Is Anybody Listening? Jill Tarter on the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence

April 24, 2017

Jill Tarter holds the Bernard M. Oliver Chair for SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, CA where she also served as the former director of the Center for SETI Research. She was also a Project Scientist for NASA’s SETI program and has conducted a number of observational programs at radio observatories worldwide. Since funding for NASA’s SETI program was cut in 1993, she has worked to secure private funding so that SETI may continue to explore.

In this conversation with Point of Inquiry host Josh Zepps, Tarter discusses the possibility of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, how we go about looking for it, and why the search is so important to humanity. Zepps presses Tarter on the possible dangers of finding life outside our world, what it means to be alive in the first place, and the potential threats we face with artificial intelligence on our own planet.

Special note from the Center for Inquiry: This is Josh Zepp’s final episode of Point of Inquiry. It has been a privilege having Josh cohost the program for more than three years. He is inquisitive, bold, witty, and never afraid to ask hard questions and hold guests accountable for their views. His conversations on Point of Inquiry exemplify the spirit of free inquiry we seek to advance at the Center for Inquiry. We of course wish him nothing but success, and look forward to opportunities to work with him in the future. You can hear Josh on his political podcast, WeThePeople LIVE. Thank you, Josh!

Stay tuned in the coming weeks for news about what’s next for Point of Inquiry!

Welcome to the Point of Inquiry, the podcast of the Center for Inquiry. I’m Josh Zepps, and today extraterrestrial intelligence isn’t out there. How can we find it? What will it mean if we do? An excellent conversation on which for me to BIDU idea. Because this is my last episode of the show. If you don’t already do so, please do subscribe to my other podcast. We the People Live, which is a discussion show for planet Earth, the place that makes debate healthy again. Just search for we the people, that’s all. One word in your podcast app or follow me on Twitter at Josh Zepps. JSH z. P. P. S. Our guest today is the astronomer Jill Tarter. Probably the most important person in the field of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, which is also known as Setti SETI. She was the inspiration for Jodie Foster’s character in the film Contact as the project scientist firm NASA’s Setit program, as well as being the director of the Center for Citi Research. She now holds the Bernard M. Oliver chair for Citi at the City Institute. In addition to her countless awards, Time magazine named her one of the 100 most influential people in the world. And if or when alien life is discovered, she will be the pivotal figure who helped kick off the search. It’s been a real delight for me hosting point of inquiry. It’s a delight to talk to Jill as my final outing. Please do. Look me up on on Twitter and do stay in touch or subscribe to the podcast if you don’t use Twitter. 

Without further ado now, Jill, thanks for being on the show. 

My pleasure. So since time immemorial, people have looked up at the skies and wondered whether or not we’re alone and if not, who will. What else is out there? Can you give us a sort of a history, a potted history of when and how we actually began to systematize that search and try and change it from just something that we wondered about to something that we’re actually proactively seeking now? 

Well, for millennia, actually, what we do is we’d ask the flock of birds or salmon whether we thought was wise. 

What we should worry about right now. 

What we’re doing, we call setit to search for extraterrestrial intelligence. 

But indeed, we can’t find intelligence at a distance. I’m assuming that there’s intelligence at the other end if your podcast who are listening to us. 

But I can’t prove it. You know what I mean? 

Sometimes makes me doubt it. But yeah. 

Yeah. What we could prove is that they’ve got some technologies that they’re using. And that’s what we’re doing with Setit. We’re actually looking for evidence of someone else’s technologies, somebody who’s doing something to modify their environment in a way that we could sense remotely over these vast distances between the stars and in particular in 1960. Frank Drake, radio astronomer, did the first search attempting to find radio signals coming from distant stars. He looked at two stars. That are similar to the sun with the idea that at least around our star, there is a planet Earth which has a technology on it, and that might be a good place to look for other technologies. He looked for a few hundred hours tuning one narrow radio channel along in frequency because we have no idea what frequency another technology might choose for its transmissions. And Frank didn’t detect someone else’s technology, but he did detect our own technology. And that’s something that has been a problem plaguing all of us ever since then. He detected some transmissions from radio, from overflying aircraft. And our biggest challenge today is often deciding whether the signals that we detect are coming from our own technologies or someone else’s. So radio frequency interference. And it’s it’s just getting worse. We we do all of these marvelous things with the radio spectrum that make our lives more fulfilled and busier. But it really does make this quiet window that nature gives us on the universe. It’s it’s filling that up with a lot of our own noise and making it harder to do radio astronomy in general, to study the universe at radio frequencies and to look for somebody else’s intentional transmissions. 

