AI on the Hunt: Detecting Alien Life

AI on the Hunt: Detecting Alien Life
Published on January 23, 2024

The question of whether life exists beyond Earth lacks a universally accepted definition of life itself, which adds an interesting twist to the search. However, we don't necessarily need a specific definition. Instead, we can focus on detecting signs of life in the atmospheres of exoplanets to gain insights into what life may look like based on our understanding of Earth. There are various possibilities for finding life close to home, such as beneath the surface of Mars or in the hidden subterranean oceans of Jupiter's moon, Europa. Alternatively, we might be fortunate enough to intercept signals from extraterrestrial civilizations, a long-standing aspiration. These signals, known as "technosignatures," would be traces of advanced technology. However, without these fortunate breakthroughs, the search becomes substantially more challenging. Light will play a crucial role in this endeavor. By examining the light from extraterrestrial atmospheres and analyzing its rainbow spectrum, similar to scanning a barcode, we can use a technique called transit spectroscopy. This method would enable us to identify various gasses and compounds present in the skies of these worlds, potentially including those associated with life (Exoplanet Exploration, 2023). 

 

Possibility of life on the other planets

Undoubtedly, the detection of technologically advanced communications would be a swift method to locate intelligent life resembling our own. Scientists have dedicated significant efforts to searching for signs of sentient beings, and NASA scientists have recently coined a fascinating term for these potential clues: technosignatures. These signals, transmitted through radio waves, optical light waves, or other parts of the electromagnetic spectrum, could provide evidence of a communicative and technologically advanced species existing somewhere amidst the vast array of stars. However, scientists also contemplate various alternative forms of technosignatures. For instance, the presence of artificial chemicals like CFCs in the atmosphere of an exoplanet could indicate the existence of an industrialized species akin to humans. In the future, we might even detect faint indications of phenomena such as a "Dyson sphere," a concept introduced by physicist Freeman Dyson, which hypothesizes a structure enveloping a star and harnessing a substantial portion of its energy. Nevertheless, it is important to acknowledge that these concepts remain highly speculative, and we currently lack definitive answers to the thought-provoking questions posed by physicist Enrico Fermi in the 20th century (Pat Brennan, 2021). 

 

From habitability to civilization

With a deeper understanding of the abundance of Earth-like planets scattered throughout the galaxy, astronomers now have the opportunity to explore the remaining unknowns in the Drake Equation. However, many of these factors present significant challenges, especially when it comes to determining how frequently extraterrestrial civilizations develop technologies that we can detect and how long such civilizations remain detectable. There is an ongoing debate about whether stars different from our Sun should be included in the equation, considering that smaller, cooler stars have been found to host Earth-sized planets. Additionally, astronomers are contemplating including celestial bodies other than planets. While the exoplanets discovered by the Kepler mission are often large and gaseous, there is speculation that some of them might have forest moons resembling Endor from Star Wars or Pandora from Avatar. Astronomers are tantalizingly close to unraveling the next factor in the equation: the fraction of habitable worlds where life evolves. As we continue to explore our own solar system, we are discovering a diverse range of habitable niches. For example, microbial life could potentially exist on worlds like Mars or Jupiter's icy moon Europa, and even the toxic clouds surrounding Venus might harbor lifeforms. The discovery of just a single instance of life beyond Earth would demonstrate that biology is not a mere coincidence but rather a probable outcome given the right conditions. Given the vast number of potentially habitable environments in the cosmos, many astronomers argue that the existence of life is essentially inevitable. However, unraveling the remaining variables in the Drake Equation, especially those that will determine whether Earth is the only home to technologically advanced organisms in the galaxy will remain a mystery until we have the opportunity to detect signals from alien worlds (Nadia Drake, 2020). 

Natural selection is the sole mechanism known to produce the diverse range of life forms we are familiar with, spanning from viruses to trees. When we refer to familiarity, we are not limited to life forms that resemble those found on Earth. Rather, we define familiarity based on their life-like characteristics, where they stand out from the backdrop of rocks and gasses by actively engaging in self-replication. While a simple replicator could potentially emerge on another planet, it would not acquire purposeful traits such as metabolism, movement, or senses without the influence of natural selection. It would be incapable of adapting to its environment and, consequently, would not evolve into a more complex, noticeable, and intriguing entity.

This leads us to the question of whether aliens would undergo natural selection. According to evolutionary theory, with the exception of transient and basic molecules, the answer is yes. In the absence of a designer, the only way to obtain a self-replicating entity that exhibits apparent purpose is through natural selection. Therefore, if we are able to recognize it as life, it implies that it has undergone natural selection (or has been designed by something that itself experienced natural selection) (Samuel R.Levin, 2017).

 

Challenges and Speculations

The search for extraterrestrial life and signals from intelligent civilizations has been challenging and often speculative. While intriguing signals like the "Wow!" signals in 1977 have been detected, subsequent efforts to validate them have been unsuccessful. Radio interference remains a persistent challenge, making it difficult to distinguish potential extraterrestrial signals from human-made or natural sources. Nonetheless, advancements in technology offer hope for better detection tools and strategies to mitigate interference (Jesse Emspak, 2017). 

