If - and when - we do finally encounter aliens, they will most likely not look like little green men or spiky insects. More likely, they will not be biological beings at all, but advanced robots that are superior to us in intelligence and other respects. While philosophers, scientists and futurologists discuss the rise of artificial intelligence and the inevitable singularity, they are all basically living on Earth.
Some thinkers - not thinking in science fiction categories, however - have already considered the possibility that artificial intelligence is already here and has been for years.
Susan Schneider, a philosophy professor at the University of Connecticut, is just such a person. She joins a group of astronomers, including Seth Szostak, director of NASA's Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), NASA astrobiologist Paul Davies and astrobiologist Stephen Dick, who believe that the predominant intelligence in space is likely to be artificial. In his work Alien Intelligence, Schneider explains why extraterrestrial life forms would be more likely to be artificial and how such creatures must think.
"Most people think that aliens are biological beings, but that doesn't stand up to any criticism of the time scale argument," Schostak tells us. - "I've bet a dozen astronomers that if we detect a signal of extraterrestrial life, it will be artificial life.
As data on potentially habitable planets scattered across the galaxy multiplies and grows, it becomes harder and harder to believe that we are alone in the universe. And if we ever encounter an extraterrestrial life-form, we will surely want to communicate with it, which means we need some basis for understanding their consciousness. But for the vast majority of astrobiologists who study single-celled life, extraterrestrial intelligence is undetectable even in the plans.
"If you were to ask me to put together guys who would be thinking about this topic, I would find it very difficult. Some think about communication strategy, but very few think about the nature of extraterrestrial intelligence."
In his work, Schneider is among the first to attempt to address this question.
"Anything to do with their consciousness - how their brains receive and process information, what their goals and intentions are - may be quite different from ours," Schneider says. - "Astrobiologists need to start thinking about the existence of entirely new types of consciousness.
For example, about the possibility of the existence of artificial superintelligence.
"This concept has a serious difference from just 'artificial intelligence'. I'm not talking about trying to find IBM processors in outer space. In all likelihood, this intelligence will be far more complex than any of the humans can imagine."
The reason for this is primarily because of the timeline. When it comes to extraterrestrial intelligence, there is something Schneider calls the "short window of observation" - the assumption that by the time any society has learned to send radio signals, it will be one step away from starting to improve its own biology. This view was popularised at one time by Ray Kurzweil, a famous futurologist, hinting that a post-biological human society is not far off either.
"As soon as civilisation invents the radio, it is 50 years away from computers, and then in all likelihood 50-100 years away from the invention of artificial intelligence. At the same moment, living brains become obsolete."
Schneider points to the nascent but rapidly growing industry of neurocomputer technology, neural implants, which only suggests that our own singularity is very close. Eventually we will not only modernise our own consciousness with these technologies, but we will move completely to artificial 'hardware', i.e. an artificial body.
"By the time we actually encounter aliens, it is quite possible that most people will have upgraded brains," Schneider believes.
The second thesis Schneider considers is that most civilisations that have mastered radio technology are probably thousands or millions of years older than us.
"The path to that conclusion is very simple," Schostak says. - Consider the fact that any signal we might receive from a civilisation would mean that the civilisation would be at least as advanced as ours. Now, conventionally speaking, let's assume that the average civilisation will have been using radio for 10,000 years. From a purely probabilistic point of view, the chance of encountering a society that is substantially older than ours is quite high."
Of course, it's not very satisfying to know that we may be galactic infants or creatures with insect intelligence compared to our cosmic brethren. However, despite their incredible computing power, we have something they may well lack: consciousness.