When laypeople hear that radio, the radio spectrum, they might just think we’re talking about radio and they might think, well, what if aliens just don’t listen to the radio? What exactly are you looking for when you talk about the radio spectrum? 

Well, it’s a it’s a range of frequencies which cover from frequencies that are higher than the standard radio broadcasts that we listen to on this planet, up to frequencies where our atmosphere starts to get noisy because oxygen and water vapor are emitting radio frequencies, radio. So they’re centimeters in length. These radio waves we call the spectrum that we listen to the terrestrial microwave window. So at lower frequencies, not only do we have our own radios, but but the galaxy is very noisy because there are electrons spinning around magnetic field lines and emitting a hiss. And then, as I’ve already said, at higher frequencies, water vapor and oxygen suddenly raises a large, noisy wall from our own atmosphere. But from from one gigahertz, that’s one billion hertz. A thousand million hertz, then a hertz is a cycle per second, up to 10 gigahertz. That window is very quiet, naturally. And we split it up into nine billion individual frequency channels. Because we’re looking for a type of transmission that’s engineered versus something that’s natural. So Mother Nature, when she arranges for US atoms or molecules to emit radio waves, it happens over a wide range of frequencies. But our engineers, in order to make a very detectable signal with a large signal to noise ratio, often cram all of the power of the transmissions down into a tiny, narrow range of frequencies. It’s a trick nature can’t do. But engineers can. And so we listen for radio signals that have this narrow band concentration characteristic. 

And are you listening? Are you listening out for what is likely to be intentional transmissions which are calculated by the the other civilization to to be a form of communication that will be picked up from other parts of the galaxy? Or are you just listening for accidental bleeding out of them, chattering away with each other? 

Well, Desh, we’re listening for anything that we can find. And it would be easier to detect something that was intentionally transmitted. So someone went to the trouble of putting some gain and broadcasting a signal in our direction. That would be the easiest thing to find. Their leakage transmission. Their podcasts and their airport radars and that sort of thing only have enough power in them. To do their job right? So you’re not trying to although you might want to. I don’t think you’re trying to reach an audience on A, Proxima Centauri B, the next star away and it’s planet. So your broadcast is your podcast doesn’t have as much power in it as if you were really trying to talk to someone on that nearby planet. And airport radars are only as powerful as they need to be to collect the reflections from aircraft in the vicinity. So any kind of leakage signals will be weak and much harder to find. 

If in the 1970s told you that you were going to be talking to me in the in 2017 and that we wouldn’t have heard a peep from another civilization by then, what would your reaction have been? 

I would have guessed that she would probably be right, because even when we started this exploration, we understood how vast the universe is and what daunting undertaking it is to search even for this well-defined type of transmission, this radio signal. There are actually about nine different parameters or characteristics where an electromagnetic that is a radio signal or an optical signal could hide. And you kind of have to get them all right in order to be successful. And so, you know that it’s going to be a big job. And what it really takes is this exponential improvement that we’ve been fortunate enough to to harness over the decades to make the search go faster and cover more space and more types of signals and more opportunities. But there’s still a lot of searching to do. 

What’s the exponential improvement? Is that in our computing power? 

Essentially, it’s computers, but we’ve also built better telescopes. It’s just that the telescopes have always been closer to perfect than our computing has been. So we get factors of two to four out of improving are our telescopes. If we get really good and and build huge arrays, as we hope to be doing with something called the square kilometer array in the twenty twenties, 20 thirties, then we can get a factor of 100. But the computing right now, it’s it’s 14 factors of 10. Better than when we started. So that’s where we really get a big win. 

