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#432549 Your Next Pilot Could Be Drone Software

Would you get on a plane that didn’t have a human pilot in the cockpit? Half of air travelers surveyed in 2017 said they would not, even if the ticket was cheaper. Modern pilots do such a good job that almost any air accident is big news, such as the Southwest engine disintegration on April 17.

But stories of pilot drunkenness, rants, fights and distraction, however rare, are reminders that pilots are only human. Not every plane can be flown by a disaster-averting pilot, like Southwest Capt. Tammie Jo Shults or Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger. But software could change that, equipping every plane with an extremely experienced guidance system that is always learning more.

In fact, on many flights, autopilot systems already control the plane for basically all of the flight. And software handles the most harrowing landings—when there is no visibility and the pilot can’t see anything to even know where he or she is. But human pilots are still on hand as backups.

A new generation of software pilots, developed for self-flying vehicles, or drones, will soon have logged more flying hours than all humans have—ever. By combining their enormous amounts of flight data and experience, drone-control software applications are poised to quickly become the world’s most experienced pilots.

Drones That Fly Themselves
Drones come in many forms, from tiny quad-rotor copter toys to missile-firing winged planes, or even 7-ton aircraft that can stay aloft for 34 hours at a stretch.

When drones were first introduced, they were flown remotely by human operators. However, this merely substitutes a pilot on the ground for one aloft. And it requires significant communications bandwidth between the drone and control center, to carry real-time video from the drone and to transmit the operator’s commands.

Many newer drones no longer need pilots; some drones for hobbyists and photographers can now fly themselves along human-defined routes, leaving the human free to sightsee—or control the camera to get the best view.

University researchers, businesses, and military agencies are now testing larger and more capable drones that will operate autonomously. Swarms of drones can fly without needing tens or hundreds of humans to control them. And they can perform coordinated maneuvers that human controllers could never handle.

Could humans control these 1,218 drones all together?

Whether flying in swarms or alone, the software that controls these drones is rapidly gaining flight experience.

Importance of Pilot Experience
Experience is the main qualification for pilots. Even a person who wants to fly a small plane for personal and noncommercial use needs 40 hours of flying instruction before getting a private pilot’s license. Commercial airline pilots must have at least 1,000 hours before even serving as a co-pilot.

On-the-ground training and in-flight experience prepare pilots for unusual and emergency scenarios, ideally to help save lives in situations like the “Miracle on the Hudson.” But many pilots are less experienced than “Sully” Sullenberger, who saved his planeload of people with quick and creative thinking. With software, though, every plane can have on board a pilot with as much experience—if not more. A popular software pilot system, in use in many aircraft at once, could gain more flight time each day than a single human might accumulate in a year.

As someone who studies technology policy as well as the use of artificial intelligence for drones, cars, robots, and other uses, I don’t lightly suggest handing over the controls for those additional tasks. But giving software pilots more control would maximize computers’ advantages over humans in training, testing, and reliability.

Training and Testing Software Pilots
Unlike people, computers will follow sets of instructions in software the same way every time. That lets developers create instructions, test reactions, and refine aircraft responses. Testing could make it far less likely, for example, that a computer would mistake the planet Venus for an oncoming jet and throw the plane into a steep dive to avoid it.

The most significant advantage is scale: Rather than teaching thousands of individual pilots new skills, updating thousands of aircraft would require only downloading updated software.

These systems would also need to be thoroughly tested—in both real-life situations and in simulations—to handle a wide range of aviation situations and to withstand cyberattacks. But once they’re working well, software pilots are not susceptible to distraction, disorientation, fatigue, or other human impairments that can create problems or cause errors even in common situations.

Rapid Response and Adaptation
Already, aircraft regulators are concerned that human pilots are forgetting how to fly on their own and may have trouble taking over from an autopilot in an emergency.

In the “Miracle on the Hudson” event, for example, a key factor in what happened was how long it took for the human pilots to figure out what had happened—that the plane had flown through a flock of birds, which had damaged both engines—and how to respond. Rather than the approximately one minute it took the humans, a computer could have assessed the situation in seconds, potentially saving enough time that the plane could have landed on a runway instead of a river.

