Robert A. Freitas Jr., Xenology: An Introduction to the Scientific Study of Extraterrestrial Life, Intelligence, and Civilization, First Edition, Xenology Research Institute, Sacramento, CA, 1979;

(c) 1979 Robert A. Freitas Jr. All Rights Reserved.




Chapter 16. Xenobiotechnology

"If man does not use his tools, his tools will use him."
-- Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)

"But here is still more of the truth and all I’ll try to say about it. Although long life can be a burden, mostly it is a blessing. It gives time enough to learn, time enough to think, time enough not to hurry, time enough to love."
-- Lazarus Long, in Time Enough For Love (1973) by Robert Heinlein2601

Larry’s irritation showed. "You are just a machine! Don’t talk about a mechanical recharge as if it were an act of lovemaking."
"Why not? My neural apparatus is at least as complex as yours. My experience -- well, I’m over a thousand years old. Why shouldn't I sound like I enjoy a good recharging? It does give me renewed strength."
-- from T. J. Bass, The Godwhale (1974)2644

"I cannot understand your description of the biped’s interior," Hundred said practically. "Soft, porous material soaked in sticky red liquid; acrid vapors -- how do they work? Where is the mechanism?"
"They are perhaps not functional at all," Seven proposed. "They may be purely artificial devices, powered by chemical action."
"Yet they act intelligently," Zero argued. "If the monster -- or the monster’s masters -- do not have them under direct control -- and certainly there is no radio involved -- "
"There may be other means than radio to monitor an auxiliary," Seven said. "We know so little, we persons."
-- from Poul Anderson, "Epilogue" (1962)983


Sir Peter B. Medawar, British Nobelist in medicine and a pioneer in immunology and transplantation research, once remarked that "people are so constituted that they would rather be alive than dead."1646 A trivial observation, perhaps, but significant nevertheless because it highlights the importance of the survival instinct in all living creatures -- sentient, extraterrestrial or otherwise.

Indeed, medicine is one of the oldest technologies known to man. Aboriginal peoples who have never seen a wheel or struck a fire guard their lives by employing "medicine men." These specialists in incantation and retaliatory voodoo perform curative rituals to relieve suffering among the sick and the dying, and dole out primitive herbal preparations (some of which work quite well) to alleviate pain. Virtually all human societies have been concerned with biotechnology, and there is no reason why alien cultures on other worlds shouldn't display similar interests.

Scientists increasingly tend to speak of the concept of "participative evolution," the notion that a race of technically-oriented sentient beings can seize a certain measure of control from Mother Nature and alter their physiology as they wish. With advanced genetic techniques, mankind is learning to control its own biological destiny. It is unreasonable to expect ETs to lag far behind.

Admittedly, the arguments for advanced xenobiotechnology are not compelling. It may be that some alien species have biochemical hereditary mechanisms that are not easily susceptible to intelligent tampering. Other races may inhabit planets poor in the materials necessary in the research and development of artificial bionic devices and mechanical prostheses. Still others may have the native ability to evolve in direct response to the environment by the inheritance of acquired characteristics or by xerography, and thus would view biological technology as irrelevant.

Still, the arguments are persuasive. As a general rule, science "evolves" as a whole. There are few cultures on record that display grossly disparate or uneven technical development. (One notable exception was the Mayan civilization, which apparently had some skill in surgical techniques yet never developed the simple wheel.) On timescales of millennia, the methods of chemistry, physics, mathematics, biology and engineering usually mature at roughly comparable rates. We might expect, therefore, that all Type III galactic cultures-having either sophisticated interstellar transportation or advanced transgalactic communications -- most likely will have developed their medical and biological sciences to an equivalent superior level.

What about Type II stellar cultures? It is certainly possible that early spacefarers might lack advanced biotechnology, but this situation would not seem likely to continue. To remain alive and healthy in the environment of space, a great deal of radiological, physiological, biochemical and ecological information must be available. It’s probably safe to assert that the survival of planet-evolved beings in space should be viewed as prima facie evidence of a developed biotechnology.

As for Type I planetary civilizations, the arguments for advanced biotechnology are still valid but become a bit more complicated. Random short-term factors may enter the picture. Some sciences may lag far behind others for peculiar environmental or cultural reasons. The very philosophy of participative evolution itself may be rejected as unholy, inelegant unnatural or unwise by some planetbound alien societies. But if we consider only those races among whom heredity proceeds genetically and whose population swells exponentially (as with humans), a strong case for high xenobiotechnology may be made.

The virtually inevitable development of some kind of medical science, coupled with the gradual loss of challenging physical frontiers (due to the inherent finiteness of planetary surfaces), may eventually lead to a weakening of the gene pool of the population. Genetic load -- the slow accumulation of maladaptive genes among members of tool-using, protective species -- will become acute within a few millennia following the introduction of medicine and the disappearance of frontiers (as the planet fills to capacity).

Symptoms of genetic disability may be masked by quick medical fixes, but congenital defectives will no longer be culled by the rigors of frontier existence. Eventually, the population as a whole will become so dysfunctional that only four alternatives will remain:

1. Do nothing, become more dysfunctional, and ultimately become extinct as a species.

2. Eliminate a root cause of genetic load by rejecting all medical science. Nature can then cull defectives and maintain a healthy, vigorous gene pool.

3. Eliminate a root cause of genetic load by expanding physical frontiers and becoming spacefaring. Although stay-at-home defectives won’t be culled, the rigors of space living will ensure a staunch pioneer gene pool.

4. Eliminate genetic load by taking direct control of biological evolution. Gene defects are remedied prenatally, so that every newborn is a perfect (but nonstandardized) genetic specimen.

