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SETI: Inventing Minds to Find Minds

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Photo: Arecibo Observatory, Puerto Rico, via Wikimedia Commons.

One of the most intense projects in design detection is being carried out by people who deny the reality of intelligent design. For decades, SETI enthusiasts, who are largely materialists (as was their early protagonist Carl Sagan) have waded through radio signals and computer printouts, looking for some “Wow!” signal that they believe would isolate intelligent causes from natural causes — all while insisting that the intelligent causes emerged out of natural causes. If this sounds like special pleading, perhaps it is.

Now, the SETI Institute has a new project that makes their cognitive dissonance curiouser and curiouser. They are planning to use artificial intelligence (AI) to look for the intelligent signals. But then, many SETI enthusiasts believe that biological intelligences on some advanced outposts have been supplanted by artificial intelligences of the aliens’ own making. In a real sense, they will use robots to look for robots. That’s to say, they believe that brains that emerged by natural processes are capable of designing intelligent systems that can look for signals from intelligent systems that were the products of brains that had emerged by natural processes. Welcome to the convoluted philosophy of SETI.

News from the SETI Institute asks, “Will Machine Learning Help Us Find Extraterrestrial Life?” Watch for words signifying mental powers of human minds.

January 30, 2023, Mountain View, CA — When pondering the probability of discovering technologically advanced extraterrestrial life, the question that often arises is, “if they’re out there, why haven’t we found them yet?” And often, the response is that we have only searched a tiny portion of the galaxy. Further, algorithmsdeveloped decades ago for the earliest digital computers can be outdated and inefficient when applied to modern petabyte-scale datasets. Now, research published in Nature Astronomy and led by an undergraduate student at the University of Toronto, Peter Ma, along with researchers from the SETI Institute, Breakthrough Listen and scientific research institutions around the world, has applied a deep learning technique to a previously studied dataset of nearby stars and uncovered eight previously unidentified signals of interest. [Emphasis added.]

These are strange behaviors for meat robots to engage in.

“Signals of Interest”

They cheerfully boast about how many stars they’ve looked at, how many “signals of interest” have been found so far, and what they hope to achieve. After 63 years of searching, new tools had to be developed to handle the volume of data. The 2017 search of 820 nearby stars yielded 150 terabytes of data that meat-style brains decided were “devoid of interesting signals.” In the recent effort AI techniques turned up eight signals worth following up on.

This massive volume of data requires new computational tools to process and analyze that data quickly to identify anomalies that could be evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence. This new machine learning approach is breaking new ground in the quest to answer the question, “are we alone?”

In some far future imaginary world, when the meat robots have gone extinct and metal minds have replaced them, would an alien civilization with meat brains be able to isolate intelligent causes from physical causes, and conclude that our robot descendants were not natural?

Nature and Natural Causes: Is Differentiation Natural?

The same day as the SETI Institute article, a “news explainer” at Nature asked, “Will an AI be the first to discover alien life?” Here is what the AI is being called on to do.

“The biggest challenge for us in looking for SETI signals is not at this point getting the data,” says Sofia Sheikh, an astronomer at the SETI Institute. “The difficult part is differentiating signals from human or Earth technology from the kind of signals we’d be looking for from technology somewhere else out in the Galaxy.”

Differentiating technology on Earth from technology elsewhere is one step removed from the underlying assumption: the human mind can “differentiate signals” in observable phenomena. Intelligence in silico is merely a tool, an extension, of what the meat computer asks it to do. That’s true of most tools. A hammer is an extension of the hand, but the hammer lies inert in the tool chest until grasped and directed by the hand, which is directed by the brain. But what directs the brain to direct the hand to direct the hammer? Is there an ultimate differentiator in the functional result?

Your Designed Body

To be sure, life is full of signals and differentiation processes. As described in Chapter 14 of Your Designed Body by Steve Laufmann and Howard Glicksman, the immune system routinely patrols the bloodstream to differentiate friend from foe, self from non-self, and new threat from old threat. Signal transduction is a key concept in biochemistry, and signal recognition proceeds all the way up to the organism and beyond. But would the orchestrated responses to signals function without some master controller at the top of the differentiation hierarchy? The moment a body dies, all those molecules and codes still exist, but they cannot act on their own.

Similarly, artificial devices can differentiate signals. An imaginary Maxwell’s Demon could separate hot from cold molecules against the principle of entropy increase, but the device would be traceable to a choosing mind — a master differentiator. It could be said that SETI is an effort by differentiators to detect differentiators. If differentiation were natural, we would find differentiation in rocks and sand that perform functions contrary to the tendencies of natural law, just like Aristotle quipped that “If the art of ship-building were in the wood, ships would exist by nature.”

What Rocks Could Do

To maintain materialism, the SETI people would have to conclude that if robot signals can be differentiated by our robots, then robots exist by nature. This would likely insult the programmers who worked so hard to write the software. Would Frank Marchis at the SETI Institute, who is involved with the AI search, tell his programmers that they’re just doing what rocks could do, given billions of years?

For the humor of it, consider what astrophysicist Paul Sutter said on Live Science last month: “Alien life could be turning harsh planets into paradises — and astronomers want to find them.” He proposes a new extension of the Habitable Zone concept, bouncing off “new research, published to the preprint server, [that] suggests that our current definition of the habitable zone may be too narrow because it doesn’t include how life influences a world.” Call in the (non-religious) Deities:

Therefore, we must rethink the traditional definition of the habitable zone. The researchers propose a new one: the Gaian habitable zone (from Gaia, the Greek mythological personification of the Earth). This zone would be wider than what we currently consider suitable for life, because life itself is capable of changing the boundaries of the suitable.

He speaks as if personifying the Earth is a quaint fallacy of less enlightened minds. But think about it; do rocks personify the Earth? Do rocks create myths? If they did, then we would have gods and myths by nature. Look for the words implying mental activity again:

The researchers argue that we should employ these broader definitions of the habitable zone in selecting future targets for exploration. If the habitable zone is too narrow, we may miss signs of life, simply because we’re looking in the wrong place. No matter what, when searching for extraterrestrial life, we must keep an open mind and be prepared for surprises. Life … finds a way.

Summarizing, life finds a way to design robots (but not by intelligent design) that can differentiate signals as long as it keeps an open… an open… whatever! 

In this mode of thinking, why go to the trouble of building robots? Design detection is natural. Human researchers are superfluous. The art of shipbuilding is in the wood. Planets are already differentiating between themselves though hundreds of light-years apart. Gaia oversees this natural activity, but she is NOT religious!