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Expert Voices

We might be looking for the wrong thing

Our expert voices conversation on "How to look for alien life."

While Hollywood has defined the standard, iconic alien — an anorexic, almond-eyed gray guy — there's no reason that intelligent extraterrestrials should so closely resemble humans. Of greater importance, the ones we seek might not be living creatures at all.

Humans are busy inventing artificial generalized intelligence — machines that are our cognitive equals, and soon our superiors. Based on this technological arc, it's reasonable to assume that advanced aliens have done this long ago. But such thinking machines are not restricted to planets or other habitats conducive to biology.

Why it matters: Our searches for cosmic company generally use large antennas to search for faint, deliberately produced radio signals from other worlds that are likely to be similar to Earth. We assume that the aliens need what we need — a watery world and a thick atmosphere. But if the aliens are not biological, then we need to modify our search strategies. The most impressive intellects of the universe won't need the life-friendly environments of planets, and could be spread throughout space. The real extraterrestrial's may not be little gray men, but little gray boxes.

The other voices in the conversation:

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Early humans innovated tools earlier than thought

Archaeologist Rick Potts squats in the Olorgesailie Basin in Kenya with various surprisingly sophisticated tools found from 320,000 years ago.
Richard Potts surveys assortment of Early Stone Age handaxes discovered in the Olorgesailie Basin, Kenya. Photo: Human Origins Program, Smithsonian

Unpredictable climate and natural disasters like earthquakes may have spurred early humans to create innovative tools and ways to communicate earlier than previously thought, according to 3 studies published Thursday in Science.

What they found: Evidence that around 320,000 years ago — near the start of the Middle Stone Age (MSA) and tens of thousands of years earlier than previous evidence has shown — early humans in East Africa may have created projectile hunting tools, developed ways to communicate using colors for mapping or identification purposes, and traveled longer distances to trade, hunt or obtain valuable materials.

"It's not just humans changing but really the entire ecosystem. It's a picture that's bigger than just the human ancestors themselves."
— Smithsonian's Richard Potts, who spearheaded the studies
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Yejin Choi: Trying to give AI some common sense

A photo of Yejin Choi from the University of Washington and the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence.
Photo illustration: Axios Visuals

Artificial intelligence researchers have tried unsuccessfully for decades to give machines the common sense needed to converse with humans and seamlessly navigate our always-changing world. Last month, Paul Allen announced he is investing another $125 million into his Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence (AI2) in a renewed effort to solve one of the field's grand challenges.

Axios spoke with Yejin Choi, an AI researcher from the University of Washington and AI2 who studies how machines process and generate language. She talked about how they're defining common sense, their approach to the problem and how it's connected to bias.