A UConn philosophy professor prompted a unique take on the nature of extraterrestrial life at a NASA sponsored workshop last September. Using her background in metaphysics and cognitive science, Associate Professor Susan Schneider discussed her theory on the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations, where she argues the beings may be a hybrid, or complete manifestation of an artificial intelligence.
Her theory has developed from real world advances in technology that have made artificial intelligence a plausible step in human development. Schneider related her technical topic to the movie “Her,” directed by Spike Jonze, in which a man falls in love with an almost realistic female computer personality.
“I was interested in one of area of philosophy called ‘philosophy of minds,’ and it interacts with cognitive science because it studies the nature of thought and nature of the mind,” Schneider said.
Schneider was invited to the NASA workshop to provide a unique perspective on the research and theories of astrobiologists. She employed her background in metaphysics and cognitive science to create a philosophical framework for scientists working in the search for extraterrestrial life.
“It was probably the first cognitive science look on how aliens might think. The most intelligent alien civilizations may very well turn out to be post biological, quite possibly forms of artificial intelligence.”
Her lack of background in the field of astrobiology allowed her to give an, “out of the box,” take on the nature of hypothetical, extraterrestrial life.
“I remember going to sleep one day and thinking, ‘OH, they might be AI!‘” Schneider said. It also allowed her to ask more philosophical implications of how an alien civilization that is partially or completely composed of artificial intelligence would respond to human interaction.
Schneider’s focus in metaphysics is on the computerization of brains: or, how our brains are essentially biological computers. Taking that framework into account allows her to consider an intelligence that is programed like that biological computer, a feat that is beginning to be matched by today’s technology.
For example, scientists and pop-culture have toyed with idea of programming a personality into a computer, and a group of researchers recently took that idea to an extreme by programming a worm’s brain into a machine made of LEGO blocks.
This fusion of science and pop culture science fiction will be investigated in a class she is starting next fall called, “Philosophy and Science Fiction.”
“I need to start investigating some of the ethical questions as well. What kind of life is a good life to have? Would it be desirably to live life synced to the internet?” Schneider said.
Schneider recalled the experience of the trip fondly, however, she stated that she did attract some less-than-desirable attention from UFO enthusiasts who tried to adapt her theories to their own blogs.
“Astrobiologists are eternally bothered by UFO people. People want to know if we’re the only ones out there, but I don’t think badly of it. It was not my intention to say that there is superintelligent AI out there,” Schneider said.