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The future of machine intelligence might be biological systems [Caleb Scharf – Aeon]

Modeling a single human mind with current hardware – even if it could be done – would require the energy output of the Three Gorges Dam hydroelectric plant in China, the biggest in the world. And that’s just one person. To do the same for all 7.3 billion people would require the equivalent of 800 times the solar power hitting the top of Earth’s atmosphere.

By comparison, biological systems are staggeringly energy-efficient.

This suggests a solution to Fermi’s paradox. Intelligent aliens are out there, but like us, they’re biological, and find interstellar travel and communication overwhelming.

If life is common, and it regularly leads to intelligent forms, then we probably live in a universe of the future of past intelligences. The Universe is 13.8 billion years old and our galaxy is almost as ancient; stars and planets have been forming for most of the past 13 billion years. There is no compelling reason to think that the cosmos did nothing interesting in the 8 billion years or so before our solar system was born. Someday we might decide that the future of intelligence on Earth requires biology, not machine computation. Untold numbers of intelligences from billions of years ago might have already gone through that transition.

Those early intelligences could have long ago reached the point where they decided to transition back from machines to biology. If so, the Fermi Paradox returns: where are those aliens now? A simple answer is that they might be fenced in by the extreme difficulty of interstellar transit, especially for physical, biological beings. Perhaps the old minds are out there, but the cost of returning to biology was a return to isolation.

Those early minds might have once built mega-structures and deployed cosmic engineering across the stars. Maybe some of that stuff is still out there, and perhaps we’re on the cusp of detecting some of it with our ever-improving astronomical devices. The recent excitement over KIC 8462852, a star whose brightness varies in a way that cannot be readily explained by known natural mechanisms, is founded on the recognition that our instruments are now sensitive enough to investigate such possibilities. Perhaps alien civilisations have retreated to a cloistered biological existence, with relics of their mechanical-era constructions crumbling under the rigours of cosmic radiation, evaporation, and explosive stellar filth.

Our current existence could sit in a cosmically brief gap between that first generation of machine intelligence and the next one. Any machine intelligence or transcendence elsewhere in the galaxy might be short-lived as an interstellar force; the last one might already be spent, and the next one might not yet have surfaced. It might not have had time to come visiting while modern humans have been here. It might already be dreaming of becoming biological again, returning to an islanded state in the great wash of interstellar space. Our own technological future might look like this – turning away from machine fantasies, back to a quieter but more efficient, organic existence.

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