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The alternative universe known as science fiction has given our culture a menagerie of alien species. From overstuffed teddy bears like Ewoks and Wookies to terrifying nightmares such as Alien and Predator, our collective imagination of what form alien life from another world may take has been irrevocably imprinted by Hollywood.
It might all be possible, or all these bug-eyed critters might turn out to be just B-movie versions of how real extraterrestrials will appear if and when they finally make the evening news.
One thing for certain is that aliens from another world will be shaped by the same evolutionary forces as here on Earth—natural selection. That’s the conclusion of a team of scientists from the University of Oxford in a study published this month in the International Journal of Astrobiology.
A complex alien that comprises a hierarchy of entities, where each lower level collection of entities has aligned evolutionary interests.Image Credit: Helen S. Cooper/University of Oxford.
The researchers suggest that evolutionary theory—famously put forth by Charles Darwin in his seminal book On the Origin of Species 158 years ago this month—can be used to make some predictions about alien species. In particular, the team argues that extraterrestrials will undergo natural selection, because that is the only process by which organisms can adapt to their environment.
“Adaptation is what defines life,” lead author Samuel Levin tells Singularity Hub.
While it’s likely that NASA or some SpaceX-like private venture will eventually kick over a few space rocks and discover microbial life in the not-too-distant future, the sorts of aliens Levin and his colleagues are interested in describing are more complex. That’s because natural selection is at work.
A quick evolutionary theory 101 refresher: Natural selection is the process by which certain traits are favored over others in a given population. For example, take a group of brown and green beetles. It just so happens that birds prefer foraging on green beetles, allowing more brown beetles to survive and reproduce than the more delectable green ones. Eventually, if these population pressures persist, brown beetles will become the dominant type. Brown wins, green loses.
And just as human beings are the result of millions of years of adaptations—eyes and thumbs, for example—aliens will similarly be constructed from parts that were once free living but through time came together to work as one organism.
“Life has so many intricate parts, so much complexity, for that to happen (randomly),” Levin explains. “It’s too complex and too many things working together in a purposeful way for that to happen by chance, as how certain molecules come about. Instead you need a process for making it, and natural selection is that process.”
Just don’t expect ET to show up as a bipedal humanoid with a large head and almond-shaped eyes, Levin says.
“They can be built from entirely different chemicals and so visually, superficially, unfamiliar,” he explains. “They will have passed through the same evolutionary history as us. To me, that’s way cooler and more exciting than them having two legs.”
Need for Data
Seth Shostak, a lead astronomer at the SETI Institute and host of the organization’s Big Picture Science radio show, wrote that while the argument is interesting, it doesn’t answer the question of ET’s appearance.
Shostak argues that a more productive approach would invoke convergent evolution, where similar environments lead to similar adaptations, at least assuming a range of Earth-like conditions such as liquid oceans and thick atmospheres. For example, an alien species that evolved in a liquid environment would evolve a streamlined body to move through water.
“Happenstance and the specifics of the environment will produce variations on an alien species’ planet as it has on ours, and there’s really no way to predict these,” Shostak concludes. “Alas, an accurate cosmic bestiary cannot be written by the invocation of biological mechanisms alone. We need data. That requires more than simply thinking about alien life. We need to actually discover it.”
Search is On
The search is on. On one hand, the task seems easy enough: There are at least 100 billion planets in the Milky Way alone, and at least 20 percent of those are likely to be capable of producing a biosphere. Even if the evolution of life is exceedingly rare—take a conservative estimate of .001 percent or 200,000 planets, as proposed by the Oxford paper—you have to like the odds.
Of course, it’s not that easy by a billion light years.
Planet hunters can’t even agree on what signatures of life they should focus on. The idea is that where there’s smoke there’s fire. In the case of an alien world home to biological life, astrobiologists are searching for the presence of “biosignature gases,” vapors that could only be produced by alien life.
As Quanta Magazine reported, scientists do this by measuring a planet’s atmosphere against starlight. Gases in the atmosphere absorb certain frequencies of starlight, offering a clue as to what is brewing around a particular planet.
The presence of oxygen would seem to be a biological no-brainer, but there are instances where a planet can produce a false positive, meaning non-biological processes are responsible for the exoplanet’s oxygen. Scientists like Sara Seager, an astrophysicist at MIT, have argued there are plenty of examples of other types of gases produced by organisms right here on Earth that could also produce the smoking gun, er, planet.
Life as We Know It
Indeed, the existence of Earth-bound extremophiles—organisms that defy conventional wisdom about where life can exist, such as in the vacuum of space—offer another clue as to what kind of aliens we might eventually meet.
Lynn Rothschild, an astrobiologist and synthetic biologist in the Earth Science Division at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, takes extremophiles as a baseline and then supersizes them through synthetic biology.
For example, say a bacteria is capable of surviving at 120 degrees Celsius. Rothschild’s lab might tweak an organism’s DNA to see if it could metabolize at 150 degrees. The idea, as she explains, is to expand the envelope for life without ever getting into a rocket ship.
While researchers may not always agree on the “where” and “how” and “what” of the search for extraterrestrial life, most do share one belief: Alien life must be out there.
“It would shock me if there weren’t [extraterrestrials],” Levin says. “There are few things that would shock me more than to find out there aren’t any aliens…If I had to bet on it, I would bet on the side of there being lots and lots of aliens out there.”