Aircraft damage can pose another particularly difficult challenge for human pilots: It can change what effects the controls have on its flight. In cases where damage renders a plane uncontrollable, the result is often tragedy. A sufficiently advanced automated system could make minute changes to the aircraft’s steering and use its sensors to quickly evaluate the effects of those movements—essentially learning how to fly all over again with a damaged plane.

Boosting Public Confidence
The biggest barrier to fully automated flight is psychological, not technical. Many people may not want to trust their lives to computer systems. But they might come around when reassured that the software pilot has tens, hundreds, or thousands more hours of flight experience than any human pilot.

Other autonomous technologies, too, are progressing despite public concerns. Regulators and lawmakers are allowing self-driving cars on the roads in many states. But more than half of Americans don’t want to ride in one, largely because they don’t trust the technology. And only 17 percent of travelers around the world are willing to board a plane without a pilot. However, as more people experience self-driving cars on the road and have drones deliver them packages, it is likely that software pilots will gain in acceptance.

The airline industry will certainly be pushing people to trust the new systems: Automating pilots could save tens of billions of dollars a year. And the current pilot shortage means software pilots may be the key to having any airline service to smaller destinations.

Both Boeing and Airbus have made significant investments in automated flight technology, which would remove or reduce the need for human pilots. Boeing has actually bought a drone manufacturer and is looking to add software pilot capabilities to the next generation of its passenger aircraft. (Other tests have tried to retrofit existing aircraft with robotic pilots.)

One way to help regular passengers become comfortable with software pilots—while also helping to both train and test the systems—could be to introduce them as co-pilots working alongside human pilots. Planes would be operated by software from gate to gate, with the pilots instructed to touch the controls only if the system fails. Eventually pilots could be removed from the aircraft altogether, just like they eventually were from the driverless trains that we routinely ride in airports around the world.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Posted in Human Robots

#432512 How Will Merging Minds and Machines ...

One of the most exciting and frightening outcomes of technological advancement is the potential to merge our minds with machines. If achieved, this would profoundly boost our cognitive capabilities. More importantly, however, it could be a revolution in human identity, emotion, spirituality, and self-awareness.

Brain-machine interface technology is already being developed by pioneers and researchers around the globe. It’s still early and today’s tech is fairly rudimentary, but it’s a fast-moving field, and some believe it will advance faster than generally expected. Futurist Ray Kurzweil has predicted that by the 2030s we will be able to connect our brains to the internet via nanobots that will “provide full-immersion virtual reality from within the nervous system, provide direct brain-to-brain communication over the internet, and otherwise greatly expand human intelligence.” Even if the advances are less dramatic, however, they’ll have significant implications.

How might this technology affect human consciousness? What about its implications on our sentience, self-awareness, or subjective experience of our illusion of self?

Consciousness can be hard to define, but a holistic definition often encompasses many of our most fundamental capacities, such as wakefulness, self-awareness, meta-cognition, and sense of agency. Beyond that, consciousness represents a spectrum of awareness, as seen across various species of animals. Even humans experience different levels of existential awareness.

From psychedelics to meditation, there are many tools we already use to alter and heighten our conscious experience, both temporarily and permanently. These tools have been said to contribute to a richer life, with the potential to bring experiences of beauty, love, inner peace, and transcendence. Relatively non-invasive, these tools show us what a seemingly minor imbalance of neurochemistry and conscious internal effort can do to the subjective experience of being human.

Taking this into account, what implications might emerging brain-machine interface technologies have on the “self”?

The Tools for Self-Transcendence
At the basic level, we are currently seeing the rise of “consciousness hackers” using techniques like non-invasive brain stimulation through EEG, nutrition, virtual reality, and ecstatic experiences to create environments for heightened consciousness and self-awareness. In Stealing Fire, Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal explore this trillion-dollar altered-states economy and how innovators and thought leaders are “harnessing rare and controversial states of consciousness to solve critical challenges and outperform the competition.” Beyond enhanced productivity, these altered states expose our inner potential and give us a glimpse of a greater state of being.

