Spaced Out

People have stared up at the sky and wondered for millennia about our place in the universe. We seem to be torn as a species between wanting to claim some exclusive specialness of being the only ‘intelligent’ life and hoping we are not alone. Of course we’ve made up plenty of stories to reassure ourselves of what makes us special along with enough rules to spend our short lives living in fear of getting it wrong.

With telescopes moving from simple lenses in the 17th century to the monster of Hale in the early 20th century, onto Hubble and soon the James Webb, our eyes have opened to the possibility of other planets existing beyond our solar system. It was always only a matter of time (and space) that science and maths would collide in an epic mind job. The numbers are staggering, the Drake equation is starting to look a bit like the homunculus theory of reproduction. Regardless of the formula the probabilities range in the billions of earth like planets in our solar system. Now of course that doesn’t necessarily mean with advanced life (I’d caution using humans as a yardstick). But someone else has done some number crunching that goes something like this:

  • For every star in our galaxy there is another galaxy in the universe. For every grain of sand on earth there are 10 000 stars
  • If 5% of those are like our sun – that is 500 billion, billion suns like ours
  • At least 1% of all stars in universe have earth like planet = 100 billion billion earth like planets
  • So, there are 100 earth like planets for every grain of sand
  • If we assume only 1% have intelligent life – (advanced civilisation), 10 million billion intelligent civilizations in the universe
  • Scaled down for our galaxy that becomes one billion earth like planets and 100 000 advanced intelligent civilizations – just in our galaxy.


Humans are a sad contradiction – afraid to die, and too afraid to truly live. Life is the rule in the universe not the exception. Science has eaten humble pie before although it tends to be laced with amnesia (on a brain that apparently isn’t quite as gendered as first thought).

I kind of imagine with 100 000 advanced civilisations we are well past little-green-men.


A Plutonic Relationship

It has taken nearly 10 years for the New Horizons to reach Pluto. Radio signals take four and a half hours to get back, nothing new if you’re used to trying to get a response from a call centre. Pluto represents a threshold of sorts. Probes are the new ships of discovery at the mercy of Newtons laws and the winds of political and scientific change. Billions of kilometres travelled and yet not even a stones throw from our door step. On the same day another group of physicist discovered a new quantum particle, a pentaquark. Pluto or particle these are moments of wonder to expand our still limited and sheltered understanding of reality. But as we look outward and beyond or inward I can’t discern the difference. I feel simultaneously a drop of water in the ocean and the ocean. However above all else seeing other planets that have no life as we know it living on them reminds me of how absolutely insane the human race is. Our relationship with the world we inhabit is nothing short of psychopathic. We are not custodians but criminals at best. There is only one thing driving the ecosystem to the brink and it is us. If there was a lonely planet guide for the earth it might read something like:

“The jewel of this system with liquid water and amazing biodiversity. However it is currently experiencing a human plague so best to give a wide berth as they are hostile and paranoid with egos and childlike needs for power. Their selfishness and fear is matched only by their untapped creativity and love. The level of contamination and destruction of life this one species has created in the name of what they call progress suggests they will either destroy themselves along with this wonderful one of a kind world or die trying. Explore the rich ocean life while you can. Remember they believe they are the only intelligent life to have ever existed so best to go incognito. If you intend to stay for a while masquerading as a scientist is easy just do not tell them they are wrong about anything and best not to leave anything behind they could blow themselves up with, they discovered nuclear power and still haven’t learnt their lesson. The best example of a human disguise is going by the name Steven Hawking, however the physiology did not merge so well in the end. Finally you will need to get used to the concept of money. Again, do not try and convince them do not need it to survive”.

Thanks science for the amazing pictures but what really needs a good probe is us.

Intelligence is all artificial

A popular theme in science fiction and indeed mainstream science is the idea of AI or Artificial Intelligence. You might be surprised (I certainly was) to know this isn’t a modern concept. In fact this idea goes back to Greek mythology. For example, Hephaetus and his automata and Talos – the giant man of bronze who guarded Europa (that doesn’t sound very sci-fi more another genre…moving on!).

I’m not convinced we really understand intelligence or have a definition that stretches beyond what we think we know about who we are as a species. Part of the confusion I believe is the role of consciousness and awareness and our paranoia about surviving. But there is a double layer of hubris and fear sandwiched between thick slices of narcissism to contend with before we can digest the idea of AI.

So here are some of the basic themes sci-fi has played with over the years to give a sense of why we are stuck with perpetual repeats of ideas but in different outfits, jargon and special effects.

1: Humanity gets technologically advanced.
2: This technology ‘mimics’ thought…problem solving…
3: Technology becomes aware of itself…(stop loading the ‘Descartes-I think therefore I am’ software would be a start I suggest).
4: Now that it is ‘self-aware’ it decides to annihilate it’s creator or;
5: AI struggles with complex ethical issues, receives mixed messages – and goes with its own solution (which is bad for us – 2001 A Space Odyssey)
6: Technology merges with biology (androids, cybernetics/cyborgs) with mixed results (word of warning, if you are at a nightclub with one, do not let it put its finger in your drink…Prometheus reference). Seems these beings freak us out the most as they are so close yet so far away from being human.
6: Death – suffering – ‘poor us’ humans lament their faith in trusting AI.
7: Humanity finds the thing that makes us unique in the universe and ‘wins’ – and its less dark, grimy and weather improves, suddenly the sun comes out in dystopic post-apocalyptic earth/world.

I am of course generalising, but I think it is necessary in order to get to the deeper philosophical levels of inquiry. That being said, I still love Alien for the sheer ‘s$*t your pants’ factor.

The rollercoaster is predictable for it rests on fundamental assumptions of psychology and biology. Particularly the role of ‘the mind’, of power, control, and popular concepts such as ‘Darwinian’ survival of the fittest. We are invited to take up the moral high ground as a species, that our level of consciousness combined with ethics and values makes us ‘special’ or more able to know deeper/higher/more complex notions of connection (empathy, compassion, love?). Doesn’t seem to stop us getting our asses kicked!

One of the most powerful working assumptions that acts as an accelerant to the AI phobia fire is the ‘absence of a soul’. Our connection to God or an idea of a creative force, with or without Religious doctrine runs deeply and goes largely unquestioned. But this presumes we know what a soul is/isn’t. Much like consciousness, we might just have to revisit the ‘flat-earth’ thinking associated with complex notions of awareness and ‘beingness’. Philosophy, religion and science are still competing for the rights to this ‘truth’…perhaps they should try and bore the circuits of AI with fanaticism from all angles “system failure…B-S overload…shutdown”.

For me the irony is plain to see – as afraid as we are of machines developing intelligence and ‘might’ want to destroy us, that is in fact exactly what we are doing to ourselves, except that we embrace it, call it progress…advancement…whatever helps us swallow the reality that we are the machines – robotic, hypnotically and unconsciously carrying out the programming of mass consumerism. Would be good to have an ‘off switch’ sometimes though – perhaps that is what a sense of humour is.

It comes down to the questionable criteria for intelligence. Intelligence is an invented idea therefore all intelligence is artificial, in that it is a social construction forged by institutional practices and knowledges such as science, religion, medicine, psychology. I think intelligence has been captured by rationalistic, modernistic thinking and could do with an overhaul, or ‘reboot’, because I feel quite uncomfortable with the current evidence of us being an ‘intelligent’ species.

Science fiction helps us investigate, explore and probe (woops, no pun intended) our ideas about ourselves from multiple angles. But please…no more Terminator movies…give us some respect for our intelligence.

So lets all ‘Rage Against The Machine’ – and Wake Up! I’ll leave it over to Neo wrap this one up.