Societies which choose (1) aren’t around any longer. Those which choose (3) go on to become Type II cultures, whom we have argued will have biotechnology just as those who choose course (4). Alternative (2) is unlikely, both be cause the fruits of medical science are sweet and addictive, and because such a solution will reduce the population-carrying capacity of the planet by several orders of magnitude -- which means death on a massive scale.

Participative evolution among any sentient race will progress primarily along two major fronts: the genetic and the cybernetic. Biological organisms may be improved either by genetic engineering (repairing, replacing, or augmenting body organs with other new ones) or by cybernetic or bionic engineering (exchanging living parts for mechanical ones). In either case, the extraterrestrial sentients become masters of their own heredity.



16.1 Bioneering

Biological engineering -- "bioneering" for short -- is the technology of genetic engineering. While the nucleic acids represent the blueprints for all Earthly organisms, the biochemical specifics may vary from world to world. Still, the general principle of manipulating the executive molecules of life -- whatever they are -- should be more or less universal.

Xenobiologists today believe that it will soon be possible to splice, repair, recombine, synthesize, and transplant specific terrestrial genes and chromosomal patterns between individuals and even between species. What humanity will probably achieve in the coming century may already be well-known to countless advanced extraterrestrial bioneers as well.


16.1.1 Intelligence Amplification

People have long been astounded by the feats of so-called "human calculating machines." An 18th-century Englishman named Jedediah Buxton reputedly could multiply three 6-digit numbers in his head almost instantly, but his mind was otherwise dull and he remained a day laborer all his life. Zerah Colburn, a rather shy Vermontian born in 1804, attracted even more attention as a child by solving involved mathematical problems. Taken to London at the age of eight, he gave math professors instantaneous answers to such questions as raising 8 to the 16th power and extracting the cube root of 268,336,125. Another mental marvel, Johann Martin Dase, was born in Hamburg, Germany in 1824. Dase once correctly multiplied together two 100-digit numbers in his head in only nine minutes.

Since there really was nothing unusual about the upbringing of any of these individuals, the simplest explanation is that their abilities were congenital in origin. Through some odd shuffling of the genetic deck, some gene or sequence of genes produced a brain of incredible calculational capability rivaling at least that of early-generation electronic computers. If ETs encouraged the spread of some similar hereditary pattern throughout their own gene pools, their entire population could become a race of arithmetic wizards.

Other aspects of intelligence similarly may be upgraded. One well-known case of fantastic memory was Elijah of Vilna, a Lithuanian rabbi, who during his lifetime read more than two thousand treatises. He could recall any sentence on any page in any book at will, without error, and was unable to forget anything he’d read -- an ability the rabbi regarded as a curse. His memory represented a storage capacity of at least five billion bits of information -- again, a capacity comparable to the large magnetic disk memory units used in modern computers.

It is entirely possible that aliens, by judiciously selecting specific constellations of genes, could arrange to give themselves and their offspring total-recall eidetic memories, fast arithmetic ability, and a host of other genius-level mental qualities.

In a series of experiments, Dr. Allen L. Jacobson of the University of California showed that RNA functions as a carrier of memory in the mammalian brain. Jacobson taught rats and hamsters to retreat into a feeding box at the flash of a light or the sound of a click. The conditioned animals were sacrificed and the RNA carefully extracted from their brains. This material was then injected into untrained animals of the same species, who subsequently proved far easier to train than their predecessors. One unexpected finding was that the transfer of learning worked cross-species: Untrained rats benefited from injections of trained-hamster RNA.

If these results can be confirmed, the implications of such "memory molecules" are staggering. Injected directly into the bloodstream, synthetic viruses consisting of nothing more than a central core of nucleic acid (commonly RNA) surrounded by a sheath of protein could be used to "infect" a brain with knowledge. Remarks one writer:

We would be able to learn French, or algebra, or anything else whose code we knew, by injection. One can imagine education by mass inoculation, or the use of bacteriological warfare techniques for beneficent purposes by spraying entire populations with "good" viruses. The teaching of many subjects would become obsolete).1860

Drs. Alexandre Monnier and Paul Laget, French geneticists, have suggested that these coded forms of knowledge be written directly onto the original genetic specifications. Like the social insects, who carry a plethora of pre-programmed knowledge in their genes, humans of the future or extraterrestrials of other planets might be able to arrange to be "born smart." Each infant could carry the genes to manufacture RNA information equivalent to several university doctoral degrees. Much basic knowledge -- the ability to walk, to speak in many tongues, to swim and dive, to pilot a spacecraft, to perform intricate mathematical calculations using established techniques, to play a piano -- could be incorporated directly into the nucleus of the fertilized egg so that the organism would possess all these abilities without ever having to learn them.

The evolution of physically larger brains by deliberate breeding and selective gene transplantation is another practical option for ETs seeking intelligence amplification. "Is it very rash," asks Dr. Jean Rostand, "to imagine that it would be possible to increase the number of brain cells?" His answer:

A young [human] embryo has already in the cerebral cortex the nine billion pyramidal cells which will condition its mental activity during the whole of its life. This number, which is reached by geometric progression or simple doubling, after 33 divisions of each cell (2, 4, 8, 16, 32, and so on), could in turn be doubled if we succeeded in causing just one more division -- the 34th.2645

Many neurologists remain skeptical of such suggestions, claiming that normal birth would be quite impossible with a head so large. According to Dr. H. Chandler Elliot:

The man of the future was depicted by early fantasy writers with a huge head to house a superbrain; but this picture is discarded by modern sophisticated science fiction as naive and implausible, even for inhabitants of other worlds.90

But as Rostand has pointed out, the supercranial fetus could be produced in an artificial womb. Since the opening could be made as large as required, the impossible-birth consideration is largely irrelevant.