Expanding consciousness through brain augmentation and implants could one day be just as accessible. Researchers are working on an array of neurotechnologies as simple and non-invasive as electrode-based EEGs to invasive implants and techniques like optogenetics, where neurons are genetically reprogrammed to respond to pulses of light. We’ve already connected two brains via the internet, allowing the two to communicate, and future-focused startups are researching the possibilities too. With an eye toward advanced brain-machine interfaces, last year Elon Musk unveiled Neuralink, a company whose ultimate goal is to merge the human mind with AI through a “neural lace.”

Many technologists predict we will one day merge with and, more speculatively, upload our minds onto machines. Neuroscientist Kenneth Hayworth writes in Skeptic magazine, “All of today’s neuroscience models are fundamentally computational by nature, supporting the theoretical possibility of mind-uploading.” This might include connecting with other minds using digital networks or even uploading minds onto quantum computers, which can be in multiple states of computation at a given time.

In their book Evolving Ourselves, Juan Enriquez and Steve Gullans describe a world where evolution is no longer driven by natural processes. Instead, it is driven by human choices, through what they call unnatural selection and non-random mutation. With advancements in genetic engineering, we are indeed seeing evolution become an increasingly conscious process with an accelerated pace. This could one day apply to the evolution of our consciousness as well; we would be using our consciousness to expand our consciousness.

What Will It Feel Like?
We may be able to come up with predictions of the impact of these technologies on society, but we can only wonder what they will feel like subjectively.

It’s hard to imagine, for example, what our stream of consciousness will feel like when we can process thoughts and feelings 1,000 times faster, or how artificially intelligent brain implants will impact our capacity to love and hate. What will the illusion of “I” feel like when our consciousness is directly plugged into the internet? Overall, what impact will the process of merging with technology have on the subjective experience of being human?

The Evolution of Consciousness
In The Future Evolution of Consciousness, Thomas Lombardo points out, “We are a journey rather than a destination—a chapter in the evolutionary saga rather than a culmination. Just as probable, there will also be a diversification of species and types of conscious minds. It is also very likely that new psychological capacities, incomprehensible to us, will emerge as well.”

Humans are notorious for fearing the unknown. For any individual who has never experienced an altered state, be it spiritual or psychedelic-induced, it is difficult to comprehend the subjective experience of that state. It is why many refer to their first altered-state experience as “waking up,” wherein they didn’t even realize they were asleep.

Similarly, exponential neurotechnology represents the potential of a higher state of consciousness and a range of experiences that are unimaginable to our current default state.

Our capacity to think and feel is set by the boundaries of our biological brains. To transform and expand these boundaries is to transform and expand the first-hand experience of consciousness. Emerging neurotechnology may end up providing the awakening our species needs.

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#432051 What Roboticists Are Learning From Early ...

You might not have heard of Hanson Robotics, but if you’re reading this, you’ve probably seen their work. They were the company behind Sophia, the lifelike humanoid avatar that’s made dozens of high-profile media appearances. Before that, they were the company behind that strange-looking robot that seemed a bit like Asimo with Albert Einstein’s head—or maybe you saw BINA48, who was interviewed for the New York Times in 2010 and featured in Jon Ronson’s books. For the sci-fi aficionados amongst you, they even made a replica of legendary author Philip K. Dick, best remembered for having books with titles like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? turned into films with titles like Blade Runner.

Hanson Robotics, in other words, with their proprietary brand of life-like humanoid robots, have been playing the same game for a while. Sometimes it can be a frustrating game to watch. Anyone who gives the robot the slightest bit of thought will realize that this is essentially a chat-bot, with all the limitations this implies. Indeed, even in that New York Times interview with BINA48, author Amy Harmon describes it as a frustrating experience—with “rare (but invariably thrilling) moments of coherence.” This sensation will be familiar to anyone who’s conversed with a chatbot that has a few clever responses.

