Monday, January 25, 2010

Space Aliens and Killer Monster Robots - From Outer Space; or Pittsburgh

Horses aren't human.

It might be well to remember that, when imagining non-human intelligence. Space aliens, in other words.

I like the original Star Trek series, and have watched many of the series and movies that followed. With few exceptions, though, the space aliens of Star Trek didn't just look awfully human - they thought like humans, too. Sure, Klingons, Vulcans and Ferengi weren't likly to read the same books and go to the same clubs. But they weren't any more diverse than what you'd expect to find in any fair-sized sampling of Homo sapiens sapiens.

So, what will people from other worlds be like? I'm guessing that they'll be like us in some ways: curious, for starters.

They may even be pretty good at carrying on a conversation, if they're social creatures like we are. They probably even have a sense of humor. I suspect that a sense of humor keeps us from killing each other more often than we do.

Even being "social creatures, like we are" doesn't necessarily mean that they'll be all that much like us.

Take horses, for example. They're social creatures. For example, many 'how to care for your horse' manuals say that they need stablemates. In a pinch, a cat will do. But, like I wrote last month, about horses:
"...They're not human.

"Faced with danger, horses run. We're likely to do what most primates do: scream and start throwing things. (Ever see news video of a violent mob?)

"Horses like things to be quiet...."

"...Sure, on Earth the people are screaming, stuff-throwing primates: but that doesn't mean that's the only way things can work."
(Drifting at the Edge of Time and Space (December 9, 2009)
If we do meet aliens whose minds work along equine lines, job one for any human diplomat or negotiator will probably not be their language. It'll be learning to be quiet enough to avoid scaring the living daylights out of them.

And their diplomats and negotiators will have to learn that a screaming human isn't really screaming: it's just acting, well, human. Think American businesspeople and their Japanese counterparts learning to communicate. And they'd probably be indistinguishable to an equinoid. ("I'm terribly sorry, Mister Ambassador: but to me, all humanoids look alike.")

I may have just made up that word, "equinoid." I wasn't thinking so much of aliens shaped like horses, as aliens who thought like horses. On the other hand, horses have used their lips and teeth to untie knots.

Then there's the possibility that the space aliens may be really alien.

Just How Alien Would Space Aliens be?

I found a article from last year, with some pretty good ideas. And a few all-too-familiar assumptions. Here's how it started:
"What Will Aliens Really Look Like?"
Seth Shostak, Senior Astronomer, SETI Institute (July 16, 2009)

"According to Genesis 1:27, 'God created man in His own image.' OK, but what about all the other intelligent, cosmic inhabitants? Well, Hollywood has taken care of that. It has created aliens in man's image.

"It's hardly a major revelation to point out that most movie aliens bear a strong likeness to humans...."
I've discussed the "in His own image" idea from a Catholic perspective in another post. (" 'God Created Man in His Image' wasn't Written by An American," A Catholic Citizen in America (January 25, 2010))

The writer of that article made some pretty good points. Convergent evolution, he pointed out (I know: but "Seth Shostak" would be an - unusual - name for a woman), might very well mold many or most intelligent, tool-using creatures into a form not all that much different from our own.

That may be so. The three times that vertebrates grew wings - pterosaurs, birds, and bats - the final result was pretty much the same. Forelimbs became wings. Nobody would mistake one of those creatures for either of the other two - although it turns out the pterosaurs had fur. But again, the basic plan is pretty much the same.

On the other hand, I can't see any reason why people couldn't use tools and be shaped like the bipedal dinosaurs - or squids, when it comes to that.

The first two thirds, roughly, of the article is mostly about how aliens might be shaped. The closest to a discussion of their psychology is this:
"...Their behavioral cues are familiar, and you can tell if their game plan is to be amorous or aggressive. (In most movies, these are their only options.)..."

Attack of the Killer Robots from Pittsburgh

Then, the writer made what I think is a fairly valid point. The space aliens we meet may not be organic beings. I don't mean 'silicone-based life forms.' The aliens might be machines.