It is impossible to rule out the possibility of genetically amplified, bioneered aliens, possessing memory, mental acuity and speed of thought com parable to some of the finest computers available on Earth today.



16.1.2 Genetic Surgery

"Genetic surgery" is a term used to describe the manipulation of DNA and RNA -- the executive molecules of terrestrial life -- for specific purposes. Many scientists believe that in the near future human biotechnology will be able to "delete undesirable genes, insert others, and mechanically or chemically transform others."92

The methods of genetic surgery will often require the deft insertion of new genes into the nuclei of malfunctioning cells. This is called a "gene transplant," a technique already proven by tests involving human subjects. In one early experiment conducted by Carl Merril, Mark Grier, and John Petriccione at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, specially prepared virus were used to carry DNA into cultured cells taken from people suffering from galactosemia (an enzyme-deficiency disease). After the viruses and the human cells were mixed together in solution and warmed to normal body temperature, the researchers found that the cells had absorbed a gene which had been placed in the virus that was capable of repairing the deficiency. The transplant complete, the cells began to manufacture the previously deficient enzyme in adequate quantities.

In 1970, Dr. Stanfield Rogers, a medical geneticist at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, performed one of the first experiments on human subjects. A group of children had a rather rare genetic disease called Argininemia, a congenital disability to produce an important enzyme called arginase because of defects in the chromosomal DNA. Rogers selected a microorganism called Shope virus which, while harmless to humans, causes the cells it invades to produce an excess of arginase. A few months after the young children were injected with Shope virus, their bodies began producing the needed enzyme -- proof that the viral treatment was beginning to work. The foreign arginase-producing genes had been transplanted into some of the children’s cells.2365

Genetic surgery and transplantation biotechnology may give ETs the ability to regenerate lost limbs or damaged organs. Each cell contains all of the organism’s genetic information, but most of it is suppressed because of specialization as a nerve cell, liver cell, or brain cell. If the expression of these hidden parts of the gene package can be unblocked, new limbs and organs could be grown by stimulating the correct genome sequences at the right locations. Nerves might be regenerated, eyeballs repaired, arms and legs regrown from scratch.

Similar techniques could possible minor modifications in physical appearance -- such as skin or hair color change -- or major modifications in body form such as extra arms, fingers, or special organs. The degree of genetic individuality may be so great among extraterrestrial bioneering races that each organism might represent his own distinct and unique "species."



16.1.3 Genetic Hybrids and Synthetic Genes

Where will participative evolution lead? Eventually ETs, as man, will no longer be satisfied merely with correcting errors and improving upon the old models. Rather, they will have the urge to go nature one better, to create new synthetic organisms for specialized purposes.

Dr. Paul Berg of Stanford University (one of the first scientists to perform "recombinant DNA" experiments) in 1973 mixed together fragments of a bacterial "plasmid" (tiny circlets of DNA imparting resistance to antibiotics) with genes from a virus that produces cancerous virus in monkeys, in a single test tube. These combination virus-plasmids were then allowed to invade normal E. coli bacteria, which soon began churning out viral protein. Using simple gene splicing, Dr. Berg had created a "genetic hybrid" organism -- a cross between a cancer-producing virus and a bacterium -- which had never before existed in nature. The methodology, says Berg, "is simple and can probably be done as a high school science experiment."2365

Since 1973, scientists have used plasmids to introduce mouse and frog DNA into bacterial cells. It appears quite possible to create hybridized plants and animals, beings not found in nature.* It would be, as one participant at the 1976 Asilomar Conference on recombinant research jokingly put it, "like crossing an orange with a duck."

Much as man learned long ago to domesticate and cultivate the lifeforms of his world, sentient bioneering races will learn to exploit the gene as well for their own purposes.

As regards most biochemical substances, mankind is still in the "food gathering" stage. Many needed hormones, such as insulin, must be laboriously collected from scores of individual animal organs. But this situation has begun to change in the last few years. Scientists have succeeded in transplanting a gene for rat insulin into bacterial cells which is reproduced when the cells divide, and it will soon be possible to switch the gene on as well. By cultivating insulin-making DNA, keeping it supplied with the raw materials and energy it needs, hybridized cells can be harvested for hormones much as a farmer reaps a field of wheat.

Along these lines, Drs. Herbert Boyer, Arthur Riggs, and Wylie Vale spliced the gene for somatostatin into the DNA of E. coli bacteria. Somatostatin is a hormone in the brains of mammals that inhibits the secretion of pituitary growth hormone. The hybridized bacteria multiplied and began producing somatostatin in copious quantities. Before, nearly half a million sheep brains were needed to isolate 5 milligrams of somatostatin. Using the E. coli "hormone factory," scientists required only 8 liters of bacterial culture to obtain the same amount.

The key to genetic cultivation is the synthetic gene -- artificial nucleic acid sequences that have never occurred in nature. The first total synthesis of a complete gene starting from scratch was first accomplished by Nobelist Har Gobind Khorana and his team at MIT. The experiment involved the re-creation of a "tyrosine transfer RNA gene" found in E. coli which is 207 nucleotide base pairs in length. While it took the MIT group nearly a decade to do it, they are confident that genes as complex as those of humans (1000-3000 nucleotide base pairs long) will be amenable to synthesis in the next fifty years.2646 It is then a relatively simple step to the production of "unnatural" genes.

