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SETI Expert Says Aliens Are Probably Robotic Life Forms

Ask a SETI astronomer about a science fiction movie and you’re bound to get an interesting review. Ask the astronomer what aliens visiting Earth will really look like and you’re bound to get an even more interesting answer. Center for SETI Research director Seth Shostak was asked both questions after seeing the current movie Arrival and said he enjoyed the movie but thinks alien life forms visiting our planet will be robots, not squid-like beings.

[Arrival’s] unconventional style is both understated and cerebral. This is not a shoot-‘em-up alien flick; rather, the makers have emphasized empathy and character development, an approach that may disappoint middle school boys, but is refreshing for the rest of us.

On the SETI website, Shostak reveals that the movie isn’t War of the Worlds or Independence Day because the aliens come in peace. He likes the idea that the focus is on communicating with the visitors, since that’s something he contemplates at SETI. However, he humorously disagrees with the depiction of the aliens as squid-like creatures.

I figure that, given their unthreatening behavior, they’re vulnerable to ending up as delicacies at Japanese restaurants.


OK, Shostak. What do YOU think alien space travelers whose signals you may have picked up and attempted to translate will look like?

… any society that invents radio, so we can hear them, within a few centuries, they’ve invented their successors. And I think that’s important, because the successors are machines.

It’s an interesting idea, especially when you look at it in terms of our own work today in prosthetics and exoskeletons. Is the next step a better exoskeleton or something else?

It’ll be like — you build a four-cylinder engine. You put it in a horse to get a faster horse. And pretty soon you say, ‘Look, let’s get rid of the horse part and just build a Maserati.

In fact, after a civilization builds the first set of replacements, the next set of improvements will come from the replacements themselves.

Once you invent a thinking machine, you say, ‘Invent something better than you are,’ and you build that. Design something better than you are,’ and you build that, and so forth.


If alien civilizations have created their successors and they are highly advanced artificially-intelligent machines, then we shouldn’t be looking in the so-called “Goldilocks zones” of stars for planets with climates and water similar to Earth for signs of life. Instead, we should look for planets that have massive amounts of minerals for building the machines and equally massive amounts of resources to power them.

Is Shostak saying that SETI is looking for life in all the wrong places?

This is my message to you: We’re looking for analogues of ourselves, but I don’t know that that’s the majority of the intelligence in the universe.

Will dealing with advanced alien robots be better or worse than dealing with alien squids?


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  • Bryan

    I find that the whole “humans must find a way to communicate with the alien visitors” thing misses the point of what an technologically advanced civilization can achieve.

    If they have manged to get over here, then it can be assumed that they would not be surprised that communication would be an issue before they left their planet, and have in some way planned for it and mitigated the difficulties.

    I would go so far as to say the onus would be on the advanced civilization to find a way to communicate with the lesser advanced civilization, and not by repeating a musical rift, or a Tetravigesimal encrypted number system that would encode a message that we would somehow have to figure out, but by using human language.

  • Brent Swancer

    I’ve always wondered why any advanced civilization would even bother to visit us at all. Why expend all of those resources to come here? For water? There are vast reserves of water tied up in asteroids, comets, and other heavenly bodies, so much that it does not make sense to come here for that. For minerals? Again, there are far more minerals and other resources tied up in asteroids and planetoids than on earth, and that’s why we want to mine them so much. For communication? Why? If they were that advanced we might be no more than ants for them. Our efforts to send out radio signals could be just mildly amusing for them. What would they really have to say to us to come all that way and use all of those resources to do it? To mess with us?

    I’ve always wondered if any sort of contact would be just by accident, with aliens passing by on some other agenda. I think we would be more of a curiosity for them more than anything.

    Now, if they are robots, well, that gives them even less of a reason to some here. They would be able to survive pretty much anywhere and would have no problem mining asteroids, uninhabitable planets, comets, and other hazardous environments. Our planet is comparatively poor in water, minerals, and other resources so why bother? I don’t think they would have much use or interest in dealing with us.

  • Colin

    Nothing like listening to a so-called expert on alien life, someone who has never seen an alien life form, telling us what they look like. I put more stock in abductees than this guy.