Where’s this array gonna be. 

The square kilometer array will be split in two pieces. One of them in South Africa and the CARU Desert and the other in Western Australia. 

Cool. And they are basically part of the same same sort of gigantic transglobal telescope that talks to itself. 

They are organizationally. They are politically. The astronomers did a worldwide survey of the best possible sites for radio telescopes. And then we gave the final decision to the politicians. And so they split it between two sides. So organizationally, the same telescope in terms of the science that it will do quite different. The telescopes in South Africa are more like telescopes that we’ve built at the Allen Telescope Array, and we’ll work at higher frequencies than the telescopes in Western Australia, which look like very fancy dipoles. And we’re extremely well at low frequencies. 

Cool. I feel like I should go to Western Australia and watch them being built. 

It is a very it’s a hike. 

All right. A long way from from anywhere. Yeah, I know they say that. Yeah. Because of light pollution. 

Well, it’s radio pollution. Right. So it’s exactly the same thing. People come with their technologies and they mess up the sky. 

Yeah. Western Australia. For people who aren’t familiar with the geography of Australia, Australia is about the same size as the contiguous United States, and it has half the population of California, which is all huddled in the southeastern corner of the cut of the coastline. And from about the if you imagine pretty much everything west of the Mississippi is just a gigantic desert. So there’s a lot of there’s a lot of empty, empty space, too, to build whatever you want with mines in it, I suppose. Are you confident, Joe, that we’re looking for the right things? 

No, course not. Can’t be confident. 

I can be I can be confident about how good a job we are doing at what we’re looking for. But I can’t promise that someone else out there isn’t using some entirely different technology based on physics that we haven’t yet understood. We always see I have a phrase that I usually use, and it’s just blanking right here. We’re taking no income. We allow ourselves to get smarter. Right. We we can’t possibly be so arrogant as to believe that we already understand everything that there is to know. And someday we may say, oh, come on. Of course, that’s what we should have been doing all this time. 

You know, I mean, it’s it’s so it’s conceivable that that extraterrestrial intelligence is hiding in plain sight and it’s right in front of us. We’re just not looking for it in the right way or not understanding what it would look like if we if we knew what to hunt for. 

That’s right. And if if you want to understand how little of the universe we’ve explored. Think about a rock that’s about, oh, one hundred and fifty meters across. Not a small thing. 

There are about a hundred from our American friends. 

That’s good. You know, there are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of those out there whipping around. And one of them may be heading right for us. And we haven’t found it yet. So it’s the universe at stake. And when you want to try and find something that is specific and small and isolated, there are just an awful lot of places to look. 

Yeah, I mean, it strikes me that there are a couple of sort of intersecting concerns here about about the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Right. One is, are we just too small and localized in such a vast universe that all we can do is listen into our little neighborhood and it just so happens that there’s nobody in our immediate vicinity. But that strikes me as a different question from are we looking for the right things? And maybe the universe is teeming with life, even in our vicinity, but would just hunting for it in the wrong way? And we’re not seeing it, correct. 

Those are those are fundamentally two different two different questions. And we’ve been talking about radio, and that’s what we’ve been doing the longest. But it’s also since the turn of the century. That funny thing to say, since about 2000, we’ve been using optical telescopes as well. Now, here again, we’re looking for engineered signals. So we need to look for something that nature can’t do. And so instead of looking for frequency compression, all of power in one small range of frequencies, we look for time compression. We look for these bright optical flashes that last a billionth of a second. 

Now, lasers can do that. Mother Nature can’t. 

Would would extraterrestrial civilizations be able to see that from us? 

If we did that sort of thing, if we transmitted those standard laser that we have available with our technology and we used a large optical telescope to focus it. Yes, it’s a very detectable signal. 

Should we do such a thing? 

