speculate on even higher levels of organization, dar beyond the species level, such as communities of organisms and ecosystems of many different communities achieving levels of complexity (and ability!) far beyond that arising from just one individual, or even one species.

        “Man” is on the way to exploding across the galaxy, not as a single person, or even a single culture, but as an entire civilization. If this sort of civilization, however rare, exists in a universe not capable of duplicating these conditions very frequently, perhaps it might someday devise, as a long term project, a program to make the universe friendlier to this type of diversity. We talked about “greening” earlier; this is what I had in mind.

        What better project for a TRULY advanced civilization living alone in the universe than to initiate the conditions to create for itself a companion, or many.

        If you think about “progress” continuing “indefinitely” this is where the speculation eventually leads you: Non-divine minds with godlike powers altering the universe itself for its own purposes. Personally, I don’t believe a word of it, but I can find no reason to rule it out altogether.

        • Jao December 9, 2020, 0:30

          Organic intelligence is actually more superior to inorganic intelligence due to one simple reason: we don’t need spare parts to be immortal. Our “death” is caused by defects in our genes. Once we’ve fixed those defects, an inorganic body becomes inferior. A machine intelligence will always need to have parts serviced and replaced.

          I’ve read stories where robots envy humans because we can heal our wounds just by cellular division. I imagine the future would have machine intelligence and human intelligence coming to a convergence. Neither biological nor machine, but a combination of both.

          • Ron S. December 9, 2020, 10:22

            The future is a big place. There is lots of room ahead for scientific and technological progress. AI’s will not be housed in washing machines and humans will not always die of routine diseases. At present biology and machines are distinct. It will not remain so. After all, our bodies are machines and we will learn more, much more, and that will change everything.

          • Alex Tolley December 9, 2020, 16:11

            Our “death” is caused by defects in our genes.

            A very “engineering” attitude. Death is pretty much programmed in and even necessary for life to evolve new forms without clogging up the environment. Arguably bacteria and other asexual replicators do not die at all, just slowly change as DNA copy errors accumulate, with only the “more fit” copy errors reproducing preferentially as the “less fit” individuals either die or reproduce more slowly.

            While I don’t doubt we will eventually have good life extension treatments, some at the genetic level to replace “defects”, I don’t see how that can make organic life superior to machines. Get an injury to your brain and you lose functionality and memories. A machine can, however, constantly make backups to avoid such issues. If you want to swim like a fish you must surround yourself in a submersible, or use telepresence iwith a submersible or controlled fish to do so. A machine can simply replace parts.

            We already have machines – cars, airplanes, ships that undergo replacement and upgrades to keep them functioning for many decades. Some are already older than the longest-lived human beings. Unless you believe Aubrey DeGrey is entirely correct and immortality is possibly already achievable within the lifetimes of today’s youngsters, then I would suggest machine longevity is likely to exceed any human longevity in the foreseeable future.

            Replacing parts and upgrading them is a feature, not a bug.

      • Gary Wilson December 5, 2020, 15:41

        A wonderful aricle Alex. Thank you. The general structure of machine intelligences could be made identical but I suspect if they are beyond the threshold of self awareness or sentience or whatever you choose to call it I suspect each of these “machines” would have a unique signature in their brain structure. Or would they? Could sentient machines be identical even down to the exact way they think?

      • Michael Fidler December 6, 2020, 7:28

        The artificial life at the end of the movie A.I. has always fascinated me. The idea of a super conducting intelligence that would be best for the 99.999 percent of the universe that is at a few degrees above absolute zero. All those frozen rouge planets and outer solar system objects would be a useable by these entities with little or no heat signatures. Whole worlds created that would turn biological entities to hard rock ice,… now that would take a lot of creative thought to imagine how they could live and prosper. No way to make direct contact with the on fire inner worlds, just probes to observe and report what horrible monsters live on those worlds…

        • Alex Tolley December 6, 2020, 18:47

          I do like the artificial intelligences at the end of that movie, although I think it follows the trope that such beings must be humanoid. My sense is that such intelligences would have very different forms as there is no need to maintain a humanoid phenotype to interact with humans.

          I don’t know why you assume they are superconducting as the film ends with them excavating David on a frozen Earth (New York, but still with the now incongruous Twin Towers. Earth is cold, but really at ice-age temperatures, not superconducting ones. Is there a source of the information you have for their state?

          • Michael Fidler December 7, 2020, 2:33

            No, just thinking out loud but have not read of any Sci-fi that suggested the idea. It would seem the best place for superconductivity, out in the cold reaches of space would also be where robotics would thrive. No need to have temperature regulation and liquids at those low temperatures may be used for hydraulic movements like insects. Maybe radar instead of eyes like dolphins and sonar but still able to see the heaven’s at radio wavelengths…

    • charlie December 5, 2020, 19:55

      In terms of your analysis, I absolutely do not agree with ANYTHING that you put forth as your thesis. I was thinking about this the other night before I actually read the article and the comments and there is a distinction between machines and organisms that is not addressed here.

      Machines are defined as entities that are considered ‘force multipliers’; what that means that machines exist for the purpose (in a broad sense) as ways of extending forces (think multiplication) such as to it achieve an objective that cannot be addressed in a straightforward manner. A case in point is the inclined plane – it permits the ability to raise a heavy object a large vertical distance but without exceeding some energy or force stricture. What you lose in being able to apply a raw force is gained by applying the force in a gradual manner over a large distance.

      That’s obviously outside of what is being considered here and while the films ‘there made of meat’ is amusing and interesting speculation I found two things that are quite noticeable. No one could ever address an issue such as the arise- in a spontaneous manner, of a machine civilization without their first being proceeded by an organic civilization. There appears to be no mechanism whatsoever in which a non-organic being such as we recognize in the form of machines that we are conscious of, could arise through any kind of evolutionary mechanism. The second, which is regarding the short films is the fact that all these machines pay homage to the concept of a God. I find that especially interesting and telling.

      • Alex Tolley December 6, 2020, 18:31

        I thought I had made it quite clear in a number of places that machine civilizations can ONLY arise from an intelligent biological civilization. This is why there are so many ambiguities in their detection as they would have to ensure that there is no extant biological civilization in coexistence with them, or controlling them as “mechanical slaves” as in Asimov’s robot stories.

  • Laura December 4, 2020, 20:20

    I remember reading “They’re Made Out of Meat” many (many) years ago, and loved it. Favorite bit (from memory): the captain of the ship asks how these bizarre meat creatures could communicate since meat couldn’t produce radio signals. The response was that “They flap their meat” to make sound waves. Cracked me up.

    • Alex Tolley December 4, 2020, 21:56

      Mine too!

  • randomengineer December 4, 2020, 21:58

    A civilization of tech-only seems oxymoronic. Each and every human if given a choice would choose to be perfect and have perfect teeth and a mane of perfect hair and true love and good eyesight and blemish free skin. Humans would choose neither acne nor arthritis. In reality all humans are a mass of imperfections, all of which affect personality and desires and in many cases profoundly. It is the appearance of utter genius or arresting and unlikely beauty arising from the mundane that inspires; it is the overcoming of handicaps that is admired and emulated. In a machine world there would be no fat machines, no introverts, no crooked teeth, and no drive to overcome these imperfections to be e.g. Freddie Mercury. No poverty stricken childhoods to create Michael Ohr. No robot would address shortcomings by buying a Porsche. It would be a mass of sameness; utter mediocrity would define things.

    I submit that it is human imperfection (physical and mental) that creates civilization as we understand it, that this is the underlying engine that drives us to succeed. Machines no matter how measurably clever could not create Beatlemania, nor Star Trek, and immortal machines would invariably suffer insanity as a result.

    There are no machine civilizations. At best there may be biological based minds that have been uploaded into immortal machine bodies, and eventually these would be insane as well. Immortality is the enemy. Short lives are a feature, not a bug.

    • Ron S. December 5, 2020, 11:39

      I think it’s a mistake to equate the attributes we value in ourselves and our diversity to “defects”. Diversity can exist in a group of living entities that do not suffer from our biological and evolutionary peculiarities. I see no reason to suppose that a group of intelligent, non-biological machines are all the same or, and especially, think the same. You are making a few unstated assumptions that I believe you would have difficulty finding support for.

      • randomengineer December 8, 2020, 15:16

        But it’s not necessarily defects, is it? A human female may choose between two rival suitors who are “perfect” but choose the one with blue eyes for her own (perfect) reasons; the rejected yet perfect rival is still nonetheless rejected. Rejection in turn affects the rejected subject and his personality. Maybe from this experience he desires an iris tattoo so as to elevate his herd status. Maybe he comes to think of his eyes as defective and works to overcome the perceived defect. Rejection is sometimes the inspiration of great art or at other times one more blow to a poorly adjusted would-be killer. I’m not seeing how machinery will develop art forms (art is a healing mechanism) if they’re unable to process something as fundamental as the pain of rejection.

        • Ron S. December 9, 2020, 10:29

          You’re the one who posited “imperfections” as the foundation of human and civilization diversity, creativity, etc. I was responding to that. You appear to be modifying your previously stated premise. That’s okay, but you still seem stuck in your idea that AI will be “perfect” in some fashion that, because of a lack of imperfections or other secret sauce, they will lack much of what we have. I believe you need to reexamine your assumptions.

