alien-superWe are in danger of being eliminated by aliens who aren’t even conscious, says Susan Schneider. Luckily, I think I see some flaws in the argument.

Humans are probably not the greatest intelligences in the Universe, she suggests; others probably have been going for billions of years longer. Perhaps, but maybe they have all attained enlightenment and moved on from this plane, leaving us young dummies the cleverest or the only people around?

Schneider thinks the older cultures are likely to be post-biological, having moved on into machine forms of intelligence. This transition may only take a few hundred years, she suggests, to ‘judge from the human experience’ (Have we transitioned? Did I miss it?). She says transistors are much faster than neurons and computer power is almost indefinitely expandable, so AI will end up much cleverer than us.

Then there may be a problem over controlling these superlatively bright computers, as foreseen by Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, and Bill Gates. Bill Gates? The man who, by exploiting the monopoly handed to him by IBM was able to impose on us all the crippled memory management of DOS and the endless vulnerabilities of Windows? Well, OK; not sure he has much idea about technology, but he’s got form on trying to retain control of things.

Schneider more or less takes it for granted that computation is cogitation, and that faster computation means smarter thinking. It’s true that computers have become very good at games we didn’t think they could play at all, and she reminds us of some examples. But to take over from human beings, computers need more than just computation. To mention two things, they need agency and intentionality, and to date they haven’t shown any capacity at all for either. I don’t rule out the possibility of both being generated artificially in future, but the ever-growing ability of computers to do more sums more quickly is strictly irrelevant. Those future artificial people of whom we know nothing may be able to exploit the power of computation – but so can we. If computers are good at winning battles, our computers can fight their computers.

Schneider also takes it for granted that her computational aliens will be hostile and likely to come over and fuck us up good if they ever know we exist. They might, for example, infect our systems with computer viruses (probably not, I think, because without Bill Gates providing their operating systems computer viruses probably remained a purely theoretical matter for them). Sending signals out into the galaxy, she reckons, is a really bad idea; our radio signals are already out there but luckily it’s faint and easily missed (even by unimaginably super-intelligent aliens, it seems). Premature to worry, surely, because even our earliest radio signals can be no more than about a hundred light years away so far – not much of a distance in galactic terms. But why would super-intelligent entities behave like witless bullies anyway? Somewhere between benign and indifferent seems a more likely attitude.

To me this whole scenario seems to embody a selective prognosis anyway. The aliens have overcome the limitation of the speed of light, they feed off black holes (no clue, sorry) but they still run on the computation we currently think is really smart. A hundred years ago no-one would have supposed computation was going to be the dominant technology of our decade, let alone the next million years; maybe by 2116 we’ll look back on it the way we fondly remember steam locomotion.

Schneider’s most arresting thought is that her dangerous computational aliens might lack qualia, and so in that sense not be conscious. It seems to me more natural to suppose that acquiring human-style thought would necessarily involve acquiring human-style qualia. Schneider seems to share the Searlian view that qualia have something to do with unknown biological qualities of neural tissue which silicon can never share. Even if qualia could be engineered into silicon, why would the aliens bother, she asks – it’s just an extra overhead that might add unwanted ethical issues. Most surprisingly, she supposes that we might be able to test the proposition! Suppose that for medical reasons we replace parts of a functioning human brain with chips, we might then find that qualia are lost.

But how would we know? Ex hypothesi, qualia have no causal powers and so could not cause any change in our behaviour. Even if the qualia vanished, the fact could not be reported. None of the things we say about qualia were caused by qualia; that’s one of the bizarre things about them.

Anyway, I say if we’re going to indulge in this kind of wild speculation, let’s really go big; I say the super-intelligent aliens will be powered by hyper-computation, a technology that makes our concept of computation look like counting on your fingers; and they’ll have not only qualia, but hyper-qualia, experiential phenomenologica whose awesomeness we cannot even speak of. They will be inexpressibly kindly and wise and will be be borne to Earth to visit us on special wave-forms, beyond our understanding but hugely hyperbolic…


  1. 1. Christophe Menant says:

    Yes Peter, computers need more than just computation. They indeed need agency and intentionality.
    But taking the evolution of our universe as a background also brings to consider that computers are not alive. And it may be the first thing to look at. Life emerging from matter billions of years ago brought in intrinsic local constraints that came in addition to ubiquist physical laws. Agency and aboutness are part of life (I take bio-intentionality as a reality). Humans came after with self-consciousness, an evolution of life.
    So looking at how computers could overtake humans should, I feel, first consider how computers could display the performances of life. Artificial life before artificial intelligence. So far we have only designed computers with derived constraints, with a derived intentionality. The real question is then about bringing intrinsic intentionality to artificial agents. (some of these points have been addressed during Biosemiotics Gatherings 2015 & 2016:,

  2. 2. Hunt says:

    I recall from somewhere that if you peer at the night’s sky through a soda straw, the area you view will contain a thousand galaxies. GALAXIES. Whether this is correct or not, just the number of _galaxies_ is astounding. Now, the spherical limit 100 light years from us is supposed to contain something like 5000 stars, and of them, less than 100 seem good candidates for life. 100 ly is 1/1000 the diameter of our galaxy, so our sphere of influence can be visualized as a 1mm spot on a 1 meter diameter patio table.

    What conclusions might be drawn from all this vis a vis meeting ET? None, as far as I can tell. Our radio influence, a frontier expanding outward at the speed of light, is only a tiny mote in the unimaginable vastness of space. There may well be a massive network of extraterrestrial, intergalactic life that is essentially forever inaccessible to us. They may be inaccessible to us; we may be inaccessible to them. Even by radio signal, of whatever strength. It’s kind of depressing really. Disproving (or proving) the existence of ET may be as futile as proving the existence of God.

  3. 3. Hunt says:

    Just another figure to either add to either add to our sense of loneliness, or security, depending on how you view things: We are at a position about 1/3 the way in from the edge of our galaxy. That means that radio signals from 1916 (which are going to be really, really weak by then) won’t reach the entire content of just our own galaxy (remember the soda straw) for about another 60,000 years.

  4. 4. David Sohn says:

    So Peter, what are you in this debate? You seem to be a anti-materialst with notions like “agency.” Are you a dualist? (I am a primitive, nyself; going kicking and screaming into this brave new world.) I am a hobbyist in the present regard.–David

  5. 5. Peter says:

    No, I’m a materialist and not a dualist – though I think dualism versus monism is a stale debate.

    Primitive sounds good, though; I’ve said elsewhere that one good way of looking at consciousness is that it’s essentially about the different ways stones, animals, and humans react when poked with a stick. (And robots, why not?)

  6. 6. Stephen says:

    “Ex hypothesi, qualia have no causal powers and so could not cause any change in our behaviour. Even if the qualia vanished, the fact could not be reported. None of the things we say about qualia were caused by qualia; that’s one of the bizarre things about them.”

    Although without qualia, wouldn’t we lose our perceptual experience? We wouldn’t experience seeing, touching or hearing anything. We wouldn’t have access to memories because they largely are created by our imperfect re-creations of qualia. Without any perceptions why wouldn’t we just be catatonic? It’s not as if our unconscious mind would pick up all of the things our conscious mind does, including controlling voluntary movement. We might be left with some primitive aspects of perception, such as blind sight or grasping reflexes, but I don’t see how we would function normally.

  7. 7. Hunt says:

    Someone who knows what they’re talking about will probably be along shortly, but from what I know what you describe is why non causal qualia are linked with epiphenomenalism, or some other means to detach behavior from perception.

    But don’t take my word for it. I’ve always found the idea pretty mystifying.

  8. 8. Peter says:

    wouldn’t we lose our perceptual experience?

    Qualia play no functional role in the way our eyes detect the colour red, or the way our brain registers redness, or the neurological process that leads to us talking about red or pointing out red things. They are just the “what it is like” of those things happening.

    If you believe in qualia, you will accept that it is at least conceivable that you could have a “zombie twin” who had all the functions and therefore behaved exactly like you, without any of the “what it is like”.

  9. 9. Stephen says:

    I can completely understand that qualia have no functional role in detecting colour, but the “what it is like” definition I find confusing. Of course, the whole point of qualia is that is isn’t “like” anything, otherwise we could say what it is like. The only thing that makes sense to me is that qualia is the experience I have that is indescribable (except by assuming others have the same or similar experience). However I know it is the experience I have that enables me to do things. If, by definition, qualia is not my experience and not even part of any neurological processing, then I’m not sure on what use it is as a concept and can understand why some say it doesn’t exist.