The glossy surface belies the lack of real intelligence underneath; it seems, at first glance, like a much more advanced machine than it is. Peeling back that surface layer—at least for a Hanson robot—means you’re peeling back Frubber. This proprietary substance—short for “Flesh Rubber,” which is slightly nightmarish—is surprisingly complicated. Up to thirty motors are required just to control the face; they manipulate liquid cells in order to make the skin soft, malleable, and capable of a range of different emotional expressions.

A quick combinatorial glance at the 30+ motors suggests that there are millions of possible combinations; researchers identify 62 that they consider “human-like” in Sophia, although not everyone agrees with this assessment. Arguably, the technical expertise that went into reconstructing the range of human facial expressions far exceeds the more simplistic chat engine the robots use, although it’s the second one that allows it to inflate the punters’ expectations with a few pre-programmed questions in an interview.

Hanson Robotics’ belief is that, ultimately, a lot of how humans will eventually relate to robots is going to depend on their faces and voices, as well as on what they’re saying. “The perception of identity is so intimately bound up with the perception of the human form,” says David Hanson, company founder.

Yet anyone attempting to design a robot that won’t terrify people has to contend with the uncanny valley—that strange blend of concern and revulsion people react with when things appear to be creepily human. Between cartoonish humanoids and genuine humans lies what has often been a no-go zone in robotic aesthetics.

The uncanny valley concept originated with roboticist Masahiro Mori, who argued that roboticists should avoid trying to replicate humans exactly. Since anything that wasn’t perfect, but merely very good, would elicit an eerie feeling in humans, shirking the challenge entirely was the only way to avoid the uncanny valley. It’s probably a task made more difficult by endless streams of articles about AI taking over the world that inexplicably conflate AI with killer humanoid Terminators—which aren’t particularly likely to exist (although maybe it’s best not to push robots around too much).

The idea behind this realm of psychological horror is fairly simple, cognitively speaking.

We know how to categorize things that are unambiguously human or non-human. This is true even if they’re designed to interact with us. Consider the popularity of Aibo, Jibo, or even some robots that don’t try to resemble humans. Something that resembles a human, but isn’t quite right, is bound to evoke a fear response in the same way slightly distorted music or slightly rearranged furniture in your home will. The creature simply doesn’t fit.

You may well reject the idea of the uncanny valley entirely. David Hanson, naturally, is not a fan. In the paper Upending the Uncanny Valley, he argues that great art forms have often resembled humans, but the ultimate goal for humanoid roboticists is probably to create robots we can relate to as something closer to humans than works of art.

Meanwhile, Hanson and other scientists produce competing experiments to either demonstrate that the uncanny valley is overhyped, or to confirm it exists and probe its edges.

The classic experiment involves gradually morphing a cartoon face into a human face, via some robotic-seeming intermediaries—yet it’s in movement that the real horror of the almost-human often lies. Hanson has argued that incorporating cartoonish features may help—and, sometimes, that the uncanny valley is a generational thing which will melt away when new generations grow used to the quirks of robots. Although Hanson might dispute the severity of this effect, it’s clearly what he’s trying to avoid with each new iteration.

Hiroshi Ishiguro is the latest of the roboticists to have dived headlong into the valley.

Building on the work of pioneers like Hanson, those who study human-robot interaction are pushing at the boundaries of robotics—but also of social science. It’s usually difficult to simulate what you don’t understand, and there’s still an awful lot we don’t understand about how we interpret the constant streams of non-verbal information that flow when you interact with people in the flesh.

Ishiguro took this imitation of human forms to extreme levels. Not only did he monitor and log the physical movements people made on videotapes, but some of his robots are based on replicas of people; the Repliee series began with a ‘replicant’ of his daughter. This involved making a rubber replica—a silicone cast—of her entire body. Future experiments were focused on creating Geminoid, a replica of Ishiguro himself.

As Ishiguro aged, he realized that it would be more effective to resemble his replica through cosmetic surgery rather than by continually creating new casts of his face, each with more lines than the last. “I decided not to get old anymore,” Ishiguro said.

