Feb 23, 2016 I Micah Hanks

Awakenings: Could the Internet Provide a Medium for an “Alien Invasion”?

"They kept hooking hardware into him—decision-action boxes to let him boss other computers, bank on bank of additional memories, more banks of associational neural nets, another tubful of twelve-digit random numbers, a greatly augmented temporary memory. Human brain has around ten-to-the-tenth neurons. By third year Mike had better than one and a half times that number of neuristors."

"And woke up."

This excerpt, from one of the most well-known-and-loved novels by science fiction writer Robert Heinlein, describes how an IBM supercomputer installed on a lunar base eventually becomes self aware, as a result of the number of tasks and processes it had been suited for managing. It was a novel idea for 1966, when Heinlein published the book; today, the discussion is eerily similar to the way the operations of the World Wide Web are ever expanding, slowly connecting all things, and all people, across the globe.


I've often wondered about the possibility of whether the Internet could become "self aware", at least in some sense. Discussing the topic on two occasions with Ben Goertzel, A.I. researcher and chair of the Artificial General Intelligence Research Institute, I recall him saying (and writing at his blog) that, “The internet behaves a fair bit like a mind. It might already have a degree of consciousness”. Whether that "degree of consciousness" is anything similar to the active imagination of a human mind is a different question entirely.

The subject does appear to be turning up in conversation ever-more frequently, in part thanks to the proliferation of the idea of technological singularity by the likes of futurist Ray Kurzweil and a few others. And just yesterday, a decidedly new spin on the notion appeared at the website of Wired's Motherboard, which takes this already fantastic idea even further into the fruitful realm of fiction: Not only might the Internet "wake up", but aliens might be the ones to post the wakeup call.

Zoltan Istvan writes for Motherboard :

"[T]here’s plausible reason for advanced extraterrestrial intelligence to beam some advanced programming code or virus from a far-off system that would reprogram our internet to do its bidding—one that is super-intelligent, could closely watch us, and could shut us down before we do anything stupid. After all, everything is online these days in some way or another—whether it be government secrets, the latest AI algorithms by engineers, or internal CERN emails about secretive experiment dates."

This statement somewhat mirrors a concept explored in my book The UFO Singularity, in which I shared a discourse with Russian trans-humanist and futurist Alexei Turchin. In an effort to consider likely threats to future humanity, Turchin employs Baeysian logic in rounding out the ways we might eventually come into contact with such things as Artificial Intelligence. Among these was a novel idea that he proposes: that it might first arrive from an "alien" source, rather than anything of our making:

We may encounter [the potential for] a SETI attack (i.e. an upload of hostile Artificial Intelligence, which uses our planet [and its resources] for future replication)… or we will attract their attention through our actions… similar to how, [using] radio METI, we could draw the attention of aliens from outer space.

The main feature of super-intelligence is that it is not tied to its carrier. As a result, if we are talking about the intelligence of a substance or of a computer, we immediately have in mind that this is a limited intellect… [but] intellect is a versatile weapon. If a superhuman intellect wants to do us harm, it will have thousands of ways to do it—from entering our computer networks, to the application of unknown physical effects.

While a slightly different take on the broader notion that the Internet could "wake up", the general idea remains the same. Of course, for this scenario to become a concern, one might infer that aliens would first be required... and hence, perhaps the "awakening" would indeed be more likely, at present, to stem from the human side of things.

Digital eye

But as technology takes us further out into the cosmos, and deeper down the rabbit hole toward what humanity may be capable of (or of greater concern, capable of creating), another assumption might be that the proliferation of such technologies could serve as a "beacon", of sorts, for alien intelligences. The ever-increasing utilization of the Internet for completion of digital tasks and processes worldwide, as well as increased efforts toward the creation of artificial intelligence, may present the potential for repercussions that would be of concern comparable to that of nuclear weapons, when viewed by an extraterrestrial civilization. Nuclear power alone hasn't managed to get humanity to the stars... yet. However, the institution of artificial intelligences which are not beholden to the same conventions of biology as you or I (and hence, perhaps more aptly suited for things like space travel) may indeed present greater concerns for the spacefaring civilizations we may hope to come across.

Unless, of course, the "aliens" themselves aren't already the result of some alien civilization's pet A.I. projects. In other words, there is some likelihood that the "aliens" we may eventually meet could be the creation of an alien civilization, rather than being the aliens themselves. In which case, once again, it seems all the more likely that alien AI might exploit Earth technologies they come across, infiltrating the World Wide Web and, through its utilization, thus controlling Earthly affairs.

Hence, the real potential for an alien invasion might not require extraterrestrial "boots on the ground" of any kind. All it would really require would be a single representative of alien AI (and perhaps a minuscule one) that makes its way to Earth, and exploits our Internet. True, this concept remains firmly planted in the realm of science fiction for now (thank goodness). But might it be time to ask whether such concerns, unlikely though they seem, aren't more likely than people's general -- and often simplistic -- notions of what an "alien invasion" might entail?

Micah Hanks
Micah Hanks is a writer, podcaster, and researcher whose interests cover a variety of subjects. His areas of focus include history, science, philosophy, current events, cultural studies, technology, unexplained phenomena, and ways the future of humankind may be influenced by science and innovation in the coming decades. In addition to writing, Micah hosts the Middle Theory and Gralien Report podcasts.

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