In real science

Nicholas J Albertini

The new Allen Telescope Array, a radio astronomy telescope system to be used in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, recently began operation in Hat Creek, Calif. The original SETI array, named Project Phoenix, stopped looking for alien signals in 2004 after looking at only 800 stars over the course of about 10 years.
This new system is smaller than had been planned due to funding issues. It boasts only 42 dishes rather than the planned 350. However, it is still projected to be capable of scanning over 400 times faster than Phoenix and can scan nearly a million stars in a similar time frame. The new array will also scan a larger band of frequencies.
A major question involved in calculating the probability of finding an alien broadcast is whether or not extraterrestrial life is prevalent. Another is how developed technology might be among alien civilizations. The Drake equation, developed by astrophysicist and first exobiological radio astronomer Frank Drake in 1960, is an attempt to calculate this likelihood.
The equation takes many factors into consideration, including: rates of stellar and planetary formation, probability that planets lie in the habitable or “Goldilocks” zone of their stars where liquid water is possible, probability of spontaneous biogenesis and evolution toward intelligence, rate of technological development and even the probability of a catastrophic end to civilization. However, there are more factors to consider.
I would like to revisit some of the technologies that I reported on last year in “In real science.” We may need to consider extrapolating from our current cutting-edge technology and science, both in an effort to envision what we as a species are becoming and what alien species may have already become.
The DARPA SyNAPSE project is a current effort to create smarter-than-human artificial intelligence computer systems. Extrapolating from this technology, one can envision computer systems with the capacity to contain informational complexity much greater than that contained by the human brain, thus with the capability to contain human consciousness. The near prospect of quantum computing magnifies this potential by orders of magnitude.
Computers the size of the head of a pin could be more powerful than the most powerful supercomputer networks today. Quantum mechanics, in its current form, does not rule out long distance communication via the manipulation of entangled particles.
In fact, recent work demonstrates macroscopic transmission of information across a laboratory using entanglement. Communication could become instantaneous across any distance with such technology. Radio communication would become quite antiquated.
The Harvard brainbow project continues to generate technology for the mapping of synaptic connections in brains. Though this project is currently mapping mouse brains, it is foreseeable that an entire human brain’s synaptic network could be mapped in the near future.
Once mapped, the information could essentially be downloaded into such a neural network computer system as SyNAPSE is attempting to construct. The human race could be faced with the possibility of beginning a new, purely computational, existence. We would no longer require bodies or any biological existence of our own.
The continually expanding Internet, a previous DARPA project as well, could be a precursor of a global computational network in which such downloaded human consciousnesses might reside and interact in a “Matrix”-like virtual reality. Such computational human consciousnesses need not only interact via some virtual reality program, but could also intermingle more intimately.
Each could have direct access to the other in a way that is currently inconceivable to the human mind. We could, as envisioned in Isaac Asimov ‘s “The Last Question,” all become one.
Extrapolating from current robotics, nanotechnology, and synthetic biology advancements, these computational human consciousnesses could be capable of experiencing and acting upon the world outside of the network, the real world, via bio-robotic surrogates, as is similarly portrayed in a just-released Bruce Willis flick.
Technology has been a fundamental part of the human species for a very long time. It has become a secondary, nonbiological evolution of our species – an evolution that is exponential.
We have continued to become more and more dependant upon technology, to integrate ourselves with it, both in manner of life and biologically. We have artificial hearts, joints and even artificial immune systems.
We are now beginning to genetically engineer ourselves. It has become harder and harder to extract what is technology from what is humanity. It seems inevitable that these two are going to completely merge.
It is not unforeseeable for all of these developments to be completed within the next 30 or 40 years. In my own opinion, it is quite likely. In the course of 100 years we went from traveling by horse to distant lands where hunter-gatherer tribes still ruled to vaporizing each other with atomic weapons. In less than 100 from that time we may become a nonbiological global organism. In another hundred, maybe we will be an interstellar organism communicating information instantaneously between distant stars. We will have broadcasted radio waves into space for less than 200 years.
There is no reason to believe that extraterrestrial species would be any different. The more that we humans have explored the universe, the more common we have discovered our lot to be. We live on an average planet that revolves about an average star in an average galaxy at the center of nothing, un-unique. Why should we be different?