by Hap Aziz
If you consume a lot of Science Fiction (like I do), you will see a lot of depictions of alien life, whether it has come to Earth or we have encountered it in space or on other planets. There was the unstoppable Blob, consuming everything in it’s path. The very human-like Klaatu who came here with his interplanetary police robot, Gort. The terrifying Alien, with acid for blood and who planted its offspring inside of people. The cute and mysteriously powerful E.T., able to heal with a touch and carry bicycles through the sky. Master of logic and mental discipline, Mr. Spock from the planet Vulcan. Frail and spindly Martians (not to be confused with Uncle Martin), come to wage a War of the Worlds. Predators here to hunt humans for sport. A fallen to Earth David Bowie. Alf.
I’ve only named a few, but you get the point. There are thousands upon thousands of fictional aliens that we have encountered and gotten to know, quite well in some cases. Some have strange and unusual physical or mental abilities. Others are super-smart. And many are very much just like us, only with more advanced technology to make them appear much smarter than we are. But what about real aliens, if there are such things? How much different from us could they be? And more specifically, since this is a learning blog after all, how much smarter could they be? Obviously there’s no way to test or make measurements at this time. Perhaps some day in the future we’ll come across some real aliens and can ask them, but until then we’ll have to make some assumptions and try puzzling things out on our own.
The first assumption I’ll make has to do with the origins of life and subsequently intelligent life. Let’s break the possibilities into two potential origin stories: creation and evolution. If we go down the creation path, organic intelligence likely cannot be benchmarked. In other words, God (or whatever we want to designate as the creator) could give life any starting level of intelligence. In that case, it becomes impossible to come to any meaningful conclusions regarding the level of alien intelligence humans may encounter in the universe. So let’s put that possibility aside for this discussion. Now, if we establish a premise that says God created life, but God created the rules that life (and the universe) will abide by, then we are able to settle on the evolutionary premise both from the believer’s and atheist’s perspective, and then build from there.
So what is (or should be) the evolutionary premise regarding the development of intelligent life? If we think of evolutionary development, or more accurately natural selection, as incremental or “micro-adjustments” to external circumstances and stimulation, then it is reasonable to expect that these adjustments will rise to the level of response to these circumstances and stimulations but not much further. That’s a complex thought, but let’s think of it in terms of physical evolution specifically, which should provide a little more clarity:
A giraffe’s neck will evolve to the height of the leaves it wants to eat, but not higher.
If we’re talking about intelligence, what this means is that life will self-select to be just as smart as it needs to be in order to be successful in its environment. Now, if we think of natural laws as being the same throughout the universe (and for the most past we have no reason to believe otherwise), environments on planets that would support earth-like life are not likely to be wildly different than our own. Consider this as the first stage of intelligence setting for animal life. (Life that evolves in more challenging environments may be more capable than humans would be in those environments, but I won’t address that here.)
The second stage is not about the physical environment but rather survival competition from other animals. This is where things get interesting, as the most physically successful animal will not be the most successful regarding intelligence. It makes sense that an animal that can run down its prey, kill it with superior strength, and then tear it apart and eat it will not have to go to extreme lengths to outsmart it. And the animal that is on the top of the physical pyramid has the need for only as much intelligence as it takes to find and hunt its prey. It’s going to be those animals below the physical apex that will develop other mechanisms to either take down their prey hunting in packs. or defend themselves using tools or weapons from stronger and faster competition. (It is worth noting that the discovery of tools is also thought to have led to an increase in the size of the human brain. For a much more in-depth dive on this subject, look up Acheulian technology.)
Match up a lion and an unarmed human on the open plain, and we know who wins that fight. But try the same match-up when the human has tools or perhaps there are several humans working together, and the outcome is not assured in the lion’s favor. If there is competition between species of similar intelligence and physical prowess, there will be some differentiator that will ultimately give one species an advantage over the other. But again, it will be an incremental advantage (and possibly some luck) that leads one species to prevail. The intelligence competitors will be eliminated, while the physical competitors will be subjugated or kept at bay. At that point, the need for incremental improvements to intelligence are no longer being driven by environment and other species. The top dog is set, and barring a giant asteroid strike that triggers a reset, there will be little brain change moving forward. The refinements that come over the next tens of thousands of years are in the refinement of available tools, including the tool of language, after it is invented.
Going back to the original premise, given an earth-like environment the intelligent species that ultimately rises to the top should be in the neighborhood of human intelligence. It would not likely be too much more, as nature would not likely have created an apex predator of overwhelmingly great power beyond what is needed to overcome environmental conditions. And environmental conditions are set by the laws of nature.
Now, none of the above is to say that there are not environmentally harsh planets floating around with the potential for life unlike our own. There’s the planet K2-141b which has oceans of lava, rains rocks, and experiences supersonic winds bursting to over 3,000 miles per hour. Can it support intelligent life? Likely not, the way we understand it, but who is to say there aren’t lava people there? In any case, that’s beyond the conjectures I’m making here.
So barring life that evolved in conditions vastly different than those we consider favorable, is that it, then? Is there a cap to natural intelligence? Perhaps, but we need not stop the thought experiment. What about intelligence augmented by the inventions of intelligence? In other words, what about all the science-fiction constructs with which we’re familiar such as brain-computer connections? Enhancing the mind and thought processes with cybernetic implants that are tied into some 8G network of the future? Interestingly, that kind of augmentation may be necessitated by the environmental conditions that we humans are creating for ourselves and will need to overcome as a matter of survival.
Consider Artificial Intelligence. Without going into detail here, AI is being recognized as a potential threat to human life. Karen Hao writes about it in the MIT Technology Review here. Steven Hawking believed that AI’s impact could be cataclysmic unless it was strictly controlled, “Unless we learn how to prepare for, and avoid, the potential risks, AI could be the worst event in the history of our civilization.” Elon Musk is convinced that AI is far more dangerous than nukes, and he’s told audiences, “it scares the hell out of me.”
Then there’s the “singleton hypothesis,” that predicts AI combined with a totalitarian government, able to control everything. And if you’re interested in a fictional take on what that could be like, check out the movie Colossus: The Forbin Project (released in 1970!). We won’t go any further down that path here.
It would seem, then, that humanity has created the need to go beyond “simple” evolutionary methods of enhancing intelligence to artificial methods of our own invention (bringing us to stage three). Again, Elon Musk has thoughts on the subject, and he proposes the idea that humans will need to merge with AI to develop a symbiotic super intelligence, preventing us from lagging behind our AI creations. At that point, a potential singularity-like inflection point for human intelligence, it becomes impossible for us to know how far intelligence might go.
But that does bring us back full circle to the original question of how smart aliens might be. My guess is we’ll see cybernetically enhanced biological intelligences that have solved the challenges of interstellar space flight. Imagine the Borg from Star Trek. Whether or not they’re friendly to purely biological intelligence (if we haven’t yet enhanced ourselves) is the big question. And if they’re not cybernetically enhanced, then they’ll probably be a lot like us.