With the ability to create artificial genomes with specific desired characteristics, alien bioneers can better exploit the whole animal kingdom. Domesticated beasts with augmented intelligence and specially modified limbs and organs might function as excellent animal servants. Genetically altered horses might be used as intelligent, self-steering, self-feeding, self-cleaning, self-reproducing personal transport vehicles. Arthur C. Clarke points out that something resembling a compact elephant might be preferable in this regard, since it is the only quadruped with sufficient dexterity to carry out delicate handling operations while remaining a quadruped.55 Such animal slaves should be herbivorous because "carnivores are much too expensive to feed and might take a fancy to their riders."

Lesser lifeforms may be pressed into service by ETs. Genetically upgraded birds could be used as aerial messengers and scouts, and would be trained to speak some simple language. Traitor fish could be developed to steer schools of their unsuspecting fellows into the waiting nets of fishermen. Vicious insects, giant crustaceans and monstrous mollusks could be bred as offensive weapons of tactical warfare.

Freeman J. Dyson of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University has suggested the possibility of exotic, genetically-modified artificial mining organisms, trolling the seas of planets for valuable minerals and metals. Says Dyson:

Oysters might extract gold from seawater and secrete golden pearls. A less poetic but more practical possibility is the artificial coral that builds a reef rich in copper or magnesium. Other mining organisms would burrow like earthworms into mud and clay, concentrating in their bodies the ores of aluminum or tin or iron, and excreting the ores in some manner convenient for human harvesting.27

At least one mining company already uses bacteria to help recover copper metal from a variety of low-grade ores.88

The extraterrestrial bioneers may themselves be the subjects of genetic modification. Instead of creating expensive, cumbersome artificial environments to sustain their lives after planetfall, ETs may decide to undergo a change in basic physical form enabling them to survive the natural conditions encountered on each new world. Conforming to the alien environment should facilitate both exploration and first contact, should it occur, with sentient natives.2651

Advanced xenobiotechnology will allow extraterrestrial astronauts to decide which form was most convenient. Should they wish to explore and inhabit Jupiter for a period of time, for example, they could infect themselves with a carefully tailored virus containing modified genetic material. Cells in their bodies would be taken over by the intruders. Some would metamorphose into, say, jovian "gasbag beasts," while the rest would simply die away and be sloughed off like molted skin. Later, the gasbag genes might be replaced with new ones coded to produce a large-chested surface creature capable of breathing the 0.1% oxygen atmosphere of Mars. Finally, their survey completed, the ETs would be returned to their normal spacefaring designs using yet another application of a different transmutation virus -- perhaps a small, agile humanoid form with a dexterous prehensile tail and a high tolerance for conditions of low gravity and sudden atmospheric decompressions.

When first contact with extraterrestrials occurs, we won’t know if the aliens are truly as they appear or rather inhabit genetically doctored bodies. Perhaps those tan-skinned humanoids we just shook hands with are really a race of chlorine breathers with twelve greasy tentacles and porcupine-bristled fur!


* In 1976, researchers at Florida Atlantic University at Boca Baton created the first "interkingdom protoplast" which they call the "plantimal."1617 Joined were a human cell nucleus and a tobacco cell nucleus, and, in another experiment, a human nucleus and a carrot nucleus. Extraterrestrial bioneers may have developed photosynthetic meatlike "blobs" to serve as protein livestock, shapeless amorphs which convert sunlight directly into edible meaty material. Autotrophic animals such as "plant men" similarly may be possible.



16.1.4 Ectogenesis and Cloning

Ectogenesis is the process of "test tube pregnancy" as exemplified by Aldous Huxley’s science fiction classic Brave New World. If an artificial placenta can be designed, complete artificial development of an entire human being will be possible starting only with sperm and egg. As long ago as 1959, a plastic womb designed by Italian surgeon and medical experimentalist Daniele Petrucci carried developing human embryos for nearly two full months. There are recent reports that the first human test tube birth has already taken place,2871 although these are discounted by most reputable scientists.2872

Aside from using ectogenetic techniques to control birth rates or maintain rigid biological castes, aliens might find test tube birth an ideal solution to the problem of interstellar colonization. Instead of keeping adult ET travelers in suspended animation for hundreds of years in transit between stars, compact frozen embryos could be dispatched to the target solar systems. Upon arrival, these ectogenetic astronauts would be fertilized and carried to term in an artificial womb. At birth, cybernetic devices or RNA memory molecules could be used to teach the infants about their culture, their science, and their mission. The starship would then enter orbit around the new world and finally land, the now-adult alien colonists emerging to begin life on foreign soil.

Cloning is a related biotechnology that ETs will probably have. It’s a form of genetic engineering by which many exact duplicates of the original organism may be produced. Except for blood corpuscles, every cell in the mammalian body has identical and complete sets of genes which uniquely specify the entire organism. The nucleus from a human skin cell transplanted into an ovum and carried to term ectogenetically should produce an exact twin of the original donor. In 1969, Dr. John B. Gurdon at Oxford University succeeded in creating countless cloned frogs by transplanting genes from adult frog cells into the nuclei of frogs’ eggs.

Aliens will find many interesting uses for cloning. According to technologist Robert W. Prehoda, a combination of cloning and cryobiology (low-temperature preservation) could permit useful plants and animals to be conveniently transported with interstellar colonizers to make it easier to quickly populate barren planets with the flora and fauna of home.67 Cloning may also allow alien plants and animals to be reproduced in great numbers back on the home world, after interstellar expeditions across the Galaxy return with frozen cell samples of exotic foreign lifeforms. Extraterrestrial bioneers may also clone duplicates of themselves as successors in political office,1947 as standardized military units, or as nonsentient living warehouses for biological spare body parts for organ transplantation operations.



