Harvard Astrophysicist Avi Loeb: Why UFOs May Be AI

Looking for signs of extraterrestrial life by examining objects in or near Earth, using deep learning

Sascha Brodsky, Contributor

November 10, 2023

5 Min Read
Composite image of a spaceship flying above a field
Getty Images (composite photo)

At a Glance

  • Harvard astrophysicist Avi Loeb believes extraterrestrial 'life' may actually be AI computer programs in space.
  • The idea of UFOs is gaining respectability among scientists. NASA just released a study to determine if aliens are real.

If extraterrestrial aliens turn out to be real, they might be AI computer programs.

Famed astronomer Martin Rees suggested recently to the BBC that instead of being like humans, aliens could be a type of artificial intelligence. He is not the only researcher to propose the idea as the search for UFOs attains a degree of respectability among scientists.

“Travel across interstellar distances of thousands of light years requires probes to be autonomous since they cannot wait for guidance from their senders in real-time,” renowned Harvard astrophysicist Avi Loeb said in an interview.

“This implies that they should have their own independent brain. Biological brains are unlikely to survive the long journey and the bombardment by energetic cosmic rays in interstellar space. Instead, they are likely to be equipped with artificial intelligence. Functioning extraterrestrial devices near Earth could possess AI.”

Loeb lead’s Harvard’s The Galileo Project, whose goal is to “examine the possibility of extraterrestrial origin for unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP), by making observations of objects in and near Earth’s atmosphere, filtering out identifiable objects using AI deep learning algorithms trained on rigorous classification of known objects, and then examining the nature of the remaining data for anomalous characteristics.”

In other words, it is searching for evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence by using deep learning to examine objects for anomalous characteristics.

In September, NASA released the findings of its first research study into UFOs, or Unidentified Anomalous Phenomena (UAP), and appointed its first director of UAP research. The study found “no evidence” that UAPs originated outside Earth but more research is needed.

AI up there

Many people assume humans are the smartest beings in the universe, but we might be just an evolutionary step towards AI, Rees wrote in an essay. This fact could explain why we do not see similar life in the universe. If AI is common, our telescopes will not see human-like beings in organic form. Aliens could be electronic descendants of ancient organics.

If non-organic alien intelligence exists, they would likely have very different ways of doing things compared to us, according to Rees. They might not want us to find them, and we might not be able to understand what they are up to.

Alien AI lifeforms might not care about things like air or the planet they came from. Traveling between stars or even galaxies might be easy for AI beings because they could live for a very long time.

Also, alien AI might like to live in places without gravity because it is easier to build big, lighter things there. For example, if they wanted to make a huge, delicate structure to collect energy, it would be simpler to do it in space rather than on a planet.

Although Rees published his comments on alien AI recently, Loeb told AI Business that he had discussed the idea in previous books and articles.

“Martin is recycling points that I already made without giving me credit,” Loeb said.

Rees did not respond to a request for comment by AI Business.

Humans are already taking steps to manufacture probes run by AI, Loeb contends.

“AI astronauts equipped with 3D printers could use the raw materials on a planet to replicate or fuel themselves,” he said. “The scientific search for interstellar probes is the goal of the Galileo Project. We are currently collecting data and searching for anomalous objects near Earth.”

Even if aliens turn out to be some sort of computer system, some scientists speculate that human AI could be used to help decode any alien messages sent our way. As a kind of practice run before humans get a signal from aliens, researchers are using AI to understand dolphin languages.

Denise Herzing, a leading expert in dolphin communication and the research director at the Wild Dolphin Project in Jupiter, Florida, has been studying dolphins and their language for four decades. Recently, she has incorporated artificial intelligence into her research efforts.

“After three years and multiple iterations of a model, we now have a user interface that allows us to not only mine our data rapidly but search for or query specific sounds or sequences of sounds,” Herzing wrote on a blog that funds her work. “The idea is to look for order and structure in some of their vocal sequences, a basic requirement for any language.”

AI might also help detect the mere presence of alien life. A group of scientists asserts that they have devised a straightforward and dependable test for detecting indications of past or current life on distant planets. The recently developed test effectively establishes whether the sample that is being analyzed has a history that involves something that was once living, according to a report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The researchers showed that AI can tell the difference between living and non-living samples by examining tiny variations in a sample's molecular patterns. They did this by using a two-step process: First, pyrolysis gas chromatography separated and identified the components of the sample, and then mass spectrometry measured the molecular weights of those components.

They trained the AI by using data from the molecular analysis of 134 samples, some from living things and some not, to help it predict whether a new sample came from something living or not.

“This routine analytical method has the potential to revolutionize the search for extraterrestrial life and deepen our understanding of both the origin and chemistry of the earliest life on Earth,” Carnegie Institution’s Geophysical Laboratory researcher Robert Hazen said in a news release. “It opens the way to using smart sensors on robotic spacecraft, landers, and rovers to search for signs of life before the samples return to Earth.”

About the Author(s)

Sascha Brodsky


Sascha Brodsky is a freelance technology writer based in New York City. His work has been published in The Atlantic, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, Reuters, and many other outlets. He graduated from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism and its School of International and Public Affairs. 

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