Can Artificial Intelligence help find alien intelligence?

File 20180503 153884 1gegba7.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Artist’s impression of Proxima b, a planet orbiting the star Proxima Centauri within the closest known star system outside of our solar system.
(ESO/M. Kornmesser), CC BY-SA

By Michael P. Oman-Reagan, Memorial University of Newfoundland

In the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI), we’ve often looked for signs of intelligence, technology and communication that are similar to our own.

But as astronomer and SETI trailblazer Jill Tarter points out, that approach means searching for detectable technosignatures, like radio transmissions, not searching for intelligence.

Now scientists are considering whether artificial intelligence (AI) could help us search for alien intelligence in ways we haven’t even thought of yet.

‘Decoding’ intelligence

As we think about extraterrestrial intelligence it’s helpful to remember humans are not the only intelligent life on Earth.

Chimpanzees have culture and use tools, spiders process information with webs, cetaceans have dialects, crows understand analogies and beavers are great engineers. Non-human intelligence, language, culture and technology are all around us.

A capuchin (Sapajus libidinosus) using a stone tool (T. Falótico). An octopus (Amphioctopus marginatus) carrying shells as shelter (N. Hobgood).
(Wikimedia/Tiago Falótico, Nick Hobgood), CC BY-NC-SA

Alien intelligence could look like an octopus, an ant, a dolphin or a machine — or be radically different from anything on Earth.

We often imagine extraterrestrial life relative to our ideas about difference, but those ideas aren’t even universal on Earth and are unlikely to be universal across interstellar space.

If some of us have only recently recognized non-human intelligence on Earth, what could we be missing when we imagine extraterrestrial life?

In early 2018, astronomers, neuroscientists, anthropologists, AI researchers, historians and others gathered for a “Decoding Alien Intelligence” workshop at the SETI Institute in Silicon Valley. Astrobiologist Nathalie Cabrol organized the workshop around her 2016 paper “Alien mindscapes,” where she calls for a new SETI road map and a long-term vision for “the search for life as we do not know it.”

In her paper, Cabrol asks how SETI can move past “looking for other versions of ourselves” and think “outside of our own brains” to imagine truly different extraterrestrial intelligence.

Thinking differently

Silicon Valley is famous for valuing “disruptive” thinking and this culture intersects with SETI research. Ever since the U.S. government stopped funding SETI in the mid-1990s, Silicon Valley ideas, technology and funding have been increasingly important.

For example, the SETI Institute’s Allen Telescope Array is named after Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who contributed over US$25 million to the project. And, in 2015, technology investor Yuri Milner announced Breakthrough Listen, a 10-year US$100 million SETI initiative.

Now, the SETI Institute, NASA, Intel, IBM and other partners are tackling space science problems through an AI research and development program called the Frontier Development Lab.




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Lucianne Walkowicz, the Astrobiology Chair at the Library of Congress, described one AI-based method as “signal agnostic searching” at Breakthrough Discuss in 2017.

Walkowicz explained that this means using machine learning methods to look at any set of data without predetermined categories and instead let that data cluster into their “natural categories.” The software then lets us know what stands out as outliers. These outliers could then be the target of additional investigations.

It turns out that SETI researchers think AI might be useful in their work because they believe machine learning is good at spotting difference.

But its success depends on how we — and the AI we create — conceptualize the idea of difference.

Smarter than slime mould?

Thinking outside our brains also means thinking outside our scientific, social and cultural systems. But how can we do that?

AI has been used to look for simulations of what researchers imagine alien radio signals might look like, but now SETI researchers hope it can find things we aren’t yet looking for.

Graham Mackintosh, an AI consultant at the SETI Institute workshop, said extraterrestrials might be doing things we can’t even imagine, using technologies so different we don’t even think to look for them. AI, he proposed, might be able to do that advanced thinking for us.

We may not be able to make ourselves smarter, but perhaps, Mackintosh suggested, we can make machines that are smarter for us.

In a keynote at this year’s Breakthrough Discuss conference, astrophysicist Martin Rees shared a similar hope, that AI could lead to “intelligence which surpasses humans as much as we intellectually surpass slime mould.”

First contact

If we met extraterrestrial slime mould, what could we assume about its intelligence? One challenge of SETI is that we don’t know the limits of life or intelligence, so we need to be open to all possible forms of difference.

We might find intelligence in forms that Euro-American science has historically disregarded: Microbial communities, insects or other complex systems like the symbiotic plant-fungus relationships in mycorrhizal networks that learn from experience.