16.2 Immortality

Recalling Medawar’s assertion about human nature cited earlier, can we be as certain that aliens too "would rather be alive than dead"?

Maybe not. Consider the alternative forms of sentience discussed in Chapter 14. Beings with genetic sentience -- "intelligent ants" -- may harbor no desire for personal immortality whatsoever. Since they aren’t aware of their individual selves, they could never sympathize with Ionesco’s very human lament: "Why was I born if it wasn’t forever?" Since the society of these creatures would be virtually immortal, genetic-sentient ETs may have no use for the concept of (effectively) perpetual personal existence.

Similarly, beings with communal sentience (visceral social awareness) may be able to take solace in the comparatively eternal character of society. It may be that the appetite for immortality displayed by many humans is a hunger unique to brain-sentient species. Only among these races must the individual deal with personal death in the absence of any strongly-felt, well-internalized and supportive societal framework.

Of course, even among brain-sentient extraterrestrial species there may be cultural, psychological, or biological reasons why the drive for immortality might be suppressed. Yet the basic survival instinct must be very deeply ingrained in many alien races. This, in concert with a sophisticated biotechnology, provides both motive and opportunity for the development of immortality among extraterrestrial civilizations.


16.2.1 Xenogerontology

Gerontology is the science of physiological aging and death. Modern researchers have concluded that while no single cause of aging exists, it may soon be possible to sharply reduce or eliminate this process in many Earthly animals -- including man. The prospect of such great advancement in human biotechnology raises the presumption that alien gerontologists -- xenogerontologists-can do at least as well.

Death from old age is no more "natural" or inevitable than smallpox or plague. As the twice Nobel laureate Dr. Linus Pauling asserted more than twenty years ago:

Death is unnatural. Theoretically, man is quite immortal. His body tissues replace themselves. He is a self-repairing machine. And yet, he gets old and dies, and the reasons for this are still a mystery.2647

To paraphrase the venerable Seneca: Old age is a curable disease.

The general consensus among gerontologists today is that there exist within humans identifiable "clocks of aging." These clocks are genetically determined programs which dictate when and how fast we shall age and die. Since such mechanisms appear to be rather common throughout the entire animal kingdom, there is good reason to suspect that ETs should possess something functionally similar. While the mystery of aging has not yet been solved, a tripartite theoretical model with three primary "clocks" has begun to emerge.

The first of these is rather simple: Wear and tear. Medawar, one of the earliest scientists to link genetics with aging, has called this the "broken test tube" theory. Say that we start off with 1000 brand new test tubes in a chemical laboratory. Over time, the number of "survivors" would steadily dwindle. Some tubes with factory flaws (birth defects?) would be thrown out first (die?), while others would break from chance accident or hard usage after a number of years. Eventually the entire population of test tubes will have broken in this manner, and we then may plot a "survival curve" of aging and death for the glassware entities. The analogy to the mortality of living beings is inescapable: Wear and tear does us in.

The second clock of aging is called the Hayflick Factor after UCSF researcher Dr. Leonard Hayflick. In 1961, he discovered that young human cells growing in a culture medium could divide only a limited number of times (roughly 50 generations) before all their descendents aged and died. Cells taken from adults divided even fewer times (about 20) before death ensued.

Hayflick then compared the growth cycles of human cells to those taken from other animals. Not surprisingly, tissues taken from nonhuman creatures differed markedly (between species) as to the total number of generations they could produce before dying. It was also found, however, that animals with longer lifespans also had the longest-lived cells. (See Table 16.1.) Hayflick concluded that cell death in all organisms was an expression of aging at the microscopic level. Aging thus appeared to be a built-in genetic limitation to cellular regeneration and growth.


Table 16.1 The Hayflick Factor:

Lifespan and the Number of Cell Divisions



Total Cell Divisions Before Death


2-3 years

12 divisions


20-30 years

25 divisions


70-80 years

50 divisions


150-200 years

90-125 divisions


In the last two decades, Hayflick’s work has been largely verified. Studies of identical twins -- who, like clones, have identical DNA -- show that both individuals generally have about the same lifespan. (This is to be expected if genes control longevity as Hayflick suggests.) In another series of experiments, a number of cultured human cells of various "ages" were placed in cold hibernation at liquid nitrogen temperatures. These were then thawed out, a few at a time, over a period of ten years. Each cell "remembered" its correct "age" and proceeded to divide up to the normal allotment of 50 generations, at which point death set in as usual. In yet another study, nuclei from young cells were transplanted into the protoplasm of old cells. Cells which had already doubled, say, 37 times, which were renucleated with a nucleus from a young cell that had passed through only 10 generations, went on to divide for about 40 more cycles before old age set in.

On the basis of the normal 50 divisions found in human cultured cells, Hayflick calculated that the normal lifespan of man should be about 110-120 years. But we know that only a negligible fraction of the human race ever attains such advanced age. This brings us to the last factor in the tripartite model of aging.

Dr. W. Donner Denckla, a medical researcher at the Roche Institute of Molecular Biology, believes that the third clock of aging is hormonal in nature and resides somewhere in the brain -- most probably in the human endocrine glands. Denckla found, after a detailed study of autopsy data and death records, that most people die because of a failure of one of the two major body systems: The cardiovascular or the immune systems. Death occurs in the former instance from heart stoppage or from an inability of the blood vessels to deliver oxygen and nutrients to vital organs, and in the latter instance from a failure of the body’s immune system to ward off an attack of invading microorganisms.