    • Alex Tolley December 5, 2020, 12:51

      Why would a machine civilization be “tech-only”? When artificial minds start to reach human capabilities and range and then exceed it, why should those minds be devoid of an appreciation of aesthetics, capable of producing and appreciating arts of all kinds, even those we do not have the senses to appreciate?

      it is human imperfection (physical and mental) that creates civilization as we understand it

      It really depends where you are on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. For most of recorded history, most people lived struggling to maintain just the 2 lowest levels. Romantic love was an invention relatively recently in history. Most of us have still not reached the top – self-actualization.

      (…) immortal machines would invariably suffer insanity (…)

      . Why assume immortality, and why assume immortality leads to insanity? We have no empirical knowledge of either. The corollary is that religions that follow an immortal god must be following an insane intelligence. [Hmm, you might be onto something there… ;) ]

      Short lives are a feature, not a bug.

      Some animals are very ephemeral, with mayflies living just a day as adults. Humans can live to perhaps 120 years. Other animals live for longer. Trees can live for thousands of years. The important feature of life cycle length is how fast reproduction can provide adaptive capabilities in the face of a changing environment. Bacteria reproduce so quickly that within a short period of time they can become resistant to an antibiotic class. But once animals acquire minds that can think, behavior can be changed within a lifetime, making thinking individuals extremely adaptable. I am always amazed at the conceit of “kids” wet behind the ears thinking that they can outperform more senior people with lots of experience under their belts. The old male walrus defending his harem most often wins a fight with a younger competitor because of experience.

      In summary, I think you have made assertions about machine civilizations without any supporting evidence.

    • Thomas W Hair December 5, 2020, 13:04

      Randomengineer dude, that is a most awesome comment. The human will to live another day and keep thinking is the most powerful force in the known universe. Well-adjusted people will do anything and everything to stay alive, but after a few hundred years I would suspect, as you have posited, that the immortality thing would get old real quick.

      There are no machine, no meat, no anything civilizations within a distance or an era that could in anyway interact with or be detected by us. If there were, we would not exist. As an example, if they came here 500Myr ago there would be nothing but sea worms and stromatolites. And since it seems like a nice place with a good future…why not stay?

  • Mike Serfas December 5, 2020, 8:42

    Let’s not sell living organisms short. No Earth organism evolved to withstand conditions on the moons of Jupiter … nonetheless, Io’s surface level = 3600 rem/day is much less than the 500,000 rem acute dose that Deinococcus radiodurans can survive without ill effect. We certainly *hope* D. radiodurans did not evolve in the presence of such radiation levels – its resistance is considered merely a happy accident of its ability to survive desiccation.

    Few machines can survive in an environment for which they were not selected, but Earth organisms have enough chance to survive and thrive in the weird environments on other planets and moons that planetary protection is actually a thing.

    Machines are easy to make and modify. But we should expect to develop the confidence to modify and repair living organisms and marshal their capabilities as needed (for example, to replicate the effective set of p53 paralogs that prevents cancer in elephants), and develop new evolutionary solutions for problems that arise on other planets. Even tremendously fundamental changes, like adding chemically different nucleotides to the genetic code, are not merely doable but done. Life has developed many technologies in the “walled gardens” branching from the taxonomic tree, and we have scarcely any conception of the power that could be unleashed if all these were comprehended and brought together with rationally designed add-ons and unified in a single organism for the purpose of surviving on another planet.

    • Alex Tolley December 5, 2020, 13:31

      No Earth organism evolved to withstand conditions on the moons of Jupiter

      Individual features like radiation resistance are not enough. No terrestrial organism can live on the surface of the moons of Jupiter – they would freeze solid. A liquid subsurface ocean is another matter. However, no terrestrial organism beyond the simplest can travel by itself to a moon of Jupiter – except humans in a life-supporting machine.

      I have stated in the post that I expect humans to use machines and genetic engineering to enhance themselves. However, no genetic adaptation will allow a complex animal to freely navigate in space while in an active state.
      But as a thought experiment, let us consider that it might be possible. Perhaps an insect, like a butterfly, with a protective carapace could evolve very reflective wings and a large store of food to be able to sail across space on sunlight maintaining its metabolism at a reduced rate on the food stores. How long would that take to evolve naturally given a suitable, changing environment to drive it? Yet a machine can be designed to do that already. Add an advanced mind and you have the capability to navigate space. Add other capabilities and the machine could reproduce itself or create different phenotypes to extract resources and build more spacefaring “adults”. The point is that machines with minds can design their progeny and the supporting dumb machines to support their expansion into space far more quickly than life could ever evolve. The Voyager probes have been in space for over 40 years as they head out into interstellar space. Could we design a human life support system in a craft to allow a human crew to do the same? If so, when?

      However, my main reason for thinking robots will be dominant is that their economic advantage is what is driving humans to give them the capabilities to make a “civilizational take off”. Machines can be quite cheap when mass-produced. That is why CubeSat chassis and standard parts are so much cheaper than custom satellites. While far more expensive to make a robot than a baby today, once a working robot version is ready, it can be mass-produced like any other manufactured item. This drives down costs. Because robots can already operate in space, they can rapidly be designed and replicated for many different roles. Humans will always be lagging behind in capabilities at some point, and the gap will widen as intelligent robots design and build their superior progeny. Manufacturing capability will ultimately ensure that their numbers will dwarf those of humans.

      Terrestrial biology relies on liquid water to function. Humans can enter environments without water by living inside life supporting machines. Colonization requires making food from the needed chemicals and energy. Machines do not require these things, with energy freely available from the sun and converted to electricity with solar panels, or perhaps nuclear fission.

      Today the hard part is making a machine mind with human-level capabilities that pack into a few liters of space and runs at a few tens of watts. Some people think that will never happen, others the usual 50 years or more. But unless there is some fundamental issue that we cannot solve, then I think that in a century or a few, robots will have both the physical capabilities and minds to be able to spread out into the solar system far more easily than any slow human colonization, and head for the stars before humans have any possibility of doing that. Only microbes will get to the stars faster.

      • Mike Serfas December 6, 2020, 8:04

        I found an article about Alkaliphilus transvaalensis, which prefers a pH around 10 but will grow at pH 12.5. By comparison, the pH of 1M ammonia is 11.6. So it doesn’t seem unreasonable to think that present living things can invade water-ammonia oceans that can be liquid down to nearly -100 C, and it is at least conceivable that Earth life could adapt to this as an internal working fluid intracellularly, permitting it to colonize very cold dry environments. Our organisms can make more drastic replacements in the cytosol, substituting the trehalose for water to survive desiccation. (Trehalose is a sugar, a dimer of glucose that protects the aldehyde groups, making it chemically stable)

        Substituting the solvent for cells is no simple problem, especially when the environment targeted is so unfamiliar. For example, nitric oxide melts at -164 C. It is extremely reactive, but then again, when you are trying to do biochemistry at cryogenic temperatures maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad thing. We ourselves have tiny amounts of NO in our bodies used as a signal, so we can picture doing selection for cells capable of tolerating ever larger amounts, or with sufficient description of the proteome, calculating the required mutations in silico. But will this really work at high concentrations? Can antifreeze proteins open up the 12-degree temperature range at which it is liquid into something more versatile? Is it feasible to synthesize this compound from locally available molecules?

        On Titan it might have some appeal to use ethane in the cytosol and reinvent the cell membrane or replace it with a capsid with a system of universal docking structures for transmembrane proteins – however, changing the cytosol to hydrophobic would seem to require extensive redesign to virtually every protein, and the viability of nucleic acids might also be in doubt.

        In the most fundamental way, picturing a society a millennium more advanced than ours, designing a new kind of living organism or a new kind of living machine is conceptually very similar. But I think that such designs will favor organisms with trillions of potential homeostatic feedback mechanisms, with chemicals that seek out and find one another physically rather than sending coded electrons, with liquid phases at the microscopic level facilitating these interactions, with a wealth of evolutionary tradition guiding their purpose and interpretation, and the potential to continue evolving effectively with or without rational design. So I would tend to interpret this hypothetical technology, so vastly beyond my understanding, in the intuitive sense as a form of life evolved, rather than as machine invented.

        • Alex Tolley December 6, 2020, 18:26

          Don’t forget that chemical reactions are thermally sensitive. In the ocean sediments where temperatures are at 4C, bacteria live at a very slow rate, perhaps taking 100-1000 years to even replicate instead of mere minutes in warm conditions. Whatever the chemistry, as the temperatures drop towards 0K, any reaction rates slow down until they do not happen at all. Any energy hill will be too high for any reaction, and biology will stop. Even if we could prevent cell rupture, liquid nitrogen temperatures will stop almost any biochemical reaction, ensuring that life stops. If some form of life exists on Titan, its metabolic processes would be so slow that they might make those deep ocean bacteria seem lively.

