Talking with your dad and having some fun.
Dad’s know everything.
Ask him if there is intelligent life beyond our planet.
Nobody yet knows, though there are plenty of efforts to find out.
The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) has been going on for many years, seeking to answer that very question.
The most common means for conducting this vexing search consists of examining electromagnetic pulses coming from outer space. By intercepting such pulses as they are radiating across space, we hope to spot anything that might be a telltale clue of intelligent life that is beaming out those rays.
It could be that some intelligent creatures are purposely trying to send us a message, doing so from far away, and they are hoping that we are astute enough to detect the message. In that sense, the communique could be a purposeful one.
Or, it might be that there are intelligent creatures inadvertently broadcasting electromagnetic exhaust or spillover from the machines they’ve made and by how they live and travel on their own planet.
In that case, we might get lucky and detect the leakage, remarkably discovering the intelligent life and yet perhaps it has not yet discovered us.
What are the odds of making such an incredible discovery?
You might have heard of the famous Drake equation, a formula that was devised in the early 1960’s by scientist Frank Drake to help estimate the odds of their being intelligent life in our galaxy. His equation is relatively simple and yet powerful enough to have been long-lasting. Many have expanded upon his equation.
In any case, he had tried to estimate the odds that there are detectable civilizations in the Milky Way galaxy.
By monitoring narrow-bandwidth radio signals and doing copious analysis of the signals, maybe we can ferret out that intelligent life is close to home (somewhere in our own galaxy). Various scientists have played with Drake’s equation and some say that the probability of there being other intelligent life in our galaxy and that we are able to detect them is near to zero (so close to zero that we should assume it is zero), while others claim that it is definitely a non-zero chance and we have a “reasonable” basis to keep looking.
Recently, the Astrobiological Copernican Limit theory has been proposed, which postulates that there are perhaps 36 such planets, but there is controversy associated with this latest approach and some still argue that the actual number remains at or much closer to zero.
We can continue to look even if the odds are slim.
People are undertaking the off-world search for various reasons.
One reason is out of pure curiosity.
Another is that if there is intelligent life, maybe we can learn something from them that will help us.
Yet another reason is the sci-fi portrayal that maybe an intelligent life will ultimately come to take over our planet, and thus we ought to find them before they start their invasion.
As part of the search, computers can be used to examine the radio signals coming from outer space that scientists are in the process of collecting. It is a tedious effort by computers and involves mathematically looking for patterns within the radio signals.
By-and-large, the radio waves are just noise, random bits of this or that, and the assumption is that if there a distinct pattern within the signals, it could mean that those are emanating as a purposeful signal.
Supercomputers of massive computational capability have been and are continuing to be used to examine the voluminous radio signal data.
It is a never-ending task.
Years ago, some enterprising searchers realized that it might be possible to harness everyday desktop computers and laptops to also aid in the electronic hunt.
A screen saver program was developed that could be easily loaded onto a PC and be used as an active participant in the search. Essentially, via the Internet, segments of radio signal data could be downloaded and the computer would crunch away, ultimately reporting its analysis back to the master cloud-based search system.
If you could get lots and lots of home computers doing this, and if you carefully coordinated the data being parceled out, you could do as much or even more than a supercomputer might be able to do.
Some liken this to the “democratization” of the search for intelligent life, while others say it is merely a practical way to leverage the millions upon millions of everyday desktop and laptop computers that now exist on our planet.
Those that download and employ the software are willingly allowing their computers to be used in the search effort. Much of the time your desktop computer is likely idle and has nothing especially important to do.
Why not let it participate in a larger than life kind of effort, quietly aiming to discover intelligent life elsewhere?
You might say that you don’t want to know whether there is other intelligent life, and therefore decide to not be part of the search. Sure, that’s fine.
Or, you might not want your computer to be used for anything other than for your own purposes. That’s fine too.
Those that relish conspiracy theories are apt to even believe that if their computer happens to be the one that detects intelligent life, those intelligent beings might decide that the owner of that particular computer is the first to go.
Ironically, you could have done yourself in by simply participating in the search process.
