Tag Archives: Search

The Search for Alien Life: We Have Been Looking in the Wrong Places

SETI Initiative. Source: Traces Online.

Humanity has pondered the existence of alien life for centuries. However, it has been in just the past 100 years or so that modern science has backed some of this thinking. Scientists of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s believed that objects appearing on the surface of Mars were canals constructed by aliens. Particularly, astronomer Percival Lowell believed this concept and promoted it in works such as the book Mars As the Abode of Life (1908).

This belief in the scientific community led to a huge amount of pop culture based around the concept of extraterrestrials. This has resulted in some people even believing in the existence of aliens like the ones in the movies. Who knows? They could be out there. But some wonder how probable their existence is.

With aliens constantly being depicted in entertainment, even after the Martian alien canal hypothesis was busted, scientists considered communicating with otherworldly life forms. The first scientists looking for a close encounter believed the best bet was to use radio waves as the communication medium. The first of such proposed experiments was conducted in 1960 by astronomer Frank Drake.

One of the most eye-opening quotes about extraterrestrial alien life comes from the book Time for the Stars by Alan Lightman. The author states, “Are we alone in the universe? Few questions are more profound… Extraterrestrial contact would forever change the way we view our place in the cosmos” (Lightman 21).

Drake would definitely not be the last scientist to attempt to summon a response from an alien. But this was the first modern example of tests which would now be referred to as part of SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. In 1980, to bring more of a public interest to SETI, the legendary astrophysicist, astronomer, and astrobiologist Carl Sagan and several others formed The Planetary Society. In more recent years, other programs with goals similar to SETI’s have been established such as METI, messaging extraterrestrial intelligence.

Apart from radio waves, humans have tried other ways of communicating with hypothetical aliens. One example is a plaque which was attached to the Pioneer 10 probe in 1972. This plaque would be a unique kind of “message in a bottle,” except the ocean it was doomed to drift in was far more vast than any sea on Earth. It was inquired of Carl Sagan about sending such a message several months before the scheduled departure of the craft. So Sagan went to work, and assisting him with this undertaking was none other than Frank Drake, the man who had conducted the first modern SETI tests in 1960. The fruit of numerous labors and laborers, the Pioneer 10 plaque that was sent into space depicted a man and a woman and several objects. Through the imagery, the scientists were trying to give any aliens who might see this plaque an idea of what humans are like and where Earth is located.

This could be the first big mistaken researchers are making. They are looking to make contact. They are putting their faith in a sci-fi movie concept. What these scientists are attempting to do is call up and have a conversation with an alien or, better yet, a race of aliens. This is not to say that SETI is pointless, but it might not be the most opportune method for seeking alien life.

Perhaps scientists should strive to discover life in its simpler forms. As Lee Billings of Scientific American states in a recent article, if you were able to travel to another planet it is likely “you would find a planet dominated by microbes rather than charismatic megafauna.” Many scientists are now suggesting microscopic organisms could be more plentiful throughout the cosmos than macroscopic creatures.

Microbes Are a Realistic Form of Alien Life. Source: Joi Ito’s PubPub.

A specific search for such minuscule life forms is not a new practice. Bacteria are, of course, microbes. Astrobiologists like Richard Hoover and Dave McKay have examined certain meteorites. Some of the microscopic structures found embedded in or on the space relics resemble bacteria. They have released their findings in past years. They have admitted that even though the fossilized structures appear to be remnants of bacteria there is still some skepticism as to whether those structures are alien in origin. This is because bacteria from Earth could have been attached to the meteorites once they entered our atmosphere.

So how do scientists narrow down the search for alien life even further? Billings’ piece may give us the best idea available at the moment. He informs his readers that one of oxygen’s properties is that it tends to descend from an atmosphere in the form of mineral oxides. It does not remain in its gaseous phase for long. Because of its nature, in an atmosphere such as Earth’s, the oxygen has to be reinstituted on a regular basis.

Astrobiologists have to accept oxygen may be one of the least familiar elements they come upon when studying potential life-supporting bodies. For example, atmospheric chemist David Catling has said the atmosphere of a world dominated by microscopic life could be largely comprised of methane and carbon dioxide gases. Keeping this in mind, this will hopefully narrow down the most likely planet candidates for life.

Google founding principle.

Google is shifting their focus from Search to artificial intelligence, CEO says

While delivering Google’s first quarterly income report on Thursday, the company’s CEO said that Google is transitioning — the search-engine giant will become an A.I.-first company.

Google founding principle.

One of Google’s founding principles.
Image credits Tangi Bertin / Flickr.

The measure of the sheer success Google has achieved is that they’re no longer just the guys who do your searching for you — it has become the de facto verb for it. While that isn’t likely to change anytime soon, the company is switching its focus away from search engines to put A.I. development on the forefront.

“We continue to set the pace in machine learning and A.I. research,” said Google CEO Sundar Pichai said in a call [embedded at the end of the article] to investors on Thursday to report the company’s Q1 2017 earnings.

“We’re transitioning to an A.I.-first company.”

So what does this mean for Google, and what does it mean for you? Well, in short, Google wants to become the first totally personalized corporation, tailoring their service to each individual. We’ll probably see machine learning embedded at the core of most of Google’s systems and platforms — such as Google’s Assistant service being merged with Android and Chrome OSs. The goal will be to use machine learning to tailor the devices to each user, timing apps and notifications after their usual schedule or location, personal interests, or other characteristics such as typing habits.

Last year, Pichai said that the ultimate goal of Assistant is that if you ask for a pizza, it will bring you that pizza without any further input or oversight required. The company also has to figure out how to keep increasing the number and sophistication of its machine learning algorithms without increasing energy or mobile data use — which would cripple current devices.

Pichai said they would increasingly rely on Google’s recently unveiled “federated learning” technology. It should allow A.I. to run more efficiently on the limited resources a mobile device can marshal, for example, allowing for a wider range of applications while saving up on battery and bandwidth.

What about Search

Although Google is looking to focus on A.I., search currently remains its single most profitable platform. But even though they’re shifting focus away from search, Google thinks A.I. would only make its results more relevant and its ads more profitable. It would let them find patterns of search and favorite results more easily, and eventually even predict them. It would let Google not only give you what you ask for but predict what you’ll ask for, even change what you want — if that’s a good thing or not, I guess it’s a question we all have to answer for ourselves.

Still, this answers why Google is moving away from search as its main focus — there’s a lot of profit to be made with machine learning, especially through analysis of search behavior. Everything done online with even a minute involvement of a Google platform will become quantifiable, and monetizable. Until now, they’ve relied on a sort of passive data acquisition with you coming to them, via search, and feeding the data yourself. A.I. will take up the busywork of actively gathering the data.

And the sort of things they can do with this data is amazing. Think about driving home and being prompted with what parking spaces are open near your house in Google Maps. Food shops that cater your absolute favorite kinds of foods in whatever town you happen to be in, or all over the globe on Earth.

But with so much data on their hands, the risk of Google derailing from their founding principle of “Don’t be evil” becomes a lot harder to maintain — and a lot scarier if broken.