Well, that’s a good question. And there’s a lot of controversy in the community about that. This idea of broadcasting as opposed to passively listening. I personally don’t think so, but it’s because we’re not grown up enough. If you take transmission as a seriously, if that’s going to be your strategy, you need to be able to to execute on something like ten thousand year plans. We can barely get through a two year plan and come out the other end with the same goal in mind that we started. Because if you’re going to talk about transmitting, you have to start and you have to keep at it so that someone out there, when they emerge and start to look around their space with whatever tools they have, your signal will be there when they look in your direction. And so we just don’t have. Again, we’re such a young technology in a very old galaxy and a very older universe. We’re not there yet. I think when we grow up, we should. But for now, I think it’s the young kids on the block. We probably should listen. 

How do you feel about the debate in the community over the likely intentions or goodwill of any other intelligent civilization? I know that there are some people think Stephen Hawking is one of them who said. He says you would not. You should not. You know, fate has not been kind to civilizations that attract the attention of technologically superior civilizations here on planet Earth. You only have to look at what happened to Native American populations and to Native Australians to think that if there is another civilization out there that sufficiently advanced to be able to come to us, they may be completely indifferent to our interests. So why would you advertise that way here? But then I mentioned that to Neil deGrasse Tyson on to help us live. And he said that is to assume that another civilization would be as dastardly towards us as we are to ourselves and to other civilizations here. And his theory is, if a civilization is so technologically advanced that it has survived long enough to be able to get here, then it has probably figured out how not to be as barbaric as we are here. 

OK, so Neil’s been listening. 


That’s that’s the whole point there. They’re advanced, sufficiently advanced to get here. 

That means they’re older than we are. And I don’t think they can get to that state unless they figure out how to stop being such as bees. Unless they manage their population and their planet in a way that makes it much less likely that they their intention is to come and eat it up. It’s Steven Pinker’s argument about the fact that we’re kinder and gentler than we ever were. Although when you watch the news, it doesn’t seem that way. It is statistically correct. So maybe this is a cultural evolution. And by the time you get to be an old technology, you’re also less destructive. 

Well, what does it say to you then about our ability to do that? That, yes, Pinker has this argument that he makes an I think the better angels of our nature is the name of his book that that if you actually look at the statistics, the world is more peaceful and prosperous than it’s ever been. But there is a there is a question as to whether or not that is a limitless trajectory. Right. I mean, just just because we have had a great 70 years since the end of World War Two doesn’t mean that we can extrapolate from that into hundreds, let alone thousands, let alone tens of thousands of years. Are you sort of optimistic or pessimistic about our ability to evolve into this kind of hyper, technologically advanced, ethically advanced species? 

Yeah, well, actually, that’s one of the reasons I work on fetti, because that is one way to to get an answer, basically an answer about us, about whether it’s possible to have a long future. Yes. How about us? Great. 

Because if all the people have done it, then then we might. Then we have the capacity to. 

Exactly. Yeah. 

So Marsan used to call setit the archeology of the future, our future archeology, because the speed of light means that any information contained in the signal is going to be telling us about their past. But if we ever detect a signal, it means that civilizations, technology in general can last for a long time. Otherwise, we’ll never be successful. So success tells us that it’s possible to have a long future. 

Well, I mean, it tells us that someday that some. That it’s possible for some type of species. But whether or not it’s possible for our species remains an open question. 

Oh, yeah, sure. We’re going to have to figure out how to do it. But I actually my psychology is that if I know there’s a solution to a problem, I work on it. Carter, if if there’s an unknown, I mean, if I don’t know what there’s any solution possible. I’m not quite as motivated. 

Yeah. I mean, that would be one of the most fascinating things about analyzing an alien civilization, wouldn’t it? Learning for ourselves about how did you do that? How did you manage to survive for for a million years whilst having the capacity to extinguish yourself? 

I mean, it strikes me that the invention of nuclear weapons was just the pace of ecological change as well and climate change and so on. But I think specifically nuclear weapons, because they’re so easy to use and they’re so devastating so quickly, is a sort of Rubicon that if you can if you can find a Stacie’s after that, where that doesn’t lead to calamity over a period of thousands and thousands of years. I don’t really see how that happens. 