For those of you that have already participated in the search, you likely made use of SETI@home, which has been provided and maintained by the University of California Berkeley (here’s the link).
Earlier this year, they announced that the SETI@home software was going into hibernation and that they would no longer be distributing new tasks. Meanwhile, the SETI@home message boards are continuing to operate, and they are working fervently on the back-end data analysis.
As they say, maybe they will find ET.
Here’s an intriguing question: Could the advent of true self-driving cars potentially help us in the search for discovering intelligent life on other planets?
Let’s unpack the matter and see.
The Levels Of Self-Driving Cars
It is important to clarify what I mean when referring to true self-driving cars.
True self-driving cars are ones that the AI drives the car entirely on its own and there isn’t any human assistance during the driving task.
These driverless cars are considered a Level 4 and Level 5, while a car that requires a human driver to co-share the driving effort is usually considered at a Level 2 or Level 3. The cars that co-share the driving task are described as being semi-autonomous, and typically contain a variety of automated add-on’s that are referred to as ADAS (Advanced Driver-Assistance Systems).
There is not yet a true self-driving car at Level 5, which we don’t yet even know if this will be possible to achieve, and nor how long it will take to get there.
Meanwhile, the Level 4 efforts are gradually trying to get some traction by undergoing very narrow and selective public roadway trials, though there is controversy over whether this testing should be allowed per se (we are all life-or-death guinea pigs in an experiment taking place on our highways and byways, some point out).
Since semi-autonomous cars require a human driver, computer processing capabilities are typically less powerful than the computers used on truly autonomous cars. As will be explained shortly, the powerful computers employed in true self-driving cars will be the key to the suggestion that driverless cars can help find intelligent life outside of our planet.
For semi-autonomous cars, it is important that I mention a disconcerting aspect, namely that in spite of those human drivers that keep posting videos of themselves falling asleep at the wheel of a Level 2 or Level 3 car, do not be misled into believing that you can take away your attention from the driving task while driving a semi-autonomous car.
You are the responsible party for the driving actions of the car, regardless of how much automation might be tossed into a Level 2 or Level 3.
Self-Driving Cars And The Search For Intelligent Life
For Level 4 and Level 5 true self-driving cars, since they are going to be equipped with quite powerful computers, we can consider how those self-driving cars can be an aid in the search for intelligent life.
The AI software will be running on the on-board in-car computers and has the revered life-or-death role of driving the car.
There isn’t a human driving the car.
Occupants inside a self-driving car are passengers.
While a self-driving car is in motion, the AI is dutifully churning away and examining the sensory data to figure out what the driving scene consists of. The AI must interpret the data and make “decisions” about what the self-driving car should do next. This is a computationally intensive task and requires some rather impressive computing capabilities to be included in the self-driving car.
To get software updates for the AI system, there is an on-board electronic communication capability known as OTA (Over-The-Air). The OTA is also used to take the collected data from the on-board sensors and push it up into the cloud, allowing cloud-based servers to use the data to uncover additional Machine Learning (ML) and Deep Learning (DL) improvements about the driving task.
At some point, if the driverless car is an EV (Electrical Vehicle), it likely needs to be parked and plugged into a charger to get the electrical power pumped back up. While the self-driving car is sitting there, presumably the AI has nothing much to do. The computers on-board the driverless car are relatively idle at that time.
This brings us to a crucial point to be considered.
You could potentially use those idle computing cycles to search for intelligent life.
One means of leveraging the topnotch processors of a self-driving car would be to engage them in the same kind of radio signal processing that your desktop computer can do. A downloaded and bona fide variant of a SETI program could be residing in the computer memory of the self-driving car and be activated when the car is parked and doing nothing else of merit.
Via OTA, radio signal data would be downloaded into the on-board computer memory, and once the analysis is done, the results could be pushed back into the cloud.
Might as well use the self-driving car on-board computers for something that can possibly help mankind.
Now, it might seem puzzling to think that a solitary self-driving car is going to somehow demonstrably help in this matter. Keep in mind that there are about 250 million conventional cars in the United States today. Eventually, inexorably, it is assumed that those conventional cars will be retired and gradually be replaced by true self-driving cars.