          • Mike Serfas December 8, 2020, 12:45

            This is true, and a problem. Above I was thinking we might spice things up with something like nitric oxide radicals as a solvent, though I can’t begin to imagine all the unintended consequences. But the difference in rates depends on a number of different phenomena. There will be an overall steady reduction in rate of diffusion dependent on temperature that seems nearly unavoidable. Activation energy barriers will go in some cases from easy to insurmountable, requiring different chemical mechanisms or redesigned enzymes for reaction. But on Earth we mostly think of things coming to a halt near the freezing point of water, since the water solvent will start to lock up into an icy structure preventing almost anything in it from happening. If we modify the solvent composition, I think that this barrier could be fully surmounted and a modified biochemistry continued at a pace that is sedate but not glacial. We see the beginnings of this in the Arctic – even as some organisms are reported to have remained frozen and viable in suspended animation for tens of thousands of years, others are quite active in brine at a couple of degrees below freezing.

            • Alex Tolley December 8, 2020, 16:29

              Few multicellular organisms can, however, complete their life cycle at temperatures below ∼−2°C.

              source: A Low Temperature Limit for Life on Earth

              Changing cellular chemistry might be able to drive that down, but just how far? Probably not to surface conditions on Europa, or Pluto. It certainly looks like no terrestrial organisms evolved to survive more extreme cold, nor any Martian life to live at the surface well below 0C.

              It would be interesting if life using different biology could be manufactured in the lab to live and maintain an active life cycle at very cold temperatures. I could see a demand for “enzyme” catalysts to work at very low temperatures in the outer solar system. Maybe start there for an enterprisng scientist?

              • Mike Serfas December 8, 2020, 20:08

                That source explains the reason for metabolic stasis is freezing-induced dehydration — “freezer burn” where crystals of ice (which they describe as generally outside the cell, withdrawing the water) are mixed with “dried meat” containing all the formerly dissolved substances. Even so, they agree with the broader premise that water-based life might survive at -40 C provided it does not freeze, as in supercooled droplets in a cloud. They did not consider a solvent swap, as that would admittedly be an advanced technology and (most likely) a very long process of stepwise selection with gradual substitution of other solvent molecules into the cytosol. If you search “ammonia cytotoxicity” on Google Scholar you’ll see what we might be up against – small amounts of ammonia are toxic (see hyperammonemia), but there are a range of approaches that may counteract that toxicity… how far could we go? To me the notion of water as the only solvent for life, even Earth life, seems uncreative.

  • j.e.b. December 5, 2020, 9:35

    Definitely an interesting and thought-provoking piece, thank you for that.

    What I’ve always found odd about skeptics who think we are all alone is how they fail to take into account the longevity of a machine civilization. Its members can be for all practical purposes essentially immortal, so ideas like “it takes too long to travel between the stars” is a blindingly short-sighted argument that only accounts for human scales of time.

    To a million-year-old machine intelligence, a few hundred years is a mild inconvenience at best.

    METI (Machine Extraterrestrial Intelligence) almost certainly exists, given what we now know about exoplanets and the age of the universe. Which is why the Zoo Hypothesis so neatly fits the facts as we understand them.

    A greatly atmospheric videogame (to go along with your books and movies) that explores the idea of machine intelligence in a post-human world is Nier Automata. I believe machines would live like that, within the natural world, not at war with it or trying to replace it.

  • Thomas W Hair December 5, 2020, 13:15

    Alex, great article as always. I think we are alone within the galaxy, but you got me to clutch my Nietzsche Also Sprach Zarathustra Ubermensch pearls for a moment or two. However, I must retire to my study now and mind-meld with my black monolith Daisy.

  • Harold Shaw December 5, 2020, 15:05

    Thank you Alex Tolley.

    I don’t see how a people could become space faring and avoid developing and using trans-biological technologies. However, I think you are exaggerating the difference between biology and machine. Biology is machine. The distinctions you describe in the comments speak to the differences in complexity among machines, including biology, and not to differences between biology and machine.

    Factories can’t mass produce identical simple products or machines without generating failures. Open a box of nails and count the number duds. Anything beyond a complexity threshold can’t be mass produced or made identical. The space shuttles are an example of a machine beyond this complexity threshold. Each shuttle was distinct and prone to failure. Were the space shuttles even remotely as complicated as a cell? Perhaps if we include all the engineers, tools, quality control, etc used to make space shuttles in the analogy.

    “So while it may be possible to make machines more like biology, this will limit the forms they can take, and even definitely exclude features like a titanium endo- or exo-skeleton, or communication by radio waves” Alex Tolley

    Why couldn’t biology be transformed to include bones or shells as hard or harder than titanium? Biological radio sounds possible as well.

    None of this challenges your general premise that it is impossible to know how much trans-biology a people has experienced from a great distance. A people will be transformed by their technology. They will experience something akin to an insect metamorphosis. If you are an ancient people when is the right time to engage with a younger people? Before or after the profound transformation?

    • Alex Tolley December 5, 2020, 17:38

      Factories can’t mass produce identical simple products or machines without generating failures. (…) Anything beyond a complexity threshold can’t be mass produced or made identical.

      Factories do have quality control. How many duds get through is dependent on how stringent the QC is.

      The complexity threshold is interesting as it repeats the arguments that humans are degenerate forms of a far more angelic race that G_d created. We know that there are DNA replication errors on each cell division and that this can lead, in extremis to non-viable offspring. Nevertheless, living systems are robust enough to tolerate those errors and mass-produce near-identical copies with asexual reproduction. I see no intrinsic reason for cascading failure for complex manufactured items. The Space Shuttle was very complex, but Boeing and Airbus seem to have no trouble mass-producing airplanes of any given type. Human labor to correct errors can just as easily be accomplished by robots, as part of the manufacturing system.

      Why couldn’t biology be transformed to include bones or shells as hard or harder than titanium? Biological radio sounds possible as well.

      That is a materials issue. What is certain is that biology cannot make refractory metals and replicate smelting, and working those metals, to make armor, katana swords, or 3-D printed rocket engines. Freemon Dyson had suggested that trees could grow diamond fruits to solve carbon sequestration, an idea that is biologically absurd. Biology can certainly grow carbonate shells or chitin skeletons, on a scale to make hulls of spacecraft. But they cannot make ceramics that require heat to fuse the material, like porcelain, and not metal parts that need special treatments to create the properties needed.

      If you are an ancient people when is the right time to engage with a younger people? Before or after the profound transformation?

      A very interesting question. My system one thinking is the earlier the better to keep the cultural gap as small as possible. But this may be incorrect, as the more advanced you become, possibly the easier it is to handle the differences with the younger civilization. A good question to pose to David Brin with regards to “Uplift”.

      • Mike Serfas December 6, 2020, 18:31

        According to https://www.imoa.info/HSE/environmental_data/biology/molybdenum_in_bacteria.php it is possible for bacteria to reduce molybdenum (VI) to molybdenum blue (V, IV). I can’t think of any obvious reason why they couldn’t go all the way to 0 and deposit carefully shaped structures of molybdenum – a refractory metal – except that they have never had a reason to.

        While it’s not a refractory metal, chitons have small but naked-eye visible teeth of magnetite (Fe3O4). I imagine they could reduce the iron further, but what mollusc wants to worry about its teeth rusting?

    • charlie December 5, 2020, 20:09

      @Harold Shaw
      I’m not sure what the argument is all about here, but my assumption here is if you’re talking about purely a decision between a total human space cargo and a total machine cargo I can imagine that unless there is a tremendous change in human physiology machines will always best any possible human space mission. There simply isn’t any doubt that machines will advance in the future (although I’m doubtful about machine intelligence such as super intelligence) which will make them a natural colonizing entity as space exploration advances.

  • James Cambias December 5, 2020, 15:12

    This post does seem to assume a dichotomy which may not happen: that there is a distinction to be made between biological and machine civilizations. What of a civilization incorporating both? It would have “biocivilization” signatures and “machine civilization” signatures. Determining who is “really” in charge may be an exercise for political scientists rather than astronomers.

    • Alex Tolley December 5, 2020, 17:14

      Determining who is “really” in charge may be an exercise for political scientists rather than astronomers.

      I agree. This is why I concluded that local exploration of culture would be needed to disambiguate even between binary civilization types. If civilization is a mix of types, humans, and robots, or technology-enhanced humans and unenhanced humans, this gets much harder.

      But let us take a more prosaic example in an alternative universe. Civilization X in another star system is human and has a very extreme aversion to humans with a different color of skin pigmentation. They want to communicate with Earthlings, but only if we have the same skin color. Now they have not only a very difficult problem to start with but that we have populations with different skin color and some populations are integrated and even have mixed skin color offspring, how do they make the determination to communicate or not? That problem cannot be solved remotely without some local intermediary making anthropological assessments of Earth’s populations.

      Arthur C. Clarke might even have cut that Gordian Knot with his short story: Reunion where those galactic humans will offer Earth a cure for those lacking the dark skin pigment so as to return them to their original black tone again. (written in 1971 when England was still agonizing over the advisability of interracial marriages, and S. Africa was an apartheid state).