Intelligence might appear in atmospheres or geology at a planetary scale, or as astrophysical phenomena. What appears to be a background process in the universe, or just part of what we think of as nature, could turn out to be intelligence.

Consider that the largest living thing on Earth may be an Armillaria ostoyae fungus in Eastern Oregon’s Blue Mountains, which extends to 10 square kilometres and is between 2,000 and 9,000 years old.

While this fungus may not be what most people think of as intelligence, it reminds us to think about the unexpected when searching for life and intelligence, and of what we might be missing right under our feet.

Parts of the Armillaria ostoyae organism include the mushrooms, the black rhizomorphs and the white mycelial felts.
(USDA/Forest Service/Pacific Northwest Region)

Thinking differently about intelligence means understanding that anything we encounter could be first contact with intelligent life. This might include our first encounter with artificial general intelligence (AGI), also called Strong AI, something closer to the sentient computer HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey or Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation.

As we work with machine learning to expand the SETI search, we also need social sciences to understand how our ideas shape the future of AI — and how AI will shape the future of our ideas.

Interdisciplinary futures

To avoid a human-centred point of view in SETI we need to consider how we encode ideas about difference into AI and how that shapes the outcomes. This is vital for finding and recognizing intelligence as we don’t yet know it.

Some of the methods used in anthropology can help us identify ideas about difference that we’ve naturalized — concepts so familiar they seem invisible, like the divides many still see between nature and culture or biology and technology, for example.

Recent research on algorithms reveals how our naturalized ideas shape the technology we create and how we use it. And Microsoft’s infamous AI chat bot Tay reminds us the AI we create can easily reflect the worst of those ideas.




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We may never entirely stop building bias into search engines and search strategies for SETI, or coding it into AI. But through collaborations between scientists and social scientists we can think critically about how we conceptualize difference.

The ConversationA critical, interdisciplinary approach will help us understand how our ideas about difference impact lives, research and possibilities for the future both here on Earth and beyond.

Michael P. Oman-Reagan, Vanier Scholar, Department of Anthropology, Memorial University of Newfoundland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

A giant ‘singing’ cloud in space will help us to understand how star systems form

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The dark band is the Dark Doodad Nebula, a place where new stars and planets can form.
Flickr/cafuego, CC BY-SA

By Aris Tritsis, Australian National University

We know that the birthplaces of stars are large molecular clouds of gas and dust found in space.

But what exactly determines the number and kind of stars and planets that are formed in these clouds? How was our Solar system nursed and how did it emerge from such a cloud billions of year ago?

These are mysteries that have been puzzling astronomers for decades, but research published today in Science adds an extra dimension to our understanding.

A 3D approach

Knowledge of the 3-dimensional structure of these clouds would be an important leap in our understanding of how stars and planets are born.




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The physics responsible for the formation of stars is also responsible for shaping the clouds. But even with the most advanced telescopes in the world we can only see the two-dimensional projections of clouds on the plane of the sky.

Thankfully, there is a way around this problem. A recently discovered type of structure in molecular clouds, called striations, was found to form because of waves.

Here enters Musca, a molecular cloud that “sings”. Musca is an isolated cloud in the Southern sky, below the Southern Cross, that looks like a thin needle (see top image). It is hundreds of light years away and stretches about 27 light years across, with a depth of about 20 light years and width up to a fraction of a light year.

Musca is surrounded by ordered hair-like striations produced by trapped waves of gas and dust caused by the global vibrations of the cloud.

3D model of Musca molecular cloud.
Aris Tritsis, ANU, Author provided

Trapped waves act like a fingerprint – they are unique and can be used to identify the sizes of the boundaries that trapped them. Boundaries are naturally created at the edges of clouds where their physical properties change abruptly.

Just like a cello and a violin make very distinct sounds, clouds with different sizes and structures will vibrate in very different manners – they will “sing” different “songs”.

A ‘song’ in the cloud

By using this concept and calculating the frequencies seen in observations of Musca it was possible to measure for the first time the third dimension of the cloud, the one that extends along our line of sight.

The frequencies found in the observations were scaled to the frequency range of human hearing to produce the “song of Musca”.

A “singing” molecular cloud.

The results from this method were amazing. Despite the fact that Musca looks like a thin cylinder from Earth, the true size of its hidden dimension is not small at all. In fact, it is comparable to its largest visible dimension on the plane of the sky.

No longer a thin cylinder when the extra dimension is revealed (Aris Tritsis)

Musca is not actively forming stars. It will be millions of years before gravity can overcome all opposing forces that support the cloud.




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As a result, with its structure now determined, Musca can be used as a prototype laboratory against which we can compare our models and study the early stages of star formation.