The thyroid gland, Denckla believes, may be of central importance because its product -- thyroxine -- appears to be the master rate-controlling hormone. Then humans age, they don’t lose the ability to produce thyroxine. Rather, they lose the ability to utilize whatever quantities of the hormone are available.

Denckla suspects that the pituitary may release some kind of blocking hormone -- which he calls the "death hormone" -- that prevents cells from using thyroxine. The diminishing utility of the vital secretion in later life could cause a number of critical imbalances, increased destructive oxidation, chromosomal mutations and heart tissue dysfunction.

Another endocrine gland -- the thymus -- has been implicated in the process of human aging. The thymus is a soft, flattened organ just behind the breast bone in man. Older medical texts say that the function of the gland is unknown, but many modern specialists link it to the production of "T cells" (a variety of lymphocyte or "white cells") under the direction of the pituitary and the hypothalamus.

During life, the thymus changes dramatically in size. At birth it weighs about 12 grams. At puberty it reaches its maximum at 37 grams. Thereafter, it shrinks rapidly until by the age of 40-50 years it has all but disappeared in many people. By age 60 it weighs at most a paltry 6 grams.

According to Dr. Allan Goldstein of the University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston, the level of thymosin -- the secretion of the thymus gland -- falls off with age in direct proportion to the diminishing size of the organ. As the concentrations of thymosin drop, the failure rate of the human immune system rises markedly. Lymphocytes, our "white cells," become increasingly incompetent. They fail to rid the body of hostile pathogens and mistakenly attack the body’s own cells as if they were foreign invaders. As a result, older organisms are vastly more susceptible to a wide range of potentially lethal diseases.

To test his theory, Goldstein has injected thymosin into children afflicted with severe immune-deficiency diseases. The revitalization of the youngsters’ immune systems was dramatic, but more verification is necessary. The next step will be to try to revitalize aging immune systems in adult humans using similar therapy. If these experiments succeed, immune failure as a cause of death could virtually be eliminated.

Regardless of the exact mechanisms of hormonal control, argues Denckla, the control is there. And it would appear to have great survival value. So far as we know, Earthly species evolve naturally only by mutation, a fairly slow process. To speed it up, more parents must be cycled through the system. The faster the turnover rate in the reproducing population, the more variability will be available quickly from the gene pool. Mortality of individuals thus has selective value because, in the words of one writer, "species survival requires a large enough quantity of individuals in any given generation to ensure that a significant number of them will be the beneficiaries of chance mutations that can be passed along, and a short enough lifespan to permit the necessary turnover."2137

According to modern gerontologists, then, aging is "an absolutely fail-safe killing mechanism without which the species would not survive." Under the general tripartite theory (Figure 16.1), three clocks of aging are simultaneously ticking against us. If one stage of the death process is escaped, others remain:

Stage 1 -- Denckla/Goldstein hormonal imbalances occur which cause the cardiovascular and immune systems ultimately to fail. This is the body’s primary self-destruct mechanism. Typical life expectancy: 30-80 years.

Stage 2 -- The Hayflick cellular aging program causes body cells to cease dividing after a fixed number of generations. It is designed to set a second limit in case the Stage 1 hormonal malfunction is ineffective. This is the body’s secondary self-destruct mechanism. Typical life expectancy: 110-120 years.

Stage 3 -- Medawar’s "broken test tube" wear and tear on body structures. Irreversible genetic deterioration or severe accidental trauma eventually cause senescence and death. This is the body’s last line of defense against immortality, a tertiary backup system. Typical life expectancy: ~1000 years.


Figure 16.1 Human Current (upper) and Future (lower) Mortality

STAGE 1 DEATHS: Hormonal imbalance causes failure of cardiovascular G immune systems.
STAGE 2 DEATHS: (Hormone imbalances corrected.) Genetic cellular aging program shuts cells off automatically.
STAGE 3 DEATHS: (Genetic cellular aging program erased.) Accidents and general irreversible deterioration.

While the tripartite aging model may turn out to be correct for mammalian life on Earth, this is no guarantee that beings of other worlds must be designed in the same way. Still, the basic evolutionary concept of the survival value of death for naturally evolving species should be as valid in alien ecologies as it is on this planet. There is no reason to suspect that extraterrestrial aging mechanisms will be any more or less complicated than our own.



16.2.2 The Limits of Immortality

Brain cells do not reproduce and cannot replace themselves once destroyed. Each human possesses ten billion irreplaceable neurons; when some are lost due to concussion, consumption of alcohol or tobacco, or from natural causes, our brains are permanently diminished.

Dr. Harold Brody of the State University of New York at Buffalo attempted to measure the rate of natural attrition of brain cells. While losses range from none at all to very many in various parts of the organ, the approximate brainwide average runs about 100,000 neurons lost per day. At this rate, Brody calculates, the organ should entirely decay away in a period of about 250-350 years.2648 Whether cell loss would actually continue to the vanishing point or would taper off asymptotically is unknown at present.

There are at least three solutions to the so-called "brain barrier" problem. First, genetic engineering could permit each individual to start out with a larger brain. If the ETs have 100 billion neurons -- ten times more than we -- and the same neural attrition rate, senility might not set in for thousands, instead of hundreds, of years. The full millenium of Stage 3 aging would then become available to the aliens.