Some argue that we might not need the same number of driverless cars, meaning that we might end-up with some lesser number of driverless cars to provide the equivalent transport volume as today’s 250 million conventional cars.
Meanwhile, an equally compelling argument is that we might end up with more driverless cars than the number of today’s conventional cars, doing so because of the principle of induced demand. Induced demand is the concept that once you start something new it can bring forth added demand that was previously being suppressed.
If people that today are mobility disadvantaged opt to use driverless cars, and if we all become expectant of near-instantaneous mobility-on-demand, the number of driverless cars needed to fulfill societal needs could well exceed the number of today’s conventional cars.
Anyway, putting aside this unresolved debate about the count, perhaps we can all agree that there is likely to be at least some hundreds of millions of driverless cars in our future.
If all those millions upon millions of self-driving cars were using their top-end computers to analyze the radio signals, during idle moments, it would be a huge boost in the extraterrestrial search effort.
It could be a resounding game-changer in the search for intelligent life.
Fleet owners of driverless cars could establish a SETI search capability into their fleet.
As a passenger, you might be utterly unaware that the fleet is supporting the intelligent life search effort. Or, the fleet owner might intentionally want you to know about the search activities, using their largess as a kind of marketing ploy to lure you to using their set of self-driving cars.
I’ve so far emphasized that the on-board computers would be only leveraged when the self-driving car is parked and has no other task at hand, but this is not the only circumstance that might allow for doing the radio signal analyses.
As a human driver, you know that there are times while driving a car that involves sitting still and idling such as when you are waiting at a red light, or waiting for a pedestrian crossing in the crosswalk.
During those idle moments, while the vehicle is still in traffic, the on-board self-driving computer could spare a few cycles and digest further the proffered radio signal data.
We can up the ante.
Your driverless car is on the freeway and zipping along. Assume that there is no other significant traffic nearby. The driving scene is barren of anything other than simply driving straight ahead. In theory, the on-board self-driving computers could potentially do some alien outer space life searching during those moments too.
Two birds with one stone.
You can have self-driving cars and meanwhile also be undertaking monumental search efforts to discover intelligent life on other planets.
It seems like a great combo deal.
There are though some potential drawbacks.
First, some might argue that any “spare” moments of the on-board self-driving computers ought to go toward the number one priority of driving the car.
Even though a car is perhaps sitting at a red light, there is still the opportunity to be continually examining and re-examining the driving scene. The argument can be made that the on-board computers in a self-driving car should be exclusively used toward the driving task, at all times, including even when the self-driving car is parked (reviewing the totality of the driving efforts of the day, finding improvements in how to do a better job at driving in the future).
Another concern is that the SETI-like program used to search for intelligent life might somehow go awry. Suppose the specialized search software causes the on-board computers to get into a locked-up loop and those self-driving computers are unable to be switched over into the driving mode.
Not a good outcome.
Worse too, suppose someone attaches a computer virus to the extraterrestrial search program. A fleet owner that has downloaded the search software is providing a goldmine form of access to the nefarious computer virus maker. In a Trojan horse manner, the evildoer virus could be easily pushed out to millions of self-driving cars, doing so under the guise of trying to help mankind.
You can see why there are some that eschew the idea of using self-driving cars to aid in the intelligent life search.
Should though all that state-of-the-art computing power inside the self-driving car be doing nothing of consequence when there is otherwise idle time?
Some ask whether we can just make sure to put in place enough safeguards to ensure that the search for intelligent life by self-driving cars is intelligently and safely devised.
Right now, the automakers and tech firms are struggling with simply trying to get self-driving cars to drive properly, let alone be worried about the search for intelligent life. You likely won’t see anyone directly considering this topic for years to come, only once the advent of true self-driving cars seems more assured.
One final thought.
Suppose that the sooner we could find intelligent life, the sooner we might learn of tech advances that we haven’t yet conceived of. Perhaps any delay in using self-driving cars for finding intelligent life might postpone our discovering that we can beam humans, just like in Star Trek, being able to do away with automobiles of any kind.
Well, all in all, consider asking your dad about the matter and see what he says.
I’m sure he’ll know best.