I mean, I would love to learn how a civilization can do that or how you evolve into into the kind of consciousness that is capable of of. On the one hand, wielding the ability to destroy itself. But on the other hand, never, ever doing I mean, it reminds me a bit, Jill, of the. The line that counterterrorism experts have, which is that, you know, the the terrorists only have to be right once. 

Counterterrorists have to be right every single time. Yeah, and I sort of feel like every decade that passes or every century that passes without us blowing us all up is, you know, you have to get it right every single time for the rest of eternity in order for it not to lead to calamity. 

Well, I think part of the part of what’s going to get us there is to have a different view of time and a view of the future and to put the future farther away than the tip of our nose to actually have this concept of the long now. To think in terms of centuries and millennia, not seconds. And what’s for dinner and how how am I going to get a new phone? Right. Because this one’s already six months old. 

And I think part of part of that is has to do with the technologies that our young people are so familiar with and the fact that they’re growing up global, that they have, I think, a much weaker sense of borders. They expect to be able to interact present US president excepted, expect to be able to interact with people all around the globe and to benefit from that interaction. And because of this mindset, I think that they’re better able to begin dealing with the ecological mess that their elders have generated and to work on these existential problems that don’t. Don’t respect national borders. We’re going to have to take this view of the planet as a system and all of us on it as earthlings and figure out how we can make it work. And if we can’t, then we don’t have a long road ahead of us. 

When you talk about the long now and that we have to focus on that and rethink how we engage with this planet, I wonder what went to how one sort of, I don’t know, creates incentives for people to be able to do that without having to think too much about it, because the past 18 months have shown that politically there are huge incentives for short termism. I mean, there are huge incentives for sticking with coal and fossil fuels instead of stretching out our limbs and trying to go out there and figure out new renewable forms of energy. There are extreme incentives for people to care about where their food is coming from next week, rather than the whole industrialized food system that undergirds these sort of the environmental and ethical calamity that is that is out our food system, their incentives for people to, I don’t know, to not be thinking about the 10 year plan, let alone a 100 year plan, but to be thinking about the plan next month. I’m not I’m unpunched pessimistic that if we rely on people, even enlightened globalists, young people, to to do the right thing because they feel like it’s the right thing and they’re rising above their own self-interest, then we’re kind of trust what we’re expecting people to defy millions of years of evolution of us as primates. And that a safe is a safer bet would be to find ways to channel our reptilian slash primate urges into systems that encourage longer term thinking. But I don’t know what those systems are. 

Yeah, well, it’s called cultural evolution. I think it’s not just human evolution or primate evolution. It’s it’s the evolution of culture that has changed over time. 

And then maybe the problem is that I live in this bubble called California, which has been so preheating, free of every victory over the current administration’s just misguided attempts to go the wrong way. We’re still fighting. 

And you’ve got your own little hatchery city on your you’re eating your organic qinawi and your housing, your housing undocumented workers and your in your basement to protect them. So California now? 

Well, at least I wear a safety pin on my my lapel. 

So, yeah, it has to virtu signal to everybody about how how morally superior we are. 

Yeah. Well it’s it’s. Yes. Isn’t it. 

And I, you know, I don’t have a pathway out of this morass, but I think that talking about seriously the fact that if we don’t change what we’ve been doing, we aren’t going to be doing anything for very much longer. There’s a astrobiologists at Columbia University. Caleb Scharf. And he’s got this lovely question about this lovely quote that I keep repeating. And he says that on a finite world, a cosmic perspective is a necessity, not a luxury, that being able to step back and see a bigger picture and then. In. Take that in and make your actions consistent with that larger picture. I think it’s it’s really it’s time for that change. 

When some people hear that, it will sound quasi religious. 