 

Advancements and Ongoing Tasks

Advancements in technology, particularly AI and machine learning, are revolutionizing the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. These technologies enable scientists to analyze vast amounts of telescope data more efficiently and effectively. AI can detect signals that might have been overlooked by traditional algorithms, expanding the possibilities of discovering signs of intelligent life. Furthermore, AI can assist in exploring unconventional avenues for detecting alien intelligence, broadening the search parameters, and potentially uncovering new insights into the nature of intelligence in the universe (Danny C Price, 2023). 

 

Drake Equation

The Drake equation provides a framework for addressing the question of how many communicative civilizations currently exist in our galaxy. It breaks down this question into multiple factors that we try to estimate to the best of our ability. While we have gained a reasonable understanding of some of these factors, many of them still involve a degree of speculation. Our goal is to make informed guesses based on the available information. Additionally, some individuals have modified the equation by introducing additional factors they deem essential for the presence of technologically advanced life. The interesting and nuanced aspect of this equation is that depending on the number of factors one considers relevant, it is possible to arrive at desired conclusions while maintaining an appearance of reasonableness and conservatism. In other words, if one believes that numerous civilizations exist, the Drake equation can be utilized to support that claim. On the other hand, if one believes that we are the only civilization, the equation can be manipulated to align with that perspective as well.

N = R ∗ × fp × ne × fl × fi × fc × L .

Here:

 • N is the number of currently active, communicative civilizations in our galaxy. 

• R∗ is the rate at which stars form in our galaxy. 

• fp is the fraction of stars with planets. 

• ne is the number of planets that can potentially host life, per star that has planets. 

• fl is the fraction of the above that does develop life of any kind. 

• fi is the fraction of the above that develops intelligent life.

• fc is the fraction of the above that develops the capacity for interstellar communication. 

• L is the length of time that such communicative civilizations are active. 

Note that “fraction of the above” means that all the previous conditions have been satisfied. For example, when we consider fc, we assume that intelligent life has already developed.

Currently, astronomers face the challenge of lacking precise data for the variables involved in the Drake Equation, making any calculation merely an approximate estimate. Nevertheless, there have been significant advancements in certain fields that have improved astronomers' prospects of finding answers.

Notably, the discovery of rocky planets in the vicinity of Proxima Centauri (a star in the Alpha Centauri system) and TRAPPIST-1 has garnered considerable attention in the search for extraterrestrial life. However, these stars belong to the category of red dwarfs, which may exhibit volatile conditions that are unfavorable for supporting life. Further investigation is necessary to determine the potential habitability of these planets and whether conditions could persist long enough to enable communication with other civilizations (Elizabeth Howell, 2020). 

 

The Implications of Stellar Explosions

Larsson has been closely following Supernova 1987A, a long-standing favorite of his, for many years. This supernova was discovered over 30 years ago in the neighboring galaxy, the Large Magellanic Cloud. The images of SN 1987A reveal the presence of three rings surrounding the explosion, which are believed to have formed prior to the supernova event, possibly as a result of the merger of two stars.

The ejected material from the supernova is now colliding with the matter located between the rings, causing it to emit light. This emitted light provides valuable insights into the evolution of the star leading up to the explosion. By monitoring the propagation of the ejected matter through the ring system, scientists can gradually unravel more details about the star's past life. Despite extensive observations, the neutron star that should be visible as a bright point at the center of SN 1987A has not been detected thus far. It is speculated that the neutron star may be obscured by dust, or it may have collapsed into a black hole. Larsson highlights the intriguing nature of supernovae, as they encompass various branches of astronomy. They offer valuable information about the pre-explosion state of the star, impact the evolution of galaxies, and leave behind remnants such as neutron stars or black holes (Josefin Larsson, 2021). 

 

AI's Role in the Search

Every day, astronomers continue to discover potentially habitable worlds such as Proxima Centauri b, the closest exoplanet to us, and TRAPPIST-1f, one of seven Earth-sized planets recently found in the same star system. However, determining whether these planets actually harbor life or have the potential for it is far from straightforward, as indicated by recent research on our own evolving planet. Even if a distant observer were to peer at Earth through a telescope, they wouldn't have detected signs of life for most of our planet's history. Despite the presence of abundant microscopic life for billions of years, gasses like oxygen and methane, which are often associated with living organisms, would have been at such low levels that they would have gone unnoticed from afar. Consequently, today's scientists on Earth might be unable to detect the commonly assumed signs of extraterrestrial life, potentially leading them to overlook inhabited planets, as detailed in a study published in the journal Astrobiology (NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle, 2017). 