We love to throw around abstract concepts and ideas: humans being replaced by machines, cared for by machines, getting intimate with machines, or even merging themselves with machines. You can take an idea like that, hold it in your hand, and examine it—dispassionately, if not without interest. But there’s a gulf between thinking about it and living in a world where human-robot interaction is not a field of academic research, but a day-to-day reality.

As the scientists studying human-robot interaction develop their robots, their replicas, and their experiments, they are making some of the first forays into that world. We might all be living there someday. Understanding ourselves—decrypting the origins of empathy and love—may be the greatest challenge to face. That is, if you want to avoid the valley.

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Posted in Human Robots

#431873 Why the World Is Still Getting ...

If you read or watch the news, you’ll likely think the world is falling to pieces. Trends like terrorism, climate change, and a growing population straining the planet’s finite resources can easily lead you to think our world is in crisis.
But there’s another story, a story the news doesn’t often report. This story is backed by data, and it says we’re actually living in the most peaceful, abundant time in history, and things are likely to continue getting better.
The News vs. the Data
The reality that’s often clouded by a constant stream of bad news is we’re actually seeing a massive drop in poverty, fewer deaths from violent crime and preventable diseases. On top of that, we’re the most educated populace to ever walk the planet.
“Violence has been in decline for thousands of years, and today we may be living in the most peaceful era in the existence of our species.” –Steven Pinker
In the last hundred years, we’ve seen the average human life expectancy nearly double, the global GDP per capita rise exponentially, and childhood mortality drop 10-fold.

That’s pretty good progress! Maybe the world isn’t all gloom and doom.If you’re still not convinced the world is getting better, check out the charts in this article from Vox and on Peter Diamandis’ website for a lot more data.
Abundance for All Is Possible
So now that you know the world isn’t so bad after all, here’s another thing to think about: it can get much better, very soon.
In their book Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think, Steven Kotler and Peter Diamandis suggest it may be possible for us to meet and even exceed the basic needs of all the people living on the planet today.
“In the hands of smart and driven innovators, science and technology take things which were once scarce and make them abundant and accessible to all.”
This means making sure every single person in the world has adequate food, water and shelter, as well as a good education, access to healthcare, and personal freedom.
This might seem unimaginable, especially if you tend to think the world is only getting worse. But given how much progress we’ve already made in the last few hundred years, coupled with the recent explosion of information sharing and new, powerful technologies, abundance for all is not as out of reach as you might believe.
Throughout history, we’ve seen that in the hands of smart and driven innovators, science and technology take things which were once scarce and make them abundant and accessible to all.
Napoleon III
In Abundance, Diamandis and Kotler tell the story of how aluminum went from being one of the rarest metals on the planet to being one of the most abundant…
In the 1800s, aluminum was more valuable than silver and gold because it was rarer. So when Napoleon III entertained the King of Siam, the king and his guests were honored by being given aluminum utensils, while the rest of the dinner party ate with gold.
But aluminum is not really rare.
In fact, aluminum is the third most abundant element in the Earth’s crust, making up 8.3% of the weight of our planet. But it wasn’t until chemists Charles Martin Hall and Paul Héroult discovered how to use electrolysis to cheaply separate aluminum from surrounding materials that the element became suddenly abundant.
The problems keeping us from achieving a world where everyone’s basic needs are met may seem like resource problems — when in reality, many are accessibility problems.
The Engine Driving Us Toward Abundance: Exponential Technology
History is full of examples like the aluminum story. The most powerful one of the last few decades is information technology. Think about all the things that computers and the internet made abundant that were previously far less accessible because of cost or availability … Here are just a few examples:

Easy access to the world’s information
Ability to share information freely with anyone and everyone
Free/cheap long-distance communication
Buying and selling goods/services regardless of location

Less than two decades ago, when someone reached a certain level of economic stability, they could spend somewhere around $10K on stereos, cameras, entertainment systems, etc — today, we have all that equipment in the palm of our hand.
Now, there is a new generation of technologies heavily dependant on information technology and, therefore, similarly riding the wave of exponential growth. When put to the right use, emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, robotics, digital manufacturing, nano-materials and digital biology make it possible for us to drastically raise the standard of living for every person on the planet.

