Extraterrestrial beings are on people’s minds as the Pentagon prepares to deliver a report on UFOs to the United States Congress.
Officials say the report will not rule out the chance that Unidentified Flying Objects (or Unexplained Aerial Phenomena) spotted by US Navy pilots come from somewhere else in the universe – but they are also not ruling out that they come from other nations, rather than other planets.
The Conversation quizzed five experts on their belief in intelligent aliens – not necessarily flying the UFOs, but out there. Somewhere. Four of them think they exist.
Astrobiologist Jonti Horner, from the University of Southern Queensland, says it is a “definite yes” because of the sheer number of galaxies in the cosmos.
“I find it impossible to believe Earth is the only planet that has life – including intelligent and technologically advanced life,” he says, adding that finding proof of it in that vast expanse will be “astonishingly hard”.
Curtin University astrophysicist Steven Tingay agrees that it’s “hard to believe that the particular mix of conditions that resulted in “life” only occurred on Earth – but that “life” could just be bacteria.
Planetary scientist Helen Maynard-Casely, from the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, thinks it’s “only a matter of time” before we find some sort of alien life. “Whether it can say hello to us? Well, that’s a different question,” she says.
Rebecca Allen, a space technology expert from Swinburne University’s Space Office Project, says that although people usually think of a humanoid life form when they think about aliens, it’s more likely to be microorganisms. “But hope remains,” she says.
The outlier, University of New South Wales astrobiologist Martin Van Kranendonk, says the answer is “no”. But he goes on to concede that the full answer is that we don’t know.
“Perhaps one day we can know if we have nearby inter-planetary neighbours, or if indeed we are alone,” he says. “Or perhaps we never will”.
Meanwhile, over at The Guardian, SETI Institute astronomer Seth Shostak says our first contact could be with artificial intelligence.
SETI’s entire mission is looking for other life in the universe.
Shostak points to the diversity of life on Earth, how millions of species even here look very different from each other, to argue that ET probably wouldn’t look humanoid.
In fact, he doesn’t even think they’d be carbon-based life forms.
“Their cognitive abilities will probably not be powered by a spongy mass of cells we’d call a brain,” he writes.
“They will probably have gone beyond biological smarts and, indeed, beyond biology itself. They won’t be alive.”
Even with humanity’s fastest rocket it would take 75,000 years to get to Proxima Centauri, the closest habitable system, he says. So any interplanetary explorers would have to be synthetic.
“Artificial intelligence aliens may not be as appealing as those who are warm-blooded and squishy, but we shouldn’t get hung up on an anthropocentric viewpoint,” he says.
“Researchers who work in AI estimate that machines able to beat humans on an IQ test will emerge from labs by mid-century. If we can do it, some extraterrestrials will have already done it.”
The US UFO report is due within weeks.
Tory Shepherd is an Adelaide-based freelance journalist who has covered Space 2.0 for The Advertiser.
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