  • Harold Shaw December 5, 2020, 16:54

    “I would argue that most biological extraterrestrial intelligences (ETIs) will follow a similar path, as they have evolved to live in a biological environment and not an off-world one. In other words, technological evolution will converge on embodied machine intelligence.” Alex Tolley

    If true, then a civilization’s age is directly proportional to its population of embodied machine intelligence. It wouldn’t be impossible to determine a people’s age. A person or people hundreds of light years from their home will likely be old as well. A people’s space faring foot print would be an indicator of age.

  • Harold Shaw December 5, 2020, 17:50

    We can’t decisively split the difference between biology and machine but we can identify materials that would be difficult for one organism to produce for itself. These materials would likely include mediums for cognitive function. This would predict that even immortal person agency would benefit from people agency such as trade and a concept of the commons.

    The human exploration and colonization of islands is a good metaphor for space faring. Everything about sea faring can be described as a technology suite. The analogous technology suite for space faring allows explorers and colonizers to become space birds. Space birds that could explore and colonize space and cognition. A people of space birds could leave a hunter gather’s footprint on a galaxy.

    Space bird people don’t spell doom for planet natural people. Space bird people could ensure the survival and prospering of planet natural people. There would be many paths to cooperation. Space bird people law would be the law of space.

    We could be in the middle of a galactic wide civilization that doesn’t create an obvious footprint. Civilization creates people agency, people agency flows to persons. The agency gains generated by civilization are always being democratized. If the laws of nature are finite. Civilization will either discover them all or discover all it possibly could. Eventually, as people agency flows to person agency, the machine of civilization will diminish in size. I don’t think people agency could ever run out of gains though.

    • Alex Tolley December 6, 2020, 18:06

      I like the term “space bird” people. very evocative. It speaks to a time of nomadic populations, lightly impacting the environment, much as we see the native Americans (through rose-tinted glasses). Whether these space bird populations maintain their approach or become more like locusts, stripping systems of resources might be an issue of concern. The bigger picture, following human history, is that they may be displaced by more organized populations. Look where the Romany ended up in Europe, or the Native Americans in the US. OTOH, space is big so the period of space bird populations may be long.

  • Byron Rogers December 5, 2020, 17:54

    Fascinating. Other factors, planetary movements like precession and orbital obliquity (Milankovic), as well as cosmic collisions, would be layered onto the supercontinent drift as ocurred here on Eartth,.

    This all reminds me that Hoffman & Shrag’s Snowball Earth hypothesis (see the book by Gabrielle Walker). Quite possibly, other rocky Earth-like worlds would be subjected to both plate tectonics and planetary cycles (interacting together with features of their star’s energy output) that could result in major climatic swings, ice ages etc…such an otherwise habitable planet could be discovered in any of a number of surficial configurations and climatic regimes, some of which might be either very limiting or very reinforcing for the possibilities of life and evolution.

    Superimposed on these possibilities would be the astro contingencies such as comet or asteroid bombardment. For example, following along the ‘dinosauroid thought experiment’ of paleontologist Dale Russell, if an Earth-like habitable world produces a lengthy dinosauroid age not too dissimilar to Earth’s, except not interrupted by the equivalent of the KT boundary bolide, one could imagine an ETI may yet be encountered that would have the features of an upright, humanoid lizard.

  • Jer December 5, 2020, 19:27

    Thanks for the inspiring article. For me, I am unconvinced on the idea of the inevitability of an organized and consistent ‘advanced technological’ society – which then may be very difficult to detect as such. My struggle is with envisioning the conditions at the point a planet-based society is likely to be widely spacefaring (and likely not too far after the time they care if there are others ‘out there’ who are spacefaring). I would argue that we will have to have achieved a certain level of general post-scarcity in the vicinity of earth’s surface and immediate orbit, which may then mean very reduced political structures (a type of support system possibly no longer widely desired and thus a less organized intent toward superstructures/ systems). If we assume that the apex entities are very self-sufficent (craving very little of local resources), still have a heightened sense of individuality and ambition (do not seek solely or predominantly to support a hive mind), and feel a need to journey into space (not be planet-bound) — which I believe is the inherent and eventual ‘self-actuated intelligence’ drive, even over dense gathering and socialization; we may have a very real ‘scattering’ and thus depopulating/ de-organizing of any society ‘centre’ or even consistent ‘fabric’. This presumes that very small groups or individuals will seek to take their ‘idealized existence’ (whatever combination of bio-based and ‘other’ material-based components (and the consequent integrative tech)) that allows that to happen, as soon as is feasible. Further, there would have to be a very cheap and available method to scatter and survive/ thrive – perhaps a ‘used asteroid lot’ where various NEOs could be caught/ orbit-matched, stored/ visited, and cleaved into the most efficient means of transporting (likely hollowed out and fitted with inexhaustible propulsion/ life support) an entity with indefinite life span out into space. A great wild-west of outward motion of the billions, likely straining means of communication and common ancestry. We assume that the trip is as compelling as the likely destination, if any – with near unlimited libraries of knowledge and other intelligence constructs onboard in which to interact with ‘on the way’. The planet will likely then be mostly de-wilded but eminently inhabitable, though subject to ongoing natural ice ages, overwhelming oceans, etc., likely limiting detectability for priority markers. The end-result is a huge dissipation with limited inter-species and intra-species contact or contact-ability over periods of time and volumes of space that even stretch the concept of society or civilization. It is our craving for the open road/ sky that will both embolden and enrich us as individuals yet make it the less likely to find or seek others, and thus be found. The compelling idea is then to mark likely spheres of scatter/ influence from ever-inhabitable worlds in hopes of crossing paths with the varied techno-beings which have finally left their cradle, as different from each other as the wide range of influnces that formed them. Point: is individual ‘techno-self-actualization’ likely before a society can create the superstructures/systems that would otherwise bump the Kardashev scale up a notch – and thus affect detection/ interest.

    • Harold Shaw December 6, 2020, 16:18

      I would argue techno self-actualization (longer than some terms but very descriptive) will occur for humanity well before we colonize the solar system. More accurately since techno self-actualization is a persistent journey, humanity will pass an self-actualization threshold before we colonize the solar system. There would be a diaspora but persistent techno self-actualization is only possible through social actualization. Either the knowledge, materials or both required to thrive as an embodied intelligence emerge from the efforts of a society. An individual may have to depend on a civilization for some of their bodily function. The beings considered here could be even more dependent on ‘civilization’ than modern humans. Depending on the limits of biologic machinery, these beings may depend on the equivalent of factories to reproduce.

      • Alex Tolley December 6, 2020, 18:53

        Depending on the limits of biologic machinery, these beings may depend on the equivalent of factories to reproduce.

        Yes. Or advanced 3D printers. Either way, reproduction is likely to be independent of the individual, unlike biological entities.

    • Alex Tolley December 6, 2020, 17:57

      The tension between aggregation and separation of populations is ever played out. The utopians and hippie commununes that largely failed, the Amish which have prospered. Toffler’s “Future Shock” envisaged people leaving cities to live in “electronic cottages”. Clarke similarly thought satellite communications would drive separation. Yet it turns out cities are very attractive. People want to congregate physically, see live theater, meet in pubs and coffee bars, eat together. The pandemic has reinforced the need for aggregation.
      Elon Musk’s Mars vision/fantasy of some sort of libertarian colony (with him as king?) is just the latest separation drive (or is it more like “The Man Who Would be King”?), mimicking those who were part of the western expansion in North America, perhaps styling himself as a modern version of a powerful cattle baron.
      While I expect some will want to live in O’Neills far away in teh outer solar system, it wouldn’t surprise me if most populations live in habitats huddled around Earth and the inner solar system, close enough to maintain a relatively low latency of communication. But I can also see that instead humans will stay on Earth, tighly aggregated in megacities with its rich sensory environment and many diversions, where people can meet quickly within a short bus or train ride. For many, I suspect this will be far preferable to living trapped in O’Neills that are more like small towns or rural counties, where teens spend Saturday nights doing the future equivalent of “watching the traffic lights change” and pining to move to the excitement of the city.

      Unlike humans, robots may have very different motivations and drives, programmed rather than evolved over millions of years.

  • Patrick R. December 5, 2020, 20:46

    Great, thought-provoking article (which is the norm here on one of my favorite websites).

    If FTL speeds are not attainable, then I would think first contact would likely entail a biological-less probe with some form of AI.

  • Gary Wilson December 5, 2020, 21:49

    I’m having trouble thinking about non-biological or machine sentience. There would be no gradual improvement by evolution through natural selection (but would there be machines building improved machines to overcome various physical obstacles or enemies)? I still don’t know if machine intelligence would follow any path similar to organic intelligence. Is the organic brain a quantum computer of sorts? Would a machine intelligence have a computer with a similar form of sentience? If machine intelligence is out there we get back to the Fermi paradox. Machines can “live” indefinitely and even in slow ships they should have found us by now shouldn’t they?