  10. 10. Paul Torek says:

    “Ex hypothesi, qualia have no causal powers.” Now there’s a hypothesis that definitely deserves to be ex. As in extinguished. If they had no causal powers, you wouldn’t be able to talk about them. The cause, and thus the referent, of your talk would be something else.

  11. 11. Peter says:

    I agree that this business of having no causal powers is pretty hopeless. But although none of our talk about them is caused by them, that in itself doesn’t quite prove we can’t talk about them. After all, Father Christmas, like all non-existent things, lacks causal powers, but I can still talk about him. On the other hand I think it does mean that our talking about them, our testimony that we experience them, actually provides no evidence of their existence…

    I could be wrong, though. My mind is not at its sharpest just now for some reason…

  12. 12. Tom Clark says:

    “If they had no causal powers, you wouldn’t be able to talk about them.”

    For qualia to have causal powers, as for instance in producing our talk about them (a physical phenomenon), they would either have to be identical to some neural goings-on or we’d need some account of how non-physical qualities interact with and affect those goings-on. The latter doesn’t seem forthcoming, but if the former is the case then you don’t need to refer to the qualities themselves as causal, only the neural goings-on that they are identical to. So qualities per se are still out of the causal loop on the identity hypothesis. But even if they lack causal powers there’s little reason to doubt their existence.

    Re zombies, their conceivability could simply be a function of the explanatory gap. Once we understand why qualia come along with the various functions and/or physical substrates that they are associated with, then we won’t be able to honestly conceive of my micro-physical duplicate as not having experience. Just as we can’t conceive of that duplicate not being alive.

  13. 13. Stephen says:

    Everything we perceive must be a pattern of neural connections and firing, otherwise it wouldn’t exist in our brain. These neural representations exist in our unconscious. I propose that for them to enter our consciousness, they must be converted into qualia; something our conscious can process. Is there anything in our conscious that is not qualia? I don’t know the mechanism by which that happens or why we have the sense of experience that we do. We need to know more about the brain to answer that.

    Therefore, anything we do that passes through our conscious mind, such as voluntary muscle movements, must have qualia as an intermediate stage in the overall process. In that sense they are part of a causal chain.

    The processing of ideas and memories would follow a similar path.

    As for zombies, they don’t exist. I know I’m not a zombie and I know that everyone else is constructed pretty much like me, so it isn’t very likely anyone else is a zombie either. What seems more likely is that if qualia were removed, the conscious mind would have nothing to process and would appear to be catatonic.

  14. 14. Paul Torek says:

    If “Father Christmas” were defined ostensively – you know, that guy that was sitting next to us on the plane, everyone referred to him as Father Christmas, of course I’m not claiming he’s Santa Claus! – then it would be awfully hard for the term to fail to refer. Even if “that guy” next to us on the plane was Angela Merkel in disguise, it doesn’t mean that you fail to refer to anyone. It just means you have some wrong beliefs about (as it turns out, not that you would use this name) Angela Merkel.

    Tom (12), “you don’t need to refer to the qualities themselves as causal, only the neural goings-on that they are identical to” fails to take causality away from qualities. If the Morning Star causally contributed to an unusually high tide, then the Evening Star causally contributed to an unusually high tide, since they are the same thing. Causality relates referents, not the terms we use to pick them out.

  15. 15. Tom Clark says:

    Paul: “Causality relates referents, not the terms we use to pick them out.”

    Agreed, but in third-person, scientific accounts of behavior, the causal power of what’s being referred to by the terms “neural goings-on” and “qualities” is always that of neural goings-on. If we hold that the quality *just is* what certain neural processes are doing (a physicalist hypothesis), then it has the same causal powers as those processes. But we won’t need to invoke the quality per se in causal explanations, and indeed there’s no way to fit it into the causal story involving neurons, brain states, muscles, etc.

    My suggested alternative, based on non-interactionist phenomenal-physical parallelism, is to give up the idea that qualities can be shown to play causal roles in third-person, objective accounts of behavior. However, they aren’t fairly characterized as epiphenomenal either since they don’t appear to science (only something that appears to science has the potential to *not* play a causal role in a process). Moreover, they very much seem causal *within my experience*: e.g., it sure seems to me that my pain makes me wince. Even though it doesn’t appear to science (only its physical correlates appear) the pain isn’t illusory, and the subjective causal story I tell about it lines up very nicely with the objective causal story involving its physical correlates (these points elaborated in “Respecting privacy: why consciousness isn’t even epiphenomenal”).

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