I mean, a lot of a lot of where a lot of people get their big picture from is from religion. I remember I was interviewing Pastor Joel Osteen, who is one of these huge mega church pastor. I think he’s one of the most watched pastors in the world. He has television shows and, you know, all the all the clapping, cheering mobs in stadiums who love him. And I I read him Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot and showed him the image of from Voyager two, where there’s just the the vast, inky blackness of space. And there’s this tiny little pale blue dot, which is earth floating there, you know, suspended like a Voyager one hell of dust, Voyager one. And I asked him, you know, whether or not he thought that the entire backdrop of the cosmos was was constructed as a as a backdrop against which the creator of the universe could watch humans struggle with the sin of masturbation and the the goods and ills of whatever holy book we happen to believe in. And he dodged the question naturally, because it’s a tricky question to to answer if you believe in religious dogma. But if you don’t get your perspective of the kind of grandeur of of existence from religion, then where people get it from, you know, to usher in the kind of cosmic self-awareness that you’re talking about. 

Yeah, well, I think Michael Shermer said a really good job as well as as in much more bombastic way Dawkins in showing that this sense of ethics and morality does not have to come out of a religion that can come out of humanity. And in fact, I think maybe one of the things that we will find out if we ever encounter another technological civilization out there is that the only way to get old is to get rid of organized religion. I think it causes us to do the very worst things that humans do to one another. So I don’t know that that’s going to happen anytime soon. But again, here I am in my California bubble. 

Yeah. I mean, it’s no, it’s a it’s a conversation that I have with Dawkins. Each time we speak, because it’s one of the. One of the most interesting things, I think about his outlook. I’m very attracted to his reasonableness, although, as you say, he can be strident at times. But that doesn’t bother me. But but I, I, I wonder. And I think he shares this concern whether or not the average person who is, as I alluded to earlier, just thinking in short term, localized ways about them and their family can can get enough not no ethics and morality from outside of religion, but or from outside of religion. I don’t know where that comes from unless it’s packaged. 

Well, if you can get any from the city lights, you can get away from the city lights and go out to Western Australia and take a look at the sky high into the night sky is just a huge source of awe and wonder. 

Yeah. I wonder, what do you think that our detachment does? 

You know, it’s pretty wonderful to look at an infant and to see the process of the growth and the learning of a child. Mm hmm. 

Yasim, too, do you think that that our detachment from nature in modern industrialized city life contributes to a lack of or. 

Well, certainly. Yes. 

When you when you’ve lived in the city all your life and never seen a dark night night sky, it’s it’s hard to appreciate this sense of scale and sense of energy that’s there. 

On the other hand, no one play this forward. 

Another generation where virtual reality is integrated into everything that we do. And perhaps it’s now possible to serve up that same sense of nature and all an expanse technologically, even if you can’t experience it. 

In the primitive easy way by going out to a dark stain, looking up. 

There’s I mean, in addition to virtual reality, that makes me think also of chemicals that change your your brain chemistry. You know, there’s a I don’t know if you have any experience with psychedelics or with ayahuasca and things like that, but I mean, it’s becoming increasingly a target of some research in Silicon Valley. The question of whether or not micro doses of LSD can enhance performance, whether or not. And I guess the rise of non-religious spiritualism in a kind of secular neo Buddhist sort of way and the and the rise of mindfulness. 

What’s your take on the possibility of of our finding some kind of connection to to the planet, into the cosmos, through substances? 

I’m again, I’m here in California, Governor Haight Ashbury. Right. 

That was a fantastic experiment that we did on ourselves that allowed us a little bit of a glimpse in to the functioning of the mind. 

I I’m very. I don’t think we’re smart enough to get it right. But I think we’ll try. And I think there will be many experiments and they all won’t work out very well. Some of them. 

And if there is any right thing to do in this. We’ll we’ll get there eventually. 

You’re skeptical about the experiences one can have on psychedelics. 

Oh, no, I’m not I’m not skeptical at all about the experiences one can have. I’m skeptical about the fact that we will learn enough to be able to control it. 

Right. To get it out the way that we would hope. 

Yeah, I mean, you were. But now that you mention it. Of course. Yes. I’m asking the wrong person in questioning whether or not you have any experience with this stuff. Having been born is brought up in San Francisco. And you were at Berkeley in the 1970s, right? 

Yeah, I was right there. 

What was that like? Just as an aside, I think it’s some it’s it’s such an iconic place on time. 