A second solution is to cause brain cells to regenerate and reproduce them selves as others died. If neuron division could be exactly balanced against cell losses, the brain would remain the same size and theoretically could go on forever. This again will only be found among extraterrestrial races capable of advanced bioneering, since there is no natural selective value in developing complex brain regeneration mechanisms which aid survival only if the organism manages to pass the primary and secondary self-destruct systems of the body. What if aliens did have divisible brain cells? In his book The Immortality Factor, Osborn Segerberg, Jr. writes:

[Brain cells] store our memories, experiences, knowledge and learning as well as operate voluntary and autonomic nervous systems. New brain and nerve cells presumably would "forget" what their predecessors knew. If the [being] survived the neurological havoc, he might not be able to retain his identity. He would forever be turning into someone else.69

Or, as another writer puts it: "That would be the fun of attaining great longevity if the lucky winner couldn't remember what had gone before?"2137

Of course, the counterargument goes like this: We know we lose 100,000 neurons every day. If this causes personality change from day to day, we certainly do not notice it. Why should the random addition of 100,000 neurons every day wreak any more cerebral havoc than their random subtraction? Brain regeneration may be quite possible, after all.

A third solution to the brain barrier problem is simply to prevent neural cells from dying at all, or at least to significantly slow the rate of attrition. We don’t know how to do this yet -- perhaps more robust and wear-resistant cells could be designed -- but alien sentients elsewhere may have already found the answer.

Assuming ETs and earthlings manage to lick the brain barrier problem, then exactly what are the limits to immortality? Saving the organ of sentience doesn’t get us out of the woods yet, because there is still the problem of accidental death associated with Stage 3. Individuals may be hit by a truck, slip in the bathtub, be shot in battle, or die in a plane crash.

Still, the lifespan in Stage 3 may be an order of magnitude greater than in Stage 1 (where humans are now). For example, the death rate in the United States in 1973 was 942 deaths per 100,000 people. The maximum lifespan attainable was about 100 years. If all purely medical deaths were eliminated, leaving only suicide, homicide and accidental causes (fire, drowning, lightning, and other sudden traumas), the death rate would have dropped to 78 cases per 100,000 people. This works out to a maximum attainable lifespan of nearly 1300 years, as shown in Figure 16.1.

Is this the upper limit, then? If accidental causes of death can be eliminated we can get more. But how could this be done? One recent science fiction story proposes the development of a sense of precognition or foreknowledge to enable the creature to anticipate accidents in the near future and avoid them.2650 This accomplished, there should be no further real limits to immortality, save boredom or a brain jammed to capacity with memories like a well-worn palimpsest. Death would occur only as a matter of affirmative, intelligent choice.



16.3 Androids and Cyborgs

As we have seen, there are few limits to the possible accomplishments of alien biotechnologists. But the biological forms which nature has provided are especially well-adapted to a pretechnological planetary environment. ETs may need to design new forms to accomodate the requirements of a fast-paced industrialized technical society. Genetic manipulation might turn out to be a natural prerequisite to man-machine coupling. For example, gene surgery may permit body proportions to be altered to better fit the dimensions of mechanical systems such as computers and starships.

Sentient extraterrestrials thus may turn to synthetic biological or to bionically-augmented designs which possess the desired characteristics of high reliability, great longevity, and which interface more perfectly with various technological aspects of the environment. There are three general classes of such entities: Androids (purely biological), cyborgs (part biological and part mechanical), and robots (purely mechanical).


16.3.1 Androids and Organleggers

Exactly what is an android? There seems to be much confusion on this score even among science fiction writers. Some hold that an android is an automaton in human form; others describe it as a robot that can think. Still others require it to be biological, while a few permit both biological and mechanical "androids." Perhaps the most consistent traditional definition is the one offered by Groff Conklin in 1954: "An android is a living being that has been created partly or wholly through processes other than natural birth."1836

The classic biological android was the fictional Frankenstein monster created by the pen of Mary Shelley -- a living organism assembled in pieces by men. Under the Conklin definition, clones would probably also be regarded as androids. What of nonhumanoid forms? Arthur C. Clarke has coined the word "biot" (short for "biological robot") to refer to all animal androids, nonhuman beasts created by the hand of sentience. Remarks Freeman J. Dyson of the biot:

I would say that when we learn to use these biological techniques ourselves, and to build machines with biological materials, we shall probably be able to create intelligence. I think it will not look like an electronic computer, but rather more like a living organism.1558

Jeremy Bernstein, Professor of Physics at the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey, echoes this sentiment when he states:

The lesson of modern biology is that the distinction between living and nonliving material is almost arbitrary. So it is possible that one would be able to make machines biologically, in test tubes rather than in an electronics factory, and then it will be almost an arbitrary question as to whether one wants to call such objects machines or living animals.1558

Terrestrial organ transplant technology has advanced markedly in the 1970's. As shown in Table 16.2, transplants of virtually every major human organ have been attempted with increasing success.* Furthermore, the art of microsurgery -- essential fine detail work with tissues and capillaries involved in transplantation -- has made fantastic progress. Skilled microsurgeons now suture tiny capillary walls and can reconnect delicate wisps of nerve tissue, working under a microscope with needle and thread smaller than human hair.2882 For more than a decade, Chinese doctors have been replacing severed limbs with great success -- arms, legs, feet and fingers. (Since the thumb accounts for 50% of the efficiency of the hand, microsurgeons can salvage it even when it's smashed beyond repair. One of the patients big toes is transplanted onto the thumb stump. "Close up it looks a little strange," remarked one writer, "but it does the job."2652)

Table 16.2 Human Organ Transplant Biotechnology as of 19762365


Number of Transplant
Operations Performed

Success Rate

Arms, legs, feet, hands, and fingers

many thousands




















Umbilical cord grafts






Where might replacement organs come from? They could be cloned from the patient’s own cells, but this takes time. Another way would be to store donated or pre-cloned organs "on ice" until needed. Scientists at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory have developed a technique which may soon make it possible to store human organs for a century or more before thawing for use in a transplantation procedure.2653

