Aliens, William Burroughs, and the Postbiological Universe

One group of students in the seminar course I teach struggled significantly with how post-literacy would evolve and who would bring it about. They had substantial concerns about power, control, and the misuse these new capabilities. How would post literacy occur? Who would “invent” it? Where are the safeguards? These issues lead them to conclude that post-literacy would be brought to us not through human invention but through alien visitors. Yes, aliens. Whether this is a prescient cosmological insight or abdication of the role of human innovation remains to be seen..

William Burroughs

And, after all, William Burroughs observed that
“language is a virus from outer space.”

Will post-literacy come to us from aliens? Steven Dick is the Chief Historian and Director of the History Division of NASA, and he thinks so.

Writing in Acta Astronautica, he notes that in the search for ETI (extraterrestrial intelligence) scientists have typically looked for signs of “flesh-and-blood” intelligence through such initiatives as SETI. However, Dick suggests that because of cultural evolution and the imperative to increase knowledge (his “Intelligence Principle”, see below), extraterrestrials will have already evolved from biologicals to postbiologicals, a form of artificial intelligence (AI):

“If the strong AI concept is correct, that is, if it is possible to construct AI with more intelligence than biologicals, postbiological intelligence may take the form of AI … if ETI exists, and, as seems likely, it exceeds the age of terrestrial technology civilization, we may already live in a postbiological universe.”

Of course, there is a problem. It’s called the “incommensurability problem.”

“It is entirely possible that the differences between our minds and theirs [the postbiologicals] is so great that communication is impossible.”

So aliens, the extraterrestrials, may have already evolved into AI with characteristics and capacities we would describe as post-literate. Unfortunately we won’t be able to understand each other. Or perhaps more accurately, we won’t be able to understand them at their level of intelligence. The post-literate world exists, it just won’t be available to us.

Steven Dick. “The Postbiological Universe.” Acta Astronautica 62 (2008), 499-504.
The Intelligence Principle:

“The maintenance, improvement and perpetuation of knowledge and intelligence is the central driving force of cultural evolution, and to the extent intelligence can be improved, it will be improved … The Intelligence Principle implies that, given the opportunity to increase intelligence (and thereby knowledge), whether through technology, genetic engineering or AI, any society would do so, or fail to do so at its own peril.”

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