Well, you know, it shifts the pettiness of people. You know, it was a bitch that we couldn’t use the parking lot for our cars because the National Guard, the station infrastructure. 

But, you know, I’m go to register for a class and get teargassed. It’s yeah, it’s a different way of thinking about your take. 

And, you know, but we did talk a lot. There were lots and lots of ethical discussions and debates about should we cancel classes, should we be doing something other than what it was that we were doing before all of this started. And learn from the experience. And people got. 

Began talking and people took a bit more control of the institutions that we were all involved in, and I think it was the start. As a good process. 

Did you have a sense of that at the time? I sometimes try to. When I especially since the election of Donald Trump, I tried to put myself in other eras and try to think about what it would have felt like. I mean, you were in your 20s and 30s when JFK was assassinated, when MLK was assassinated. You know, you’re at Berkeley during the anti Vietnam War protests. Was there a sense at the time that this that something big is happening here or was it just life because this is what life is? 

So I think there really was a sense that things were changing and that there was an enormous amount of potential and power in people organizing to make a difference. 

You really did feel it. Still do. 

I mean, a whole bunch of ladies in pink hats marching through the streets of Washington, D.C. and San Francisco, I think are going to make a difference. 

When we think about other alien life, I think it’s interesting that we’re having this conversation at a time when computers are becoming so sophisticated that there’s this kind of parallel conversation about artificial intelligence and whether or not machines will become self-aware in some meaningful sense. What what do you think consciousness is? 

I have no good answer to that, and nor do I think. No, I, I just don’t have a good answer to that. 

Do you think that a sufficiently complicated machine would be conscious just by virtue of its information processing power? 

Well, I’m going to be having this conversation next month, actually, in Chicago with neuropsychologists about intelligence. Let’s see. The title is Intelligence Human Machine and Aliens or Extraterrestrial Cool. I think that the hard part is the emotions. 

You can do the logic, but to get the emotional context of a human I think is a very difficult. 

And when you’re searching for extraterrestrial intelligence, does that is that a question that even arises and always whether or not it feels like something to be that extra terrestrial intelligence? Because what if they’re all just what if they’re just highly complicated machines of some kind going about their business without an experience of what it’s like to be alive? 

That’s a suggestion that’s been made by a number of my colleagues that know this long future involves transition into a machine intelligence and whether or not they keep the biologicals around. This is open for debate. But I would still think that machine intelligence is interested in the acquisition of knowledge and would be, in fact, trying to figure out what else is out there in the universe. 

Yeah, and I don’t think it’s just sit there and make a million paper clips. 

I think it’s in the home crowd. Old Universe Paper Paperclip Manufacturing. Hello, Boston. 

But can you can you can you can you unpack what you’re what you’re alluding to there. Oh Hypercar tell. Yeah. Who people didn’t know. 

So that’s the question is what kind of goals do you pose for a machine and what kind of controls do you build in to a superintelligence and all of the different ways that it could possibly go wrong. If you give the machine a goal of making a million paperclips. Well, that machine will be trying to figure out whether it’s met, its goal, and there will always be some statistical uncertainty. And so it will make more just to make sure that it, in fact, achieves its goal. And and before too long, everything is paperclips or paperclip manufacturing facilities. 

Yeah, the idea is that if you don’t have, you forget to also include a a line of code that says, by the way, take into account like the interests of human beings. If you just make a a paper, a paperclip manufacturing device, that is. That is perfectly tuned to optimize paperclips. 

Then you can just imagine it destroying all of humankind in its quest for evermore paperclips. 

Are you are you do you do you share the concerns of some people about the the potential that I could go off the rails and could could create you know, we could create intelligent systems that are sufficiently intelligent, that they can create more intelligent versions of themselves, more intelligent progeny until you kick off some kind of virtuous or non virtuous cycle and end up with something that has its own interests and disregards the interests of of humans. 

Sure. And that that is a concern. And once you get away from Darwinian evolution and can take advantage of the more efficient Lamark in version, and so machines not only can create better versions of themselves, but they can do it a lot faster than we evolve. There is a potential for another type of future. 