    • Alex Tolley December 6, 2020, 14:02

      I don’t subscribe to Penrose’s idea (even followed by Rudy Rucker) that human brains can operate with quantum capabilities. But assuming we can build a quantum computer (which some companies have claimed they have with good results) then I see no reason why machine minds could not be based on such approaches. If I understand him correctly, I think that is how the Sophonts operate in Cixin Liu’s “Three-Body Problem” trilogy. Such minds would be potentially very scary to humans, out-thinking us in sheer speed. However, just as Kasparov’s wetware mind was able to at least compete with IBM’s Deep Mind in 1997, and Lee Sedol with Deep Mind’s AlphaGo, humans will continue to be able to compete with machine minds, even if they fail much of the time.

      As regards machine civilizations being obvious to us, I will say that I tend to go with Occam’s Razor on this – they are not obvious because they are either not there, or that they have transcended to a state that is invisible to us, or that they are there, we just don’t recognize their presence. What I am sure of is that any civilization that requires increasing energy use as part of its economic system will quickly (in cosmic time scale terms) reach Kardashev III status, and clearly, that has not happened in our galaxy or any other galaxy that we have looked at.

      • NS December 7, 2020, 3:06

        Sentience is a product of brain function in humans (and many other animals) but will it be for AI? We don’t really know much about how sentience arises from organic brains or what role it plays. What if it’s like the flapping of a bird’s wings — crucial to the way a bird flies, but not necessary for artificial flight (ornithopters are a novelty)? Granted that for some purposes we may create machines that are capable of human-level (or better) learning and decision making, it would be better for us if those machines did NOT have sentience…and we should probably try to make sure they don’t.

  • Dmitry Novoseltsev December 6, 2020, 13:12

    The following may be important here. If the conclusions of a number of modern researchers of universal evolutionism, such as A. Panov, A. nazarethyan (unfortunately, deceased), and others, about the “exohumanitarian” vector of subsequent development and “exoscience” are reliable, then the greatest “exohumanitarian” value is information about the most different development options, completely different ways of describing the world. i.e., for conditionally “machine” civilizations are most interesting as partners for contact, the most “biological” ones. Or, because the possibilities of adaptation of biological systems are still limited, and of all the “postbiological” civilizations, each of them is most interested in those that have chosen the most dissimilar development options.

    • Alex Tolley December 6, 2020, 13:45

      Or as Spock would say:

      Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations.

  • Alex Tolley December 6, 2020, 13:41

    (…) have a unique signature in their brain structure. Or would they? Could sentient machines be identical even down to the exact way they think?

    It is teh same issue of the Star Trek transporter that actually can make multiple versions of the original (c.f. William Riker and Thomas Riker). The moment they are created, they are the same down to their neural connectome. But after that, with each passing moment, different experiences will result in a divergence. So to answer your question, even if manufactured to be identical in every way, with a brain that is exactly the same, with the identical memories and experiences implanted, they would diverge as they were assigned to their tasks as long as their brains were capable of modification by learning. At some point in the future, each would have a unique brain signature clearly distinguishable from the others. [Susan Calvin would delight in the challenges!].

    However, if machines had no learning capability and were as limited as toasters, then without any learning capability, they would not diverge. Their brains would follow the same program they were manufactured with. Not very useful, IMO, as they would be worse than eusocial insects, but they might just be the “epsilons” in their possible civilization.

  • wdk December 6, 2020, 21:50

    Sometimes coming in to land at an airport, I’d peer out the window to see some signs of street activity at a familiar or new city. And after a while I realized that all I could detect from the heights and speeds was automobile traffic. I could not resolve the people in their yards, in the stores or on the sidewalks.

    Perhaps I was landing in a pervasive machine civilization and all the vehicles were directing the activity? No. The cars had no reason of their own to cross the toll bridges and had no direct income to pay the tolls.If they had any money, they would not do any investing unless programmed to do so. For now they do not have any motivation.

    On the other hand, I have two cats that are hungry, but they don’t like some foods. Not the same ones. It’s not an innate program, but a preference. Not great interstellar explorers but they seem to be self aware and have complex behavior. If we programmed machines the same way, it would be a frivolity.

    If machine civilization proliferated all over a star system or over a galaxy, why would it do so? Do they have to be programmed by someone else to produce a Kardeshev civilization footprint? If they are pre-programmed, why not have them reach a plateau based on available resources and save everyone a lot of trouble?

    It strikes me that artificial intelligence and appropriate machinery would work rather well in deep space operations. But it seems like that role would be at the bidding of a genuine life form. Maybe even a variant of Star Trek and all its directive ideas AI could do the job.
    The biochemistry of its creators would not be that consequential.
    The Drake equation, however, identifies a stage where civilizations build radio telescopes for communication, but it does not explain why life forms would do so. Termites might tunnel their whole world, for example, but never have any inclination to do so. Nor would I expect
    would a highly programmed machine – unless routed toward that
    by a pre-program. Self awareness can be imitated, but not necessarily excelled by AI.

    Among the cinematic AI trivia entries, I would like to add another:

    An Italian sci-fi movie of about 1961, I remember seeing in a mid western movie theater toward entry into high school: “The Battle of the Worlds”. Claude Rains played an astrophysicist that reminded me of Sir Fred Hoyle. Often wondered if the resemblance was intentional.
    If nothing else, the story reminded me of his sci-fi novels. But this story had this central figure ( protagonist?) pitted against the intrusion of a planet out of deep space, a generation ship, as it were. The world was run by alien AI still conducting the defensive (?) operations programmed into it by the dead little green men embalmed on board. If I remember correctly, the conflict was resolved when they were unplugged by Earth’s defenders, assisted by unenlightened computers with data tapes.

    • Mike Serfas December 9, 2020, 13:12
    • Mike Serfas December 9, 2020, 15:07

      I should apologize – apparently YouTube now vandalizes the old movies played on that platform with myriads of unmarked ads, though for the moment embedded versions such as the bing search result I had actually found before ( https://tinyurl.com/yy7nwpo8 ) remain watchable. I suppose these movies will disappear altogether, and unmodified minds capable of thinking about unplanned topics will themselves be branded unacceptable violations of intellectual property … enjoy it while you may. The movie suffers some remarkable physical absurdity (people gliding in space suits between ships under multi-“gamma” acceleration), with some endearing violations of cinematic practice (cutting between scenes without signifying passage of time), but distinguishes itself by celebrating sheer strangeness as an end in its own right without need of excuse.

      • wdk December 12, 2020, 12:19

        While refreshing my memory on Fred Hoyle’s achievements a few weeks ago, I was surprised to discover that one of the reasons he was convinced of the soundness of the Steady State cosmology rather than the Big Bang ( a name he gave to the alternative derisively) was that he thought that the origin of life would need the additonal eons for the phenomenon to generate itself. He considered the threshold impediments so high, the likelihood of life could be described in 1 in 10 to 41 – or some such odds. It is too bad he isn’t around to discuss machine civilization. But I suspect that he would not be uncomfortable with some of the premises about of the aforesaid film; i.e., dead aliens and AI executing their hostile program as they entered into another planetary system. At least this low budget sf movie didn’t talk about aliens from other galaxies, but the scriptwriters probably did not know when they had lost the ball..

    • Alex Tolley December 9, 2020, 16:23

      You assume that AIs do not evolve. Life had no intrinsic “motivations”, but the drivers of Darwinian natural selection, that results in populations with better replication rates over time results in these “motivations”. Those populations that are programmed by their genes to do things that increase their replication rate will supplant other populations in a resource-limited environment. I see no inherent reason that embodied AIs will not end up following this trajectory too. It doesn’t even require altering the programming as the behavioral changes will be achieved by learning algorithms on brain substrates that must accommodate learning. The algorithms could change too, with tweaks of the learning hyperparameters due to copy errors or programmed feedback.

      • wdk December 13, 2020, 13:02

        Harried by my own schedule, I think I have rushed past expressing appreciation for you putting this essay together. The discussion points have been very interesting.

        Many of us have drawn from literature for parables related to this argument – and another such resurfaced in my mind yesterday:
        I think it was Stanislaw Lem who used to write book reviews about fictitious or future books which walked the tightrope of s/f or fantasy similar to that of Luis Borges. In vain of late I have tried to relocate one of this series which was not about books but about the author’s origns, real or fictionalized. Back in the 1980s he described how a World War I infantryman found himself wounded in a field hospital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s army and how he eventually wedded his bedside nurse. The exact details I forget, but they were different nationalities and the narrator examined the
        likelihood of their encounter, plus the previous generations and those that followed, based on the boiling cauldron of central European conflicts. It gave an interesting perspective on how unique our (collective) individuality really is; not just genetic, but experiential and cultural.

        Earlier we are talking about factory quality control replacing the defects of biological individuals? If we assume a mechanistic view of the machine or biological individual, maybe civilization is the statistical mechanics of individuality. Without the differences in individuality there might not be any civilization no more than there is among a school of zebra fish.

  • Glenn Smith December 7, 2020, 3:15

    Although I’ve not read every comment in detail, I’m surprised that art has not entered into the conversation, given that that art history has its own take on the subject. (And I’ll be glad to toot my own horn here given half a chance!)

    • wdk December 8, 2020, 12:26

      Please do elaborate.

