19 January 2014

Machine Civilization ?

Paul Davies and Seth Shostak, two SETI pundits who have rather divergent views on several of the relevant issues, both believe that advanced alien civilizations, if and when we discover evidence of their existence, are likely to be “post-biological,” i.e., some form of advanced computers.

While I give both of these gentlemen considerable credit for imaginativeness and for considering carefully the implications of a lot of the assumptions that are usually made about the likelihood of alien life and intelligence, here is an area where I think they are both making unfounded assumptions.

The fact is that there is no evidence, at all, that artificial computers have any awareness or consciousness. I question whether evolution or intentional development can or will occur among “artificial minds,” when there is no indication that their functioning is anything more than rapid and complex calculation, lacking any sort of subjective experiential nature.

I suppose it’s conceivable that artificial machines could reproduce themselves and mutate and evolve through natural selection, this isn’t something we’ve ever seen, so I would like to see some evidence that it’s likely to happen before we start assuming that it will happen. And, along the lines of the Fermi Paradox as reasons for concluding that intelligent life is probably not all that common in the universe, I think the lack of intelligent machines swarming all over and cluttering the place up (which they would if they were common and had existed for an arbitrarily long time, given the immense age of the universe and the fact that it has existed pretty much as it is now for a significant fraction of that time), is pretty strong evidence that such machine civilizations are not common in the universe either.

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