That's not at all unlikely, I think. Look at how we're exploring the Solar system right now: A pair of robots on Mars, more in orbit in various places. People from elsewhere might very well take the same approach. Or, maybe, the people would be machines. That's been a science fiction staple for decades. Generations. ("Men Martians and Machines," Eric Frank Russell (1955), for example - and that built on established conventions)

So has an all-too-familiar set of assumptions. Here's how the writer leads into his discussion of machines as people.
"...Well, using our own experience as a guide, consider a human development that seems likely to take place sometime in the 21st century: we'll invent machine intelligence. Some futurists figure this dismaying development will take place before 2050. Maybe it will take twice that long. It doesn't matter. By 2100, our descendants will note that this was the century in which we spawned our successors...."
I don't know how old Seth Shostak, the SETI Institute's Senior Astronomer, is. If he's even close to my age, he really should know better.
Artificial Intelligence is Just Around the Corner - for Decades
I was born during the Truman administration, and remember when "2001: A Space Odyssey" hit the silver screen in 1968. The HAL 9000 computer was a science fiction staple: an intelligent, sentient, self-aware computer. Who was insane. Homicidal insanity.

in 1968, the idea that there would be thinking computers in 2001 didn't seem very strange. Experts by the bushel were saying that it would only be a decade or so before we had artificial intelligence.

It's 42 years later, and now I read that we'll have devices like the HAL 9000 computer and C3PO in fifty years.

And that they'll take over.
A Person Can Learn a Lot from the Movies
I can see where the SETI Institute's Senior Astronomer could get that idea. I've been watching the movies off and on for decades: and I've learned a lot.

I've learned that biological warfare and killer bees would kill us all. If the bees didn't explode a nuclear reactor near us first. Even if we survived that, we'd be a handful in an apocalyptic post-nuclear-holocaust wasteland, beset by monster frogs and mutants.

It wasn't all doom and gloom in the movies, of course. There was "Star Wars" in 1977: but that was 'merely escapist entertainment.' Not serious at all. And "Hell Comes to Frogtown" was? Never mind. I don't think anyone took that one seriously.

I don't think that the Senior Astronomer learned his science from Hollywood: but I think there's a chance that he absorbed quite a bit from popular American culture over the last few decades.

I made a list of relatively memorable science fiction movies from the mid-sixties to the present, for another blog. (Drifting at the Edge of Time and Space June 30, 2009) Adding a few about killer robots (and/or computers), here's an update of that list: These movies were drawing on a venerable tradition that included "Robot Monster" (1953) and "The Phantom Creeps" (1939).

A brief digression: Tales of Future Past have some decent still photos from "The Phantom Creeps." The movie was a dramatic account of a mad scientist: "With the power of a radioactive meteor he discovered, his invisibility belt, ray gun, and killer robot spiders he plans to conquer the world."

Back to the topic at hand.
HAL 9000, Skynet, and The Matrix
It's hard, sometimes, to shake the idea that a whole lot of Americans are Luddites. I don't mean 19th English workmen who broke machines: "any opponent of technological progress". (Princeton's WordNet)

I mean to say: "...By 2100, our descendants will note that this was the century in which we spawned our successors...."

Okay, Skynet made a pretty spooky evil mastermind for the Terminator movies. And "The Matrix" is supposed to be real intelligent. (I've yet to see the latter, by the way, in its entirety - an oversight which I intend to correct this year.)

I've not putting down any of the movies I've cited. I am not one of the folks who objects to entertainment on principle. But I try to make distinctions between what makes for a good story, and what's plausible.

I might be more concerned about robot monsters enslaving humanity, if artificial intelligence hadn't been 'just around the corner' for my entire adult life. And if the AI we have were more - intelligent.

As a Cyborg, I'm Biased

I might be more concerned about humanity's becoming machine-like, if I weren't part machine already.

I've got a few teeth that are still original equipment, but a fair portion of what I chew with is artificial. I've got metal and plastic where my hip joints used to be, a plastic mesh that held my belly together after some work was done in there, and I'm focusing on my computer's monitor through a clip-on set of lenses.

All of that's nothing unusual at all. Now.

Which is my point. I look as human as my ancestors, a thousand years back: providing I take my glasses off and keep my mouth closed. But a noticeable percentage of me is machinery of one sort or another.

Even my brain's been altered, chemically. I was diagnosed with major depression a few years ago. Thanks to medication, I don't have to constantly fight the controls to think clearly - for the first time in over 45 years.

I'm not, quite, a cyborg. Not in the sense of "a human being whose body has been taken over in whole or in part by electromechanical devices" (Princeton's WordNet) But partly artificial? Yes.