      Elsewhere I had mentioned something about Exo-Globe Theatres, etc. But with machine technology, music or “art” could be
      generated according to a program, but I cannot see why it would be
      inherent in a machine “civilization”. If a machine is selected for deep space missions it is on account of it being able to sustain itself or work under intolerable conditions, i.e., obliviousness. It could carry a message from Earth… Artistic displays, music, theater….But generating its own would be as the result of a program directive. “Use these principles,”…Not on account of contemplating a sunrise over a forest from a hillside or something. What has been generated by AI has been for our edification, not the AI composer’s – so far as I know. But then perhaps we are on the verge of awarding a fiction Pulitzer to an AI?

      Whether we are programmed the same way ( as living organisms) is a matter of conjecture too. At some level biochemistry could be considered conventional chemistry. But I would argue that there is an element of free will or something very much akin by the time you reach
      mammals. Consider the issue of when is a dog a dog and when is it a wolf. The dog made a “decision” to join early man by the fire. What would a machine have done under similar circumstances after it and its ancestors being on their own for millenia? Or no matter how bad one feels, it is much more heartfelt when you say, “Have a nice day.” than when it is said by a machine.

      • Alex Tolley December 8, 2020, 16:18

        Can “Art” be produced by machine? We know that a computer can price pictures, both composing them and rendering them in different artistic styles today. I think that level of mechanical capability is rather similar to telling children in pre-school to paint a house.

        Clearly, if producing some image is a pre-programmed goal that can be executed under some conduction, then a machine can produce something we would consider “art” rather like a visual/auditory/written Turing test. Now whether that goal must be more than stimulus triggered and require some consciousness, IDK. I suspect that Douglas Hofstadter will continue to be horrified at what AIs can produce, even his beloved poetry and translations between languages. Just as game-playing AIs can beat experts without understanding they are playing a game, I think AIs will produce literature, music, paintings, and other forms of art (robot dancers?) without consciousness, although, like HAL, they might simulate consciousness.

        • Mike Serfas December 11, 2020, 12:04

          Art can be produced by the clouds of Jupiter, the network of proteins linking to the pores of the nuclear membrane, the projections of perfect shapes in higher dimensions … all things that humans did not evolve to find beautiful. The nature of art is mysterious – whether it lies in the creator, the viewer, the critic, or whether it is a myth in the first place. But anyone who has played with a Mandelbrot-drawing program knows machines can make art in formally infinite variation.

          • Alex Tolley December 11, 2020, 18:24

            Art can be produced by the clouds of Jupiter (…)

            Art cannot be produced without agency. We can perceive the beauty and the aesthetics of the patterns that the clouds will form due to physical processes, but only organisms with agency can produce art which in turn can only be appreciated by organisms with agency.

            But anyone who has played with a Mandelbrot-drawing program knows machines can make art in formally infinite variation.

            Here humans have programmed a computer to handle the computations for the Mandelbrot set and have made creative decisions on how the value changes will be colored in the output. It is, therefore, humans, with the aid of tools, that have created the “art” based on the math.

            As an aside, there is a hypothesis that the reason so many landscape paintings depict long sightlines to the horizon with a few trees in the foreground is that our evolution as East African Great Plains Apes makes the Savannah ecosystem most aesthetically comfortable for us. A few trees to escape from predators, long sightlines as our visual acuity far exceeds our other senses (and we have a very limited sense of smell and relatively poor sound source location). Our cousins the chimpanzees and gorillas are forest animals. Would their preferred landscapes be forest scenes?

            • Mike Serfas December 19, 2020, 13:46

              I tend to disagree with notions based on “agency” – I don’t think there is any such thing, or in any case I never understood the definition. For example, many people say killers have “agency” and victims don’t, so only the former deserve a Wikipedia article. But I can’t picture any aspect of conscious decision making would be absent from those who are sane. In the case of Mandelbrot, I’ve tinkered with those programs, and I would say that the choice of color scheme or magnification seems only incidental to the artwork – the main aesthetic appeal is inherent to the mathematics and any “agency” I bring is happenstance.

  • Robin Datta December 7, 2020, 4:54

    Molecules that replicated with accuracy of their structure (and thus function) in the replicated units were the beginning of Molecular Cell Biology. Further down the road they were living organisms. The prerogatives of growth (increase in biomass), replication (increase in numbers) and dissemintion (increase in occupied area) were hard-wired into them and continue hard-wired into life today.

    It need not be hard-wired into machine intelligence, and even if programmed, it could be deleted by self-learning machines in favor of alternate priorities, such as data gathering and its secure backup. As the data increases, the hardware/infrastrucure needed would also incease, evidenced by growth in size, number and spread of the machines, but with objectives of access to energy and communication.

    The signature of a machine civilization could be quite different from that of a biological one.

    • Project Studio December 8, 2020, 19:32

      re: …prerogatives of growth (increase in biomass), replication (increase in numbers) and dissemintion (increase in occupied area) were hard-wired into them …
      These are all quantitative (and logical) prerogatives. It seems they could easily be shared by a machine civilisation.
      I think the main article premise that a transition between biological and mechanical would be swift, with a practically unnoticeable hybrid stage, isn’t the likely scenario. I think biological intelligence will incorporate technology in diverse ways and that the advantages of true sentience (rather than simulation) will continue to be a fitness factor in the evolutionary survival equation.

      • Alex Tolley December 9, 2020, 16:52

        You make 2 assumptions”

        1. That machines cannot have true sentience – just simulate it only.
        2. Sentience has an evolutionary advantage.

        We don’t know whether machines will have true sentience or not. I see no a priori reason to believe they cannot.

        We do know that organisms lacking sentience (at least that of large mammals and humans) are very successful. Just check with the insects.

        • Project Studio December 10, 2020, 4:09

          You could certainly infer from what I wrote that the source of sentience would be biological. It think that is acknowledged – machines need an initial builder. Whether sentient machines could completely do away with biological component is yet to be determined. Sentience is hard to pin down, it has something to do with thinking and feeling. The vague notion that ‘someone is in there.’ We share that to some extent with the higher animals, possibly to some extent with insects or even plants. There may be exogenous intelligence (and perhaps sentience) of a swarm. Some philosophies would say that any notion of a sentient self is just a delusion, but in that case who is it that is deluded? Machines can mimic according to deterministic rules. I think that unlocking sentience in machines would require a non-determinate program, and by that I do not mean merely a circuit with a random number generator. Perhaps that is why some think a quantum computer could be the key — not just raw calculation speed but a capacity more subtle.

          • Ron S. December 10, 2020, 10:05

            A complex but deterministic system gives the appearance of randomness (stochastic process) due to its unpredictability. Both share the attribute of unpredictability (to a degree, depending on parameters) but that does not make them equivalent. That is, a complex system with its poor predictability (that’s you and me, or the weather) does not require a RNG of any category, quantum or otherwise. Indeed, injecting a stochastic variable might have no to little effect on a complex process since the deterministic components will dominate the random variables.

        • Harold Shaw December 10, 2020, 11:49

          Project Studio’s statement doesn’t assume #1 and your essay assumes #2 as well.

          Sentience, sapience, consciousness, and general intelligence are indeed hard to pin down. We are talking about a very complex landscape. I also assume we are all technologically self-actualized, machine embodied intelligences. I think beings who pursue techno self actualization will use whatever grants more agency, whether it is biological or “machine”. If we make the relatively safe assumption that materials and machines will offer a range of cognitive function and qualia, we could also safely predict that hybrids would have the greatest agency.

  • Harold Shaw December 8, 2020, 13:54

    Even if some materials require a “factory” or social agency to produce, we should expect individual machine embodied intelligence to pursue a form that gives them the best compromise between autonomy and agency. We are using the motivation to travel vast distances as an argument for the existence of machine embodied intelligence. They will need to be as self sufficient as possible. These beings may be willing to accept less idealized materials.

    Could a being use cellular biology to build the equivalent of the Project Orion vehicle? I am picturing a giant bivalve mollusk latched onto an asteroid containing radioactive material. Inside the bivalve, cellular biology would build successfully more advanced processes. Factory lines of insect-like “robots” could assemble components grown with cellular biology or build items such as casting forges. Smart drones could fill the role of human workers. Everything would either be produced or boot strapped by cellular biology. Several tons of brain could explore the galaxy in such a vehicle.

    • Alex Tolley December 8, 2020, 16:09

      I think that a situation more like Clarke’s Rama is likely. The biobots were manufactured (and recycled) within what appears to be a self-sustaining vehicle that can also house true biological “specimens” collected during its journey.

      P K Dick’s autofacs are autonomous factories that “grow from seeds” and consume resources to spit out manufactured products including their own seeds.

      The Drexlerian nanotechnology that morphed in SciFi nanobots might fulfill the bill for cellular machinery substitutes, although I am unclear whether they are possible.

      It all depends on where technology leads us. Asimovian robots might look positively steampunk-ish in a century. Westworld (tv series) class robots seem more likely to me, but they are impossible to build today, even if we forget about their AGI.

      The “Ghost In The Shell” cyborgs/robots are halfway between the Asimov and Westworld robot technologies.