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Can A.I. Be Taught to Explain Itself?Cliff Kuang | New York Times“Kosinski’s results suggested something stranger: that artificial intelligences often excel by developing whole new ways of seeing, or even thinking, that are inscrutable to us. It’s a more profound version of what’s often called the ‘black box’ problem—the inability to discern exactly what machines are doing when they’re teaching themselves novel skills—and it has become a central concern in artificial-intelligence research.”
Semi-Synthetic Life Form Now Fully Armed and OperationalAntonio Regalado | MIT Technology Review “By this year, the team had devised a more stable bacterium. But it wasn’t enough to endow the germ with a partly alien code—it needed to use that code to make a partly alien protein. That’s what Romesberg’s team, reporting today in the journal Nature, says it has done.”
4 Strange New Ways to ComputeSamuel K. Moore | IEEE Spectrum “With Moore’s Law slowing, engineers have been taking a cold hard look at what will keep computing going when it’s gone…What follows includes a taste of both the strange and the potentially impactful.”
Google X and the Science of Radical CreativityDerek Thompson | The Atlantic “But what X is attempting is nonetheless audacious. It is investing in both invention and innovation. Its founders hope to demystify and routinize the entire process of making a technological breakthrough—to nurture each moonshot, from question to idea to discovery to product—and, in so doing, to write an operator’s manual for radical creativity.”
PRIVACY AND SECURITY
Uber Paid Hackers to Delete Stolen Data on 57 Million PeopleEric Newcomer | Bloomberg “Hackers stole the personal data of 57 million customers and drivers from Uber Technologies Inc., a massive breach that the company concealed for more than a year. This week, the ride-hailing firm ousted its chief security officer and one of his deputies for their roles in keeping the hack under wraps, which included a $100,000 payment to the attackers.”
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Artificial intelligence has received its fair share of hype recently. However, it’s hype that’s well-founded: IDC predicts worldwide spend on AI and cognitive computing will culminate to a whopping $46 billion (with a “b”) by 2020, and all the tech giants are jumping on board faster than you can say “ROI.” But what is AI, exactly?
According to Hilary Mason, AI today is being misused as a sort of catch-all term to basically describe “any system that uses data to do anything.” But it’s so much more than that. A truly artificially intelligent system is one that learns on its own, one that’s capable of crunching copious amounts of data in order to create associations and intelligently mimic actual human behavior.
It’s what powers the technology anticipating our next online purchase (Amazon), or the virtual assistant that deciphers our voice commands with incredible accuracy (Siri), or even the hipster-friendly recommendation engine that helps you discover new music before your friends do (Pandora). But AI is moving past these consumer-pleasing “nice-to-haves” and getting down to serious business: saving our butts.
Much in the same way robotics entered manufacturing, AI is making its mark in healthcare by automating mundane, repetitive tasks. This is especially true in the case of detecting cancer. By leveraging the power of deep learning, algorithms can now be trained to distinguish between sets of pixels in an image that represents cancer versus sets that don’t—not unlike how Facebook’s image recognition software tags pictures of our friends without us having to type in their names first. This software can then go ahead and scour millions of medical images (MRIs, CT scans, etc.) in a single day to detect anomalies on a scope that humans just aren’t capable of. That’s huge.
As if that wasn’t enough, these algorithms are constantly learning and evolving, getting better at making these associations with each new data set that gets fed to them. Radiology, dermatology, and pathology will experience a giant upheaval as tech giants and startups alike jump in to bring these deep learning algorithms to a hospital near you.
In fact, some already are: the FDA recently gave their seal of approval for an AI-powered medical imaging platform that helps doctors analyze and diagnose heart anomalies. This is the first time the FDA has approved a machine learning application for use in a clinical setting.
But how efficient is AI compared to humans, really? Well, aside from the obvious fact that software programs don’t get bored or distracted or have to check Facebook every twenty minutes, AI is exponentially better than us at analyzing data.
Take, for example, IBM’s Watson. Watson analyzed genomic data from both tumor cells and healthy cells and was ultimately able to glean actionable insights in a mere 10 minutes. Compare that to the 160 hours it would have taken a human to analyze that same data. Diagnoses aside, AI is also being leveraged in pharmaceuticals to aid in the very time-consuming grunt work of discovering new drugs, and all the big players are getting involved.
But AI is far from being just a behind-the-scenes player. Gartner recently predicted that by 2025, 50 percent of the population will rely on AI-powered “virtual personal health assistants” for their routine primary care needs. What this means is that consumer-facing voice and chat-operated “assistants” (think Siri or Cortana) would, in effect, serve as a central hub of interaction for all our connected health devices and the algorithms crunching all our real-time biometric data. These assistants would keep us apprised of our current state of well-being, acting as a sort of digital facilitator for our personal health objectives and an always-on health alert system that would notify us when we actually need to see a physician.
Slowly, and thanks to the tsunami of data and advancements in self-learning algorithms, healthcare is transitioning from a reactive model to more of a preventative model—and it’s completely upending the way care is delivered. Whether Elon Musk’s dystopian outlook on AI holds any weight or not is yet to be determined. But one thing’s certain: for the time being, artificial intelligence is saving our lives.
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What exactly do we mean by an "enhanced" human? When this possibility is brought up, what is generally being referred to is the addition of human and machine-based performances (expanding on the figure of the cyborg popularised by science fiction). But enhanced in relation to what? According to which reference values and criteria? How, for example, can happiness be measured? A good life? Sensations, like smells or touch which connect us to the world? How happy we feel when we are working? All these dimensions that make life worth living. We must be careful here not to give in to the magic of figures. A plus can hide a minus; something gained may conceal something lost. What is gained or lost, however, is difficult to identify as it is neither quantifiable nor measurable. Continue reading