The ConversationWe can use Musca to better constraint our numerical models and learn about our own Solar system. It could help solve many mysteries. For example, could the ices found in comets have formed in clouds rather than at a later time during the life of our solar system?

Aris Tritsis, Postdoctoral Fellow, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

When galaxies collide, size matters if you want to know the fate of our Milky Way

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An artist’s impression of the predicted merger between our Milky Way (right) and the neighboring Andromeda galaxy (left). So which galaxy will dominate?
NASA; ESA; Z. Levay and R. van der Marel, STScI; T. Hallas; and A. Mellinger

Geraint Lewis, University of Sydney and Prajwal Kafle, University of Western Australia

Our Milky Way and the Andromeda galaxy – two giant galaxies in our local patch of the universe – are heading for an immense collision with each other in only a few billion years’ time. So which will dominate in this intergalactic tussle?

Our recent work has turned up an interesting result on measuring the mass of the Andromeda galaxy, which at a distance of only two million light years is our cosmic next-door neighbour.

Both Andromeda and the Milky Way appear to have about the same total mass, about 800 billion times that of our Sun, suggesting that the result of this intergalactic gravitational battle may actually be a draw.

In a few billion years, Andromeda and the Milky Way will merge. It is essential that we know their masses if we are to understand the details of this cosmic crash.



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Big brother, little brother?

The Andromeda and the Milky Way galaxies are very similar, giant spirals containing hundreds of billions of individual stars. But astronomers have struggled to work out which of these two galaxies is the most massive.

And knowing the masses of the two giant galaxies will help to reveal the details of our ultimate fate.

The answer to this question is vitally important if we are to understand the dynamic history of all nearby galaxies, both large and small, as the gravitational field of the most massive will command the action.

Until now, astronomers have been unable to pin down the galactic masses, with a lack of data and complex calculations yielding very uncertain answers.

At times it seemed that our own Milky Way was more massive; at others it appeared that Andromeda was the local Goliath.

In our Milky Way, where we can get the best observational data, there has been a growing consensus among astronomers as to its mass. For Andromeda, where observations are more difficult, astronomers have still struggled to measure an accurate mass.

Our new work takes a new approach to measuring the mass of the Andromeda galaxy.

A portion of the Andromeda galaxy (M31), our galactic next-door neighbour.
NASA, ESA, J. Dalcanton, B.F. Williams, and L.C. Johnson (University of Washington), the PHAT team, and R. Gendler

How to measure a galaxy?

Simply counting the number of stars in any galaxy, and adding their individual masses, won’t give you its total mass. Not even close. The mass of a galaxy is dominated by its dark side, an immense amount of matter that is unseen by telescopes.

The light side of a galaxy, the glowing stars and gas that we can see, accounts for only a couple of tens of percent of the total mass. The rest, the significant majority, is this elusive dark matter that dominates all of the mass in the universe.

But it is the gravitational pull of this dark matter that holds the stars in their orbits, meaning we can measure its presence. American astronomer Vera Rubin figured out more than half a century ago that there is much more to the Andromeda galaxy than simply the stars we can see.

As dark matter holds stars in their orbits, we can use their motions to measure the overall mass of the Andromeda galaxy, including the unseen dark matter. This is what we did in our new work, but with a twist.

Escape velocity is the key to measuring the mass of galaxies.
WikiHow, CC BY-NC-SA

The key concept is escape velocity, or how fast you have to be moving to break free from the gravitational pull of a massive object.

As Elon Musk and the Falcon Heavy rocket just showed, you need to get up to speeds of more than 11km per second to ensure that your Telsa electric car escapes Earth’s gravitational clutches.

We figured that if we can trace out the escape velocity for stars within the massive gravitational halo of Andromeda, we can work out its gravitational pull, and the mass that is ultimately responsible.

While the calculation was complicated, the result was unequivocal: previous estimates had overstated the total mass of Andromeda. It and the Milky Way are equals in the local universe.

Towards the future

Now we know that the Milky Way and Andromeda are of similar masses, what have we learned? Importantly, we can now try to understand the role these galaxies played in the formation and evolution of the local universe.




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But we know that the collision with Andromeda is coming in only a few billion years. Previously we were unsure who would be the major player in this battle, and who would dominate the gravitational battle ahead.

The ConversationLike the Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) doctrine of the Cold War, ultimately there will be no winner in this cosmic clash, but at least the Milky Way will be on an equal footing with its cosmic rival.

Geraint Lewis, Professor of Astrophysics, University of Sydney and Prajwal Kafle, Postdoctoral research associate, University of Western Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.