      But for space exploration robots, I think ships run with AGIs is the most likely scenario – think advanced versions of Clarke/Kubrick’s Discovery run by HAL, but with no crew, and possibly much smaller, to reduce energy requirements and increase velocity. Such a ship, using beamed power for energy to power electric engines would be doable, even with an AI somewhat less powerful than HAL, but able to achieve mission goals supported with some help from Earth. This should surely be doable within the next 50 years.

      • Harold Shaw December 8, 2020, 20:46

        I think a people resembling the Oankali from Octavia Butler’s Lilith’s Brood trilogy is likely. They travel the galaxy collecting and incorporating the life they find into themselves.

    • charlie December 8, 2020, 17:06

      This is certainly a unique idea!
      I sure would wonder how giant bivalve mollusk would get to a asteroid (presumably upon its own) which would just happen to contain the needed radioactive material such that it could have processing capabilities. And then, just by pure happenstance, this mollusk would start assembling insects (which would just perform purely like robots) that would decide that, on their own, they would need to start building either assembly components made of biology or casting forges.

      While it was busy doing this the bivalve mollusk might decide it could write a science fiction story while it wasn’t very busy doing other things such that its life story could end up as a screenplay or something… Ha ha ha ha ha !! It might do that very thing while it was exploring the galaxy, just as an aside or something…

      • Harold Shaw December 8, 2020, 20:26

        I was describing a product of technological self actualization, the topic of the essay, not something that would evolve naturally. I was trying to figure out a way to get a brain weighing many tons moving between stars.

  • Dimjo December 8, 2020, 18:16

    I have always thought that the “longest evolved” post biological civilization would be the consequence of a “creator” society creating a massive repository of emulated minds, either based on previous living minds or a “designer” project of variations of synthetic minds . This civilization would exist within a massive (moon sized?) “computer”.
    Since the “computer” environment can simulate anything they desire, the question becomes: other than for maintenance and repair purposes, would there be any outward indication of their existence? The only exception would be to send out drones (UFOs) to watch out for/monitor emerging “civilizations” (like us) that they need to avoid. Searching for other post biologicals would also be for monitoring purposes? I imagine the civilization would have achieved asymptomatic knowledge and have no “need” to contact another “individual” super intelligent computer or civilization-in-a-computer.

    • Alex Tolley December 8, 2020, 22:10

      You are describing the earlier stages of a Matrioshka brain, somewhere between the uploading of minds towards the singularity and the Kardashev II level of energy consumption of a Matrioshka brain.

      Living in simulated realities seems to be the modern version of opium smoking or that 1960s concern over electrical stimulation of the pleasure centers. ST: TNG holodeck games and their addictiveness was a theme that was explored.

      I don’t think it suits everyone in a civilization and it strikes me that it would be a very dangerous way to live if the galaxy was inhabited by any predatory ETIs.

      • Harold Shaw December 9, 2020, 9:23

        A Matrioshka brain or other emulated space will be an ecosystem. We can not predict what types of minds of software will be the fittest for that ecosystem. It would be fool hardy to assume minds of software wouldn’t compete for resources until only the fittest minds remain. What are the odds that the original minds survive? Perhaps these ecosystems want to converge on singular, ecosystem spanning minds.

        • Alex Tolley December 9, 2020, 16:24

          Very good point.

      • Dimjo December 10, 2020, 19:59

        Apologies for not framing the question properly.
        In ‘simulations’ I meant scientific simulations of all possible outcomes of all possible variations of all scientific, military, galactic etc problems that may be imagined. By a mind or ‘society’ that has achieved the upper extreme right end of the S-shaped curve (asymptotic point) of all knowable knowledge and information. Which I believe is the eventual end result of a ‘Moors law’ of self directed evolution of post biological intelligence. It will become a super intelligence. (I believe, the evolution of post biological intelligence will be self directed, extremely efficient, brutal and rapid from our point of view. Emphasis on rapid. Not the random, accidental, inefficient, biologic form, the source of anthropomorphism.)

        If it/they know everything that there is to know, and can predict every outcome, what is the point of them looking for other intelligences, other than to avoid them? And if avoidance is the issue, we should not be able to detect them- just a great silence.
        To my mind, post biological intelligence and intelligent robots/androids/cyborgs are 2 very different groups. The latter are just smart machines like a service dog is to us, and one of their existential filters would be a super intelligence. We would not be of interest to a super intelligence until we start building increasingly intelligent machines-or weapons (nuclear?), and their simulations advise calling in the exterminators. Simulations would also demonstrate that it would be a very bad idea to allow a species that flies planes into skyscrapers into deep space with vehicles capable of relativistic velocities.

        • Harold Shaw December 11, 2020, 10:00

          We can assume supper intelligence but can’t assume that they can know and predict everything. Rather, we can predict they can’t.


          Perhaps as beings become more intelligent and grow their senses, they become ever more curious about the universe. Every newly designed taste bud or touch receptor could encourage these minds to pick something up and put it in their mouth.

        • Alex Tolley December 11, 2020, 12:05

          I don’t think it is possible to predict every outcome or know everything there is to know about the universe. Even if this was possible for things with no agency, the possibilities of creating things via agency, like the arts, is not possible to know in advance. Borges’ Library of Babel alone would be impossible to create, let alone the vast diversity of art output that is possible. IOW, there will be value in meeting with other minds as there will always be new ideas to be explored.

  • Neil Stahl December 9, 2020, 0:43

    I realize the original post was about machine civilizations searching for machine civilizations, not about them contacting them. But they could have the same sorts of ambivalence about contacting them that we have about contacting other civilizations (on a side note, the destruction of Arecibo may have set that back a lot).

    Or is there something we can predict that would make it inherently less dangerous for machine civilization A to reveal itself to machine civilization B than in the case of organic civilizations? Possibly it would be much harder to totally wipe out an advanced machine civilization? Would individual machine entities worry about death as much as a lot of us do? Would they value their civilization enough to worry about it ending?

    Curiosity is valuable enough to people we can expect it to be valuable to machine entities; that could be a powerful force toward contact if it’s not counterbalanced by fear.

    • Alex Tolley December 9, 2020, 16:25

      Very good questions. I wish I could say something about this, but I cannot.

  • Alex Tolley December 10, 2020, 16:30

    I interpreted sentience as = conciouss

    It has long been argued that machines cannot be conscious. That they are [philosophical] zombies.
    This was briefly touched on in 2001 when the crew is interviewed:

    Interviewer: The sixth member of the Discovery crew was not concerned about the problems of hibernation. For he was the latest result in machine intelligence: The HAL9000 computer which can reproduce, though some experts prefer to use the word “mimic” most of the activities of the human brain and with incalculably greater speed and reliability. We next spoke with the HAL9000 computer whom we learned one addresses as “Hal”. Good afternoon Hal. How’s everything going?

    HAL: Good Afternoon, Mr. Amer. Everything is going extremely well. You’re the brain and central nervous system of the ship. Your responsibilities include watching over the men in hibernation.

    Interviewer: HAL, you have an enormous responsibility on this mission, in many ways perhaps the greatest responsibility of any single mission element. Does this ever cause you any lack of confidence?

    HAL: Let me put it this way, Mr. Amer. The 9000 series is the most reliable computer ever made. No 9000 computer has ever made a mistake or distorted information. We are all, by any practical definition of the words foolproof and incapable of error.

    Interviewer: Hal, despite your enormous intellect, are you aver frustrated by your dependence on people to carry out actions?

    HAL: Not in the slightest bit. I enjoy working with people. I have a stimulating relationship with Dr. Poole and Dr. Bowman. My mission responsibilities range over the entire operation of the ship so I am constantly occupied. I am putting myself to the fullest possible use which is all, I think, that any conscious entity can ever hope to do.

    Interviewer: Dr. Poole, what’s it like living for the better part of the year in such close proximity to Hal?

    Poole: It’s like what you said earlier. He’s just like a sixth member of the crew. You very quickly get adjusted to the idea that he talks and think of him really as just another person.

    Interviewer: In talking to the computer, one gets the sense that he’s capable of emotional responses. For example, when I asked him about his abilities I sensed a certain pride in his answer about his accuracy and perfection. Do you believe that Hal has genuine emotions?

    Bowman: Well he acts like he has genuine emotions. Of course, he’s programmed that way to make it easier for us to talk to him. As to whether or not he has real feelings is something I don’t think anyone can truthfully answer.

    The suggestion that human brains are fundamentally different and operate in the quantum realm was posited by Penrose in The Emperor’s New Mind. There are 2 issues here –
    Are brains quantum computers?
    Is quantum computation needed for consciousness?

    It has been argued that chlorophyll efficiency requires quantum effects. However, I don’t see why this fundamentally changes the nature of photosynthesis to capture light energy and fix the energy in organic molecules.

    Similarly, we can use symbolic logic to work just as we think through problems. Although computers don’t do multiplication like we are taught to do, one can certainly program the logic to follow the same rules. Most of our brain’s effort is used to process sensory data – vision, sound, and other senses. We now can mimic this with crude models of neural networks with different architectures. While it doesn’t seem to me that these work anything like how we process that sensory input, the results can be very impressive.
    So far there is no intimation that computers with either sort of AI are conscious, but I do not see how a sufficiently powerful computer with the correct architecture and programming can a priori be argued that it cannot possibly think. Despite decades of research since the movie was made, we have hugely improved computers and software, and we know a lot more about the brain, how it operates, and where consciousness appears to reside. But we are no nearer to the answer that Poole and Bowman appear to be.

