Alien life is closer than you think
Our expert voices conversation on "How to look for alien life."
Alien life will be conceived, discovered, investigated, and iterated upon right here on Earth using biotechnology and our best attempt at collective intelligence: the computer and the internet.
To me, life is a system defined by generating, storing, and transmitting critical information albeit imperfectly at times. (Here on Earth that is done with DNA.) Simply put, life is complex and non-linear. With that convention, alien life bears no responsibility to be anything like life on Earth — or even follow our terrestrial rules, but it should break rules in a predictable fashion. We should look for systems that can use energy to fuel work, react and adapt to their environments and transmit information about themselves. These together all hint at life, and all can be generated from within a computer using Earth's biology as both tracing paper and as a spotlight.
Alien life simply awaits modern biotechnology to adapt it to existence beyond a computer. There is little gained in creating life from scratch. Rather, our computers should borrow, adapt, and iterate. Modern biotechnology can attempt parts, genetically recoding existing cells to run molecular programs never imagined, the result of which is a novel system constrained to iterate upon a new set of rules. In other words, new life right here on Earth.
The other voices in the conversation:
- Paul Sutter, astrophysicist, Ohio State University: What planets need for life
- Ellen Stofan, planetary geologist and former chief scientist, NASA: Earth as the guide in search for alien life
- Seth Shostak, senior astronomer, SETI Institute: We might be looking for the wrong thing