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I’ve just posted a fascinating video discussion between high-profile SETI researcher Jill Tarter and legendary game designer Will Wright, who has just released the new hit game, Spore (Amazon US and UK). You can also read a transcript of the discussion at Seed Magazine’s website, which has a little extra content that seems to have been edited out of the video (and helps to give a bit more context to some of the changes of topic).

The subjects covered include the evolution/intelligent design debate, machine intelligence and the singularity, the definition of life and intelligence, and whether the discovery of an ETI has a quantifiable reward. On the Intelligent Design topic, I can’t believe that Tarter (along with others previously) takes issue with Spore’s gameplay – namely, that players have the ability to direct the evolution of the creature. It’s….a…game! The word “players” is a hint to what’s needed in a game, and it’s not random genetic variation with no outside influence. Sort of has that underlying theme of “don’t let the people learn about that!” which seemed apparent in yesterday’s post about the resignation of Professor Reiss. I shudder to think what Dr Tarter would think about the Lovecraftian beasties in the Quake world…

I found the short section where Will Wright discusses the definition of life and intelligence to be one of the more interesting parts of the video:

WW: I think you’re dealing with two very fundamental questions in your work. Number one, what is the definition of life? And number two, what is the definition of intelligence?

JT: Actually, I don’t deal with either. Life, I assume, is a precursor to some technology. And the technology or the intelligence is something that modifies its environment in ways that we can sense, with our emergent technology, over interstellar distances. I really don’t care for any more profound definition than that. I’m just very pragmatic.

WW: So when you’re looking at signals, you’re basically sorting what would be considered an intelligent signal from a natural signal.

JT: Right, an engineered signal from a natural signal. If we’re successful we detect technology, from which we infer a technologist, who may or may not still be around.

I would argue that this is precisely the flaw with SETI, in that they don’t look for possibilities beyond the paradigm of human technology in the 21st century. Now, they’re scientists, and as such they do have to restrict their speculation. But how do you search for an alien civilisation/technology, without really asking deep questions about what life is, what intelligence is, and I would also say, what consciousness is. The research of scientists such as Jacques Vallee might suggest we are already being contacted, though not through the modality that SETI scientists would expect. Or perhaps not – but certainly worth thinking about if your job is to search for alien life. To stay too “pragmatic” is to limit your ability to do that particular job, in my opinion. To quote the Webster’s definition of ‘alien’: “Wholly different in nature; foreign; adverse; inconsistent (with); incongruous”…

Given her past dismissal of investigation of the UFO phenomenon – she is a CSI(COP) fellow after all – I also had to chuckle at one of Jill Tarter’s final comments:

…like Jocelyn Bell with the pulsars, when we come up with anomalies, we ought not to totally ignore them. If you can’t say that it’s black holes colliding or some other phenomenon, then let’s go back to thinking about some technologist somewhere who figured out how to do this.

There’s further discussion about SETI and its ability to define a message from ‘intelligent’ extraterrestrials at, of all places, the Uncommon Descent blog (perhaps the premier blog for discussing….Intelligent Design!). The article goes on to use SETI’s (apparent) ‘negative filter’ approach as an analogy in support of Intelligent Design researchers.

Isn’t it lovely when a post goes full circle…