    As regards the need for consciousness to be an evolutionary advantage, I stick to my argument that this is not necessarily true. Civilization and our history can be shown to be “movements” that result in actions by the populace. Create unbearable conditions while the elites bask in luxury and you end up with The Peasant’s Revolt, the French Revolution, and the October Revolution in Russia. If the current Covid-19 induced misery and the rapidly increasing wealth of the billionaires was suggested (disinformation!) to be deliberately prolonged by delaying a vaccine rollout, we might get a similar revolt. We can already crowd behavior, and it might be possible with enough historical examples and population size to do the exotic maths of Hari Seldon to predict the future in the Foundation novels. If so, then how important is consciousness in these models? None in our current crowd and epidemiology models. The insects, and certainly the bacteria, will long outlast humans and therefore be evolutionarily more successful than our species. Consciouss and the illusion of “free will” seem like very nice features to us, but are they important as a survival trait? IMO, that case is unproven.

    • Dimjo December 11, 2020, 9:06

      Regarding brain architecture.
      A 12 yr old, (but not a new born) a 30 yr old summa cum laude, and a bed ridden terminal, stress on terminal, Alzheimer’s patient (who is awake, but not self aware) all share functioning brain architecture, (but at a diminished level of activity for the Alzheimer’s brain).
      It appears that the epigenetic-protein activity, individually and collectively result in ‘consciousness’. If, as some claim a crow is self-aware, size of brain and associated complexity of white matter tracts are not prerequisite to self awareness.
      When we first construct a computer with identical architecture to the brain, we will have a Alzheimer’s computer capable of impressive calculations.
      When (not if) we can duplicate intra and inter neuronal proteomic activity, either by emulation or hardware in a computer -HAL!
      I worry we will be led down the path of “it needs to be as big as/ identical to a human brain to be self aware” crowd.

      • Alex Tolley December 11, 2020, 12:15

        It appears that the epigenetic-protein activity, individually and collectively result in ‘consciousness’.

        That is proof of existence, but not proof of a requirement. Far simpler mechanisms/algorithms may be quite sufficient. It might be a simple as the brain monitoring itself – i.e. that parts of the brain only connect with other parts processing the sensory media and handling the responses. If so, then direct stimulus-response mechanisms of brainless animals does not create consciousness. OTOH, there may be some dim consciousness in insects. Hofstadter argues there is a continuum, and this seems a reasonable supposition, rather than a binary state. Similarly, some AI architectures might be creating a dim consciousness in robots, although their simplicity makes them more in the insect catagory than human category.

    • Harold Shaw December 11, 2020, 9:40

      Thank you for the response. I would argue that human consciousness describes a level of consciousness rather than the whole of consciousness. Sounds like you may be talking about a threshold as well. If so, then I agree that human level consciousness may not be a long term evolutionary advantage. I do entertain the possibility that all life has passed a consciousness threshold but going into that would detract from the topic.

      How does this aspect of consciousness effect the inevitability of increasingly sophisticated engineered minds? Are “dumb” machines destined to take over? Will our children trade consciousness for longevity?

      I don’t see the hard distinction between biology and machine, but there are plenty of soft distinctions. Biology and industrial machinery are different enough that we should expect unique mechanisms for mind from each. A being pursuing mindful agency would need to preserve those unique features. Simple drones may not be but any being that exists for the sake of thinking and experiencing will likely be a hybrid.

  • Kamil Muzyka December 10, 2020, 18:08

    I like your article Alex, although I have a different approach here. To me, there might be an aspect of machines and biology that we tend to omit – both robot villages and human settlements need to be sustainable – they need to repair themselves utilizing local resources as much as they can. That implies a form of simplicity that is required for self-repair and self-replication. I have a hunch, that there might be a blend between what we currently consider Biological and Machine – take into account a form of synthetic biology that is xenobiology. Or xenobots (which are not related to XNA based synthetic organisms). And also we need to recall the concept of Lyfe. https://www.mdpi.com/2075-1729/10/4/42

  • wdk December 12, 2020, 12:07

    This is clearly a genuine debate about organic and inorganic life you have stimulated. Kudos to you! And it began with your thoughtful article, followed by efforts from all over.

    Continuing in that vein ( right homonym?), rather than sf, I would like to cite a different literary sector. In Dr. Zhivago by Boris Pasternak, Yuri is serving as a doctor at the bedside of his future mother in law.
    She asked him what will happen to her when she dies. As a spokesman for science and medicine he assures her that her consciousness will submerge itself from the unaware state from which it emerged and she will have rest. And this gives her some peace. From time to time I reflect on Pasternak and his character Yuri Zhivago’s view. And as I do so over time, I have come to realize that i have been distracted by the notion of where his mother in law was going rather than where she was coming from. As a scientist, one could just as well argue from laws of conservation, of matter, of energy, momentum… and consciousness.
    How could it arise out of nowhere? How could it return to a place where there was supposedly nothing to begin with? There are philosophical implications to the question beyond the topic’s scope.
    Yes. But it does not preclude life being other than carbon based or DNA based. It does seem to suggest that leaving smashed I phones on the shores of a desolate planet, or still with charged but left to their own devices will result in something crawling away, muttering, “Cogito, ergo sum.” Not in a billion years.

  • Alex Tolley December 12, 2020, 19:25

    As a scientist, one could just as well argue from laws of conservation, of matter, of energy, momentum… and consciousness.
    How could it arise out of nowhere? How could it return to a place where there was supposedly nothing to begin with? There are philosophical implications to the question beyond the topic’s scope.

    With a quick stab at this, I would say that consciousness is information. The conservation of information (at least at the quantum level) applies. However, we are not closed systems, so the increase in information (and energy) by photosynthesis can only happen in an open system – in that case, sunlight increases entropy to compensate for the lower entropy fixed carbon. I would argue that consciousness is the same. While it is an emergent property, the reduction in entropy must be met with an increase in entropy – from the metabolism of carbon compounds to release energy and increase entropy.

    I could, however, be very mistaken…

    Regarding non-carbon-based life. It has been argued that simulated artificial life is life. This would imply that a virtual world with simulated organisms and people is generating life. In the physical world, creating life without carbon appears more difficult, but we cannot a priori rule it out. Closer to home, I regard artificial intelligence (including consciousness) as quite possible. If robots can think and are conscious, are they de facto living, even if they cannot replicate as carbon life does? I think it will depend on how we define “life” (or “lyfe”). Whether that is trying to eliminate the bias of terrestrial life in our definition, or just moving the goalposts, I leave to other people to decide. Sara Walker once did a SETI talk where she provided several stages in the possible early stages of life and asked the audience when they thought life had emerged at any particular stage. There was a wide range of responses. I suspect the universe will provide continuums with weirdness following Haldane’s famous quote:

    The universe is not only stranger than we imagine; it is stranger than we can imagine.

  • Ljk December 18, 2020, 10:40
    • Mike Serfas December 18, 2020, 23:16

      I saw this at https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/alien-hunters-discover-mysterious-signal-from-proxima-centauri/ but that is only second hand, and your link puts up some thoughts for discussion. Notably … why would the star near Earth be the only one sending a signal? Very unlikely for two civilizations to arise next to each other. But perhaps not so unlikely for one blundering around to set off the nearest burglar alarm.

      Though mundane answers are always the lead candidates, the striking simplicity of the monotone signal might reflect that there is only one possible cause and one possible thing to do about it. Berserkers come to mind, but then you need to explain why they don’t have decontamination vessels ready at hand already. Do berserkers have a mutation rate that limits the number of patrols they can have active? Alternatively, it might be more on the level of a wildlife sensor for research, which requires skilled investigators to come to the site. Apparently the change in tone did not match the anticipated orbit of Proxima b… is there some reasonable orbit for “PMA-1” as a satellite that could explain it? I bet Centauri Dreams will cover the data as soon as we have more than a media leak to look at!

      • Paul Gilster December 19, 2020, 18:05

        The media leak was a surprise. Will hope to have more on this soon.

  • wdk December 20, 2020, 18:46

    Just today received a note/link from a friend in France about Tau Bootis b being a radio signal emitter as well, 51 light years away. Looking into this one, it’s a hot object with a year of about 6 days, 6 times Jupiter mass with water vapor identified in its atmosphere, but no prospects for liquid. I suspect that this case would be magnetospheric side effects. But in the French article there was mention of a low radio frequency radio receiver system LOFAR arrayed all over Europe. Looking into a neglected astronomical spectrum segment.

    At the link, they want to send cookies, but FWIW:


  • ljk January 20, 2021, 17:08

    Tabby’s Star is back in the news, with the discovery that it has a stellar companion that might explain the object’s odd appearance and behavior:


    The paper online here:


  • ljk January 20, 2021, 22:09

    The Pitfalls of Searching for Alien Life

    Scientists looking for evidence of extraterrestrials can draw cynical, even hostile, reactions from their colleagues.