If we cannot find aliens in the stars, we might create alien intelligences on Earth


In "Too Hard for Science?" I interview scientists about ideas they would love to explore that they don't think could be investigated. For instance, they might involve machines beyond the realm of possibility, such as particle accelerators as big as the sun, or they might be completely unethical, such as lethal experiments involving people. This feature aims to look at the impossible dreams, the seemingly intractable problems in science. However, the question mark at the end of "Too Hard for Science?" suggests that nothing might be impossible.

The scientist: David Brin, science fiction author and one-time postdoctoral fellow at the California Space Institute and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The idea: Humanity has often looked outward beyond the tribe with a combination of sociability and paranoia for mates or insights or the next potential threat. Now we scan the skies for extraterrestrial intelligences, but so far all we have run across is a Great Silence, also known as the Fermi Paradox — the quandary that asks where all the alien civilizations are.

If we lack extraterrestrials to contact, humans might look closer to home, Brin suggests. "If we want others to talk to, hey, let's make them," he speculates.

"We've always done this — for example, when we bring a new generation of barbarians, er, children, into the world," he notes. The recent fixation on the notion of diversity as a general good has led to "countless subdivisions of quasi-tribal interest groups, sub-cultures and passionate hobby-obsessions, even Klingon-speakers," Brin says, "an endless tidal surge of style-variations that seem joyfully alien to many."

One potential outcome of this phenomenon might be the invention of artificially intelligent computers. Another "is an endeavor called 'uplift' — the deliberate alteration of some natural animal species through genetic meddling in order to raise them up to our level of intelligence, creating potential partners in civilization," Brin says.

"In my Uplift novels, people look back at this as having been the obvious thing to do. Humans share the future with neo-dolphins and neo-chimpanzees who are capable of speaking, innovating, voting and bringing their own unique perspectives to a rich Earthling culture. The benefits, after a few hundred years, could be amazing."

The problem: "Any attempt to begin such work would encounter furious opposition from animal rights groups, and not without some reason," Brin says. "The initial and intermediate stages of an uplift project would entail experimentation, false steps, mistakes, and a lot of pain. Mystics claiming the candidate species are already noble enough as they are will sneer at the notion that dolphins or apes or parrots or crows or octopi have any need of our style of 'intelligence.'"

The solution? "We are discovering some critical genes that appear to switch on and off differences in development, where chimp and human nervous systems diverged," Brin says. "There will be attempts to meddle in these genes — it would take a total surveillance world state to prevent someone, somewhere from trying the alterations rashly, via some altered chimpanzee embryos implanted in surrogate chimp mothers. I expect the results to be poor. Biology, especially the relationship between phenotype and genotype, is complex, nonlinear and easily messed-up."

"If these experiments yield creatures who are impressive and promising, this might persuade people to allow more research in open and accountable settings," he suggests. "If the results are poor or tragic, then public opinion may become fixed and rigid against uplift ever being tried."

"Will our otherness fetish result in humanity creating new voices to talk to?" Brin asks. "I expect this fight to commence pretty soon. Indeed, the first steps may already have begun."

Image of David Brin from the site of Baen Books.

Related on Scientific American blogs:

Bambi or Bessie: Are wild animals happier?

Animal emotion: When objectivity fails

Turkey talk: The social cognition of your Thanksgiving dinner

Man's new best friend? A forgotten Russian experiment in fox domestication


If you have a scientist you would like to recommend I question, or you are a scientist with an idea you think might be too hard for science, email me at toohardforscience@gmail.com

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About the Author: Charles Q. Choi is a frequent contributor to Scientific American. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, Science, Nature, Wired, and LiveScience, among others. In his spare time he has traveled to all seven continents. Follow him on Twitter @cqchoi.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.