And I have no problem with that. My distant ancestors, some of them, might have been freaked out to learn what has been done to me: but I see being able to walk without pain, see clearly, concentrate better, chew my food, and have something that kept the insides of my abdomen where they belong - inside - as enhancements. I certainly don't see having artificial parts as being "taken over" by machinery.

The brain chips that Intel says it's coming out with in about ten years (yes, I believe them): that's a bit different. People who have an interface between their brains and prosthetic limbs will, arguably, be cyborgs. So will stroke victims whose damaged or destroyed circuits are replaced with artificial ones.

I discussed this sort of thing last month:
...Will Brain Implants Be Misused?
"What is that, a trick question? Of course they'll be misused. People misuse things. People have killed other people with rocks. That doesn't make the rocks bad.

"Direct neural interfaces are a new technology, and there'll almost certainly be an awkward period while we learn how to use them, and set up rules so that everybody's more-or-less on the same page about how they should be used. "But, I'm looking forward to the things...." (Apathetic Lemming of the North (December 2, 2009))
I don't think that Science and Technology (capitalized, of course) will Solve All Our Problems. But I'm not afraid of science and technology.

Robots, Artificial Intelligence, and Fido

About 'spawning our successors?' In a way, we've been through this before.

Dogs are man's best friend, right? With a few psychotic exceptions, of course.

That shouldn't be much of a surprise. We've recently discovered that dogs are mutant wolves. Something happened to the genes of a few wolves that made their offspring just simply dote on human beings - and made them a bit less smart that your average wolf.

Yes: people were "primitive" back then. No white lab coats, no test tubes, certainly no electron microscopes. It's a bit hard, though, for me to imagine that a breed of stupid wolf 'just happened' to come along - that got along well with human beings.

I think we made dogs. "Domesticated," if you prefer. I also think that the process was a whole lot easier than it might have been, since wolf packs work roughly the same way human families do, and a wolf cub could bond with a human family, just like he or she would bond with the pack.

But I think we're the reason dogs are so, well: dog-like.

People have kept wolves as pets, but that's rare. In general, people and wolves don't mix. Dogs? Well, they're "man's best friend."

Artificial intelligence won't be like Fido. We've already got dogs - with over a hundred thousand years' worth of tweaking invested. We don't need a replacement.

But human beings replaced by AI? I think that's about as likely as the fictional C3PO plotting to take over the restored Republic.

As for human beings becoming cyborgs? That's been happening for centuries. And somehow, we're still as human as we ever were: for good or ill. Related posts: More:


Brigid said...

"...Their behavioral cues are familiar, and you can tell if their game plan is to be amorous or aggressive. (In most movies, these are their only options.)..."

Not necessarily, since territorial disputes between animals can look an awful lot like mating. Until you realize that both creatures are male.

Brian, aka Nanoc, aka Norski said...


I see what you mean. I think the author was making the point that space aliens in the movies tend to have a very limited number of options, when it comes to motivation.

TheBearPaw said...

Wow, what an ignorant dimwit you are, article writer. Even the fact that you didn't know who Seth Shostak was shows your competence.

Arun said...

So, who exactly is Seth Shostak? Are you going to judge people with their contact list?

Brian, aka Nanoc, aka Norski said...


Thank you for your comment.

I'd hesitate to call the "article writer" an "ignorant dimwit", myself.

Perhaps because I know who Seth Shostak is - a detail which is not readily apparent in this post.

I neglected to include the following information:

Seth Shostak, the person who wrote the article, is Senior Astronomer at the SETI Institute.

I have amended/corrected this post.

Thank you for pointing out this omission, and sorry about leaving that detail out of the original post.

Dragonblogger said...

Good article and viewpoint, but while humans have been using mechanical devices to get around physical limitations or chemicals to treat ailments, it isn't true cyborgism yet. It was only in the last few years (decade) that wires now tied to the human neuro system can allow for your mind to move mechanics, your brain to send signal impulses to prosthetic limbs and move mechanical fingers.

My point of view currently is that humans are just organisms that use mechanics to improve our lives, cybernetic organisms are ones that are both organic and technological at the cellular level.

Brian Gill said...


I see your point, and can agree. On the other hand, I also think that there's arguably not so much a definite line with "natural organism" on one side, and "cybernetic organism" on the other.

For example, cochlear implants ( ) involve an interface between an external microphone and nerves in the inner ear. These gadgets aren't inside cells: but interact directly with cells.

Admittedly, I'm having fun with words.

Thanks for your comment, and sorry it took me so long to start working through my backlog.

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