These are just some of the innovations which are unlocking currently scarce resources:

IBM’s Watson Health is being trained and used in medical facilities like the Cleveland Clinic to help doctors diagnose disease. In the future, it’s likely we’ll trust AI just as much, if not more than humans to diagnose disease, allowing people all over the world to have access to great diagnostic tools regardless of whether there is a well-trained doctor near them.

Solar power is now cheaper than fossil fuels in some parts of the world, and with advances in new materials and storage, the cost may decrease further. This could eventually lead to nearly-free, clean energy for people across the world.

Google’s GMNT network can now translate languages as well as a human, unlocking the ability for people to communicate globally as we never have before.

Self-driving cars are already on the roads of several American cities and will be coming to a road near you in the next couple years. Considering the average American spends nearly two hours driving every day, not having to drive would free up an increasingly scarce resource: time.

The Change-Makers
Today’s innovators can create enormous change because they have these incredible tools—which would have once been available only to big organizations—at their fingertips. And, as a result of our hyper-connected world, there is an unprecedented ability for people across the planet to work together to create solutions to some of our most pressing problems today.
“In today’s hyperlinked world, solving problems anywhere, solves problems everywhere.” –Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler, Abundance
According to Diamandis and Kotler, there are three groups of people accelerating positive change.

DIY InnovatorsIn the 1970s and 1980s, the Homebrew Computer Club was a meeting place of “do-it-yourself” computer enthusiasts who shared ideas and spare parts. By the 1990s and 2000s, that little club became known as an inception point for the personal computer industry — dozens of companies, including Apple Computer, can directly trace their origins back to Homebrew. Since then, we’ve seen the rise of the social entrepreneur, the Maker Movement and the DIY Bio movement, which have similar ambitions to democratize social reform, manufacturing, and biology, the way Homebrew democratized computers. These are the people who look for new opportunities and aren’t afraid to take risks to create something new that will change the status-quo.
Techno-PhilanthropistsUnlike the robber barons of the 19th and early 20th centuries, today’s “techno-philanthropists” are not just giving away some of their wealth for a new museum, they are using their wealth to solve global problems and investing in social entrepreneurs aiming to do the same. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has given away at least $28 billion, with a strong focus on ending diseases like polio, malaria, and measles for good. Jeff Skoll, after cashing out of eBay with $2 billion in 1998, went on to create the Skoll Foundation, which funds social entrepreneurs across the world. And last year, Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan pledged to give away 99% of their $46 billion in Facebook stock during their lifetimes.
The Rising BillionCisco estimates that by 2020, there will be 4.1 billion people connected to the internet, up from 3 billion in 2015. This number might even be higher, given the efforts of companies like Facebook, Google, Virgin Group, and SpaceX to bring internet access to the world. That’s a billion new people in the next several years who will be connected to the global conversation, looking to learn, create and better their own lives and communities.In his book, Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid, C.K. Pahalad writes that finding co-creative ways to serve this rising market can help lift people out of poverty while creating viable businesses for inventive companies.

The Path to Abundance
Eager to create change, innovators armed with powerful technologies can accomplish incredible feats. Kotler and Diamandis imagine that the path to abundance occurs in three tiers:

Basic Needs (food, water, shelter)
Tools of Growth (energy, education, access to information)
Ideal Health and Freedom

Of course, progress doesn’t always happen in a straight, logical way, but having a framework to visualize the needs is helpful.
Many people don’t believe it’s possible to end the persistent global problems we’re facing. However, looking at history, we can see many examples where technological tools have unlocked resources that previously seemed scarce.
Technological solutions are not always the answer, and we need social change and policy solutions as much as we need technology solutions. But we have seen time and time again, that powerful tools in the hands of innovative, driven change-makers can make the seemingly impossible happen.

You can download the full “Path to Abundance” infographic here. It was created under a CC BY-NC-ND license. If you share, please attribute to Singularity University.
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Posted in Human Robots

#431690 Oxford Study Says Alien Life Would ...

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.”
Image Credit: NASA Continue reading

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