Real Aliens with Seth Shostak

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Usually, when a group of creative minds meets in Hollywood to discuss the lives of stars, they’re talking of the terrestrial sort – the ones who appear in films and adopt packs of children. Guests of the Science & Entertainment Exchange were buzzing over the extraterrestrial life of stars, or more accurately, life on the planets orbiting those stars. 

Are we alone in the Universe? Seth Shostak, Senior Astronomer at the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute, and host of their weekly science radio show, enraptured the Exchange audience with a witty and contagiously enthusiastic talk on his answer to that very question. Wondering about the answer? In short, no, we are not alone. 

Whether we find microbial life as close by as our own solar system, or on one of our galaxy’s 10,000 earth like planets, Seth has little doubt life on earth is no miracle. However, it’s the discovery of intelligent life on other planets that truly excites him, and according to Seth, it will look nothing like what’s shown in cinemas today. 

Citing our own civilizations rapid creation of faster, better, smaller technologies, Seth postulates that within this century we will have computers more intelligent than ourselves. Further extrapolating from the theory behind Moore’s Law leads him to believe these super intelligent computers will then be tasked with building something more advanced than themselves, and so on and so forth until our society is dominated by mechanized intelligence.

If that is the case on earth, he argues, than certainly we should expect a similar trajectory for intelligence elsewhere, meaning the little green men of space might just resemble your Android phone more so than its logo. 

As always, the Q&A following Seth’s talk was both imaginative and informed, with many excellent questions and just as many fascinating responses. The venue, a speakeasy with brick walls, served as the perfect leveling ground for such a meeting of minds, as drinks and conversation flowed naturally between the entertainers and scientists in attendance.

Not willing to let the night end, and with intellectual curiosity still burning, many stuck around to speak with Seth, as well as discuss exciting ‘what-ifs’ with the others in attendance. As the inspired and imaginative discussions carried on into the night, it was clear that the Exchange had once again succeeded in sparking a creative union larger than any one field or discipline. On a night focused on everything alien, one only needed to observe the fascinating exchange of ideas around them to discover what is best about being human. 

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The statements and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the event participants and do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization or agency that provided support for this event or of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.