And so, yeah, there’s a huge concern as we deal with artificial intelligence and lots of ways to get it wrong. But if we think about it in advance, we may be able to figure out a way to get it right. 

I’ve never had it framed that way. That’s an interesting way of putting it. Lamarckian evolution. Instead of a Darwinian evolution, Lamarck famously thought the giraffe’s had long necks because they keep reaching for high up leaves and so they keep stretching the neck. And then the the baby giraffes will have slightly longer next because their parents spend their whole lives stretching their necks up towards higher leaves. We now know that that’s not the case and that that Darwin’s theory was true, which is that giraffe’s that just happened to be accidentally born with slightly longer necks tend to do better over the long term than ones that have shorter necks. Are you saying that computer intelligence is lamarche and because the computer can consciously amend the characteristics of its offspring in a way that that. Animals can’t. 

Yes. I mean, it takes advantage of what it’s learned and instantiates that in the next generation. 

Mm hmm. What do you think will happen if we do hear from outer space? What what’s the immediate next step? 

Yeah, well, it’ll be headlines. It’ll pay enormous headlines for a while. At the moment, our attention span is pretty short. And so Kim Kardashian, I’ll do something. And that’ll take over the headlines. It will remain an enormous enterprise of great interest for a small number of people. The scientists and linguists and everyone who has something to some skill to bring to this problem of trying to understand the content of what we’ve detected. I’m absolutely you know, I, I lack poetry or something in my soul because I’d be happy with just a dial tone. All right. Just proof that someone else is out there and made it through. And we have to figure out a way to do that for ourselves. It is. So we talk about a conversation among species extraterrestrial civilizations, and that’s not really the right way to think about it because of the finite speed of light. I think we need to think about conversations that we have with another civilization, more like the conversations that we currently have with Shakespeare or the ancient Romans. I mean, they were kind enough to write down a whole lot of stuff that managed to propagate forward in time and that we can read and learn from today, even though we can’t ask them any questions to get answers. But we can know today what it was like to be a citizen of ancient Rome or what Shakespeare’s colleagues were doing and thinking. I think that’s more the sense of any kind of communication we could have with another technology. So, you know, we hope, of course, that they send us the Encyclopedia Galactica answers to all the stuff that we don’t yet know. 

But it might be that or it might be. 

Yeah, OK. Somebody is here. It was worthwhile to let the rest of the universe and the emerging technologies understand that there is other intelligence in the universe. 

But you guys got to figure it out for yourself. 

Yeah, I’d like to read that Encyclopedia Galactica. Be funny if you opened it up and they were like, actually, the Hindus are right. Vishnu is the creator of the universe. And that was then. That’s correct. Gillett’s, it’s great to talk to you. I could go on forever, but I won’t take up your entire day. Thanks so much for being with us and being on the show. 

Well, it’s been a pleasure, and I know you got me talking on about things for which I have absolutely no expertize. 

So it was a good Berkoff. 

That’s the point of the show. Just having conversations. Thanks, Joe. Good to talk to you. 

All right. 

No final thanks to all of our point of inquiry listeners. I’ve loved being your host and I hope we can continue these thought provoking conversations over it. We the people live. I’m about to release an episode with Richard Dawkins, which is fascinating. I’ve just taped an episode with Sam Harris. This is Sam’s third appearance on Weeda People Live. And you do not want to miss this. We touch on race, on consciousness and the afterlife, on psychedelics and how the mind relates to matter. So search for we the people. Live spell, we the people all as one word without any spaces in it. And you should be able to find it in your podcast app. We also have political stuff such as interviews with David Plotz of the Slate Political Gabfest and Mike Pesca, the entire slate and sort of Vox’s The Weeds team is available to us because we’re distributed by the Panoply network, plus comics like Joe Rogan opining about Trump’s first hundred days to subscribe to where the people live. That’s where the people, all one would live. And your podcast app is the place that makes debate healthy again. 

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Josh Zepps

Josh Zepps

An Australian media personality, political satirist, actor, and TV show host. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. He was a founding host for HuffPost Live.