In the pursuit of detecting extraterrestrial intelligence through the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), our primary focus has been on searching for signs of intelligence and communication that resemble our own technological capabilities. However, Jill Tarter, a pioneering astronomer in the field of SETI, emphasizes that this approach limits our search to detectable technological signals, such as radio transmissions, rather than directly searching for indications of intelligence. To overcome this limitation, scientists are now considering the potential role of artificial intelligence (AI) in exploring unconventional avenues for detecting alien intelligence. Graham Mackintosh, an AI consultant at the SETI Institute workshop, suggests that extraterrestrial beings might utilize technologies and behaviors that surpass our imagination, making it challenging for us to conceive ways to detect them. Mackintosh proposes that AI could assist us in thinking beyond our human limitations and exploring these novel possibilities. While enhancing our own intelligence may be beyond our reach, Mackintosh suggests that we have the ability to create machines that surpass our own intelligence. Astrophysicist Martin Rees expressed a similar notion during the Breakthrough Discuss conference, envisioning AI leading to an intelligence surpassing human capabilities to the extent that we surpass intellectually simple organisms like slime mold. Rees questions how we would perceive the intelligence of extraterrestrial slime mold if encountered. One of the challenges faced by SETI is our limited understanding of the boundaries of life and intelligence. It is therefore crucial for us to remain open to all possible forms of difference. Intelligence may manifest in unconventional ways that have historically been overlooked by Euro-American scientific perspectives, such as microbial communities, insects, or complex systems like the symbiotic relationships between plants and fungi in mycorrhizal networks, which exhibit learning capabilities. Intelligence may also emerge at a planetary or astrophysical scale, disguising itself as background processes or natural phenomena that we typically associate with nature. In essence, what we perceive as ordinary or inherent to the universe may actually be manifestations of intelligence (Michael P. Oman-Reagan, The Conversation Us, 2018). 

Astronomers are leveraging artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to enhance the exploration of unknown planets and the search for signals from intelligent civilizations. The sheer volume of data obtained from advanced instruments like the James Webb Space Telescope can be overwhelming for human analysis, making it challenging to identify significant patterns and phenomena. However, machines excel at detecting patterns within extensive datasets, enabling them to uncover subtle signals that may elude human observation. Researchers at the University of Georgia have employed machine learning to train an algorithm in recognizing newly forming planets within dust rings surrounding distant stars. These rings are remnants of the formation of solar systems, and young planets can only be detected by the disturbances they create while traversing the dust. By utilizing computer simulations and real astronomical data collected by telescopes, the algorithm achieved an impressive accuracy rate of over 90% in identifying systems that exhibit signs of new planets. Meanwhile, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute is utilizing AI to analyze data captured by radio telescopes scanning the cosmos for potential signals from extraterrestrial civilizations. Amidst the abundance of radio emissions in space, distinguishing potential alien signals from natural and human-made sources has proven to be a challenging task. Nevertheless, the use of AI has identified eight "signals of interest" in recent studies. However, subsequent observations were unable to confirm these signals as originating from extraterrestrial sources.

The involvement of intelligent machines in analyzing astronomical data holds immense potential. AI algorithms can process information at a much faster pace compared to manual methods, leading to the discovery of more planets and potentially aiding in the identification of alien transmissions. As the quest for intelligent civilizations beyond our own continues, intelligent machines on Earth will play a crucial role in sifting through massive datasets, unveiling new worlds, and potentially deciphering signals from extraterrestrial intelligence across the vast expanse of the cosmos(Bob McDonald, 2023). 

 

Conclusion

The search for extraterrestrial life is an ongoing endeavor that requires the collective efforts of scientists, researchers, and technologists. AI, with its ability to process vast amounts of data, identify patterns, and assist in the analysis of signals, has become an invaluable tool in this pursuit. The integration of AI in various aspects of the search, from data processing and signal analysis to interstellar communication, has the potential to unlock the mysteries of the universe and reshape our understanding of life beyond Earth. As AI continues to evolve, it offers exciting possibilities for the future of the search for alien life.

 

References

2014, Adrian Cho, “Complex life may be possible in only 10% of all galaxies,” science.

2017, Jesse Emspak, “Has Mysterious Signal From Space Finally Been Explained?,” NBC news.

2017, Samuel R. Levin &Thomas W. Scott &Helen S. Cooper & Stuart A. West,“ Darwin's aliens,” International Journal of Astrobiology.

2017, Ramin Skibba, “Finding Signs of Alien Life Might Be Harder Than We Thought. Here's Why,” NBC News.

2018, Michael P. Oman-Reagan, “Can Artificial Intelligence Help Find Alien Intelligence?,” Scientific American.

2020, Nadia Drake, “How many alien civilizations are out there? A new galactic survey holds a clue.” nationalgeographic.

2020, Elizabeth Howell, “Drake Equation: Estimating the Odds of Finding E.T.” space.

2021, Pat Brennan, “Life in the Universe: What are the Odds?,” exoplanets. NASA. 

2021, Josefin Larsson, “Stellar explosions,” Kaw.wallenberg.

2023, Exoplanet Exploration, “Are we alone in the universe?,” exoplanets.nasa. 

2023, Bob McDonald, “Using AI to find exoplanets and intelligent civilizations,”cbc.ca.

2023, marca, “NASA scientist confirms life on other planets: We're pretty close,”marca.

2023, Danny C Price, “AI is helping us search for intelligent alien life – and we’ve found 8 strange new signals,”theconversation.

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