William Gaylin, President of the Institute of Society, Ethics, and the Life Sciences, has proposed the controversial idea of using living cadavers, which he calls "neomorts," for medical experimentation and salvaging body parts. Neomorts -- living, breathing, feeding and excreting organisms -- would nevertheless be legally dead because of the cessation of electrical brain activity (brain death). Gaylin suggests that "bio-emporiums" be maintained using the victims of suicides, homicides and other accidents. Neomorts would serve as body part banks. Organs would be preserved in the still-living bodies, and there would be a regular supply of blood since the living corpses "could be drained regularly."2654

Science fiction writer Larry Niven predicts that widespread demand for donor organs might create a new type of crime which he calls "organlegging." As body parts change from a luxury for the few to a necessity for the many, demand will almost certainly outstrip supply. Niven claims that a black market in illegally-obtained organs would spring into existence, offering disassembled kidnap victims to the local Organ Bank at inflated prices.2020 As man becomes more android, will his crimes become more heinous?

What about brain transplants? About a decade ago, Dr. Robert J. White of the Brain Research Laboratory at Cleveland Metropolitan General Hospital carefully removed the brains of six dogs. Each organ was placed into the cranium of a new canine and connected to its bloodstream. Some animals perished within six hours of the operation, but one survived for two days. During this time, the living transplanted brain produced electrical signals on the electroencephalograph that was monitoring it.1646 Similar experiments have been conducted successfully on monkeys.2656

But to transplant an entire brain and restore it to full capacity, extraterrestrial microsurgeons must be capable of severing and reconnecting countless millions of individual nerve endings in a very brief span of time. This will be a most challenging operation because the neural configurations in the donor brain, much like the uniqueness of fingerprints, will display a complicated pattern that probably won’t match the connections in the recipient’s cranium.

If the whole head is transplanted, however, the cranial nerves continue to function normally.2655 For this reason it has been suggested that aliens may prefer to transfer heads rather than brains. Human scientists have already tried this. In 1957 a Russian surgeon named Vladimer Demikov grafted a second head onto the neck of a dog. The two-headed monstrosity survived nearly a week with apparently "normal" functioning. For instance, when exposed to light and sound both heads responded by trying to bark.2365 Aliens may use similar methods to graft old heads onto freshly-cloned headless neomorts.


* A review of the medical literature available in 1976 fails to produce a single instance of penile transplantation.1621 However, 13 cases of replantation of the traumatically amputated penis are noted, and 10 cases of penile reconstruction are recorded in which a new penis was fashioned from other neighboring tissues. A major impasse to penile transplantation appears to be donor organ procurement.



16.3.2 The Bionic Alien

The word "bionics" describes the science of constructing artificial systems that resemble or have characteristics of living systems. Specifically, the reference is to a device which mimics some natural function of the lifeform or improves upon it. The use of artificial parts in man results in a hybrid entity which has been dubbed a cybernetic organism, or "cyborg." The term was originally applied in astronautics, but now is widely used to describe any creature possessing bionic components -- a being created by joining living flesh with nonliving devices.

Because of the great potential utility of artificial prosthetic equipment, and because the space environment is far more hostile to biology than to bionics, the extraterrestrial cyborg is a very real possibility. A bionic alien undoubtedly will represent a vast physical improvement over the original biological model. He may have better senses -- telescopic or infrared vision, high frequency and hypersensitive hearing, perception of radar or x-rays, acute smell or taste. He may have powerful limbs like Steve Austin of Six Million Dollar Man TV fame, or perhaps the astrocyborg will simply be more flexible and agile than the original -- there’s no premium on raw strength in the weightless conditions of space. He may have bionic blood (a special synthetic formulation based on fluorocarbons which is protein-free and thus generates no immune rejection response) and a bionic beatless heart.

Extraterrestrial cyborgs may possess bionic skin, a tough rubbery silicone material with enormous tensile strength and high resistance to vacuum and radiation. This skin could be photosensitive, absorbing photons and combining them with blood gases and water directly to produce valuable carbohydrates -- a new twist on the "autotrophic man" concept. A step in this direction has been taken by Dr. Joseph J. Katz, a chemist at the Argonne National Laboratory. Katz and his research team have constructed what amounts to a "bionic leaf," a contrivance of metal, glass, plastics and chemicals. The device is designed to produce hydrogen, rather than carbohydrates, from sunlight.2698

And bionic aliens may come equipped with advanced abilities that have no direct biological analogue. For instance, ET astronauts could have a "radiation gland" to warn them of rising radiation levels in the vicinity and to automatically inject protective chemicals directly into the bloodsteam. Aliens may have a direct hookup to their pleasure or sleep centers in the brain, to permit them to while away long hours of waiting without succumbing to acute boredom or depression. Other artificial organs may be implanted which provide radio contact with others, or which monitor internal bodily processes for signs of impending stroke or exhaustion. Appropriate stimulants and energizers could be dumped into the bloodstream during emergency situations.

It is worth taking a brief look at the state of the art in human bionics technology because it's suggestive of just how well aliens may be able to do.

Take, for example, the bionic arm. One artificial limb called the "Utah arm," developed by Stephen Jacobsen at the University of Utah, can flex at the elbow, rotate at the wrist, and manipulate fingerlike attachments capable of holding forks, bottles, or pencils.2659 The bionic arm is fitted to volunteer amputees and controlled through a computer. Using sensors on the subjects’ arm stump, tiny muscular contractions are interpreted and translated into the delicate motions of the artificial limb. Dr. Frank Clippinger, Jr. at Duke University Medical Center have created a similar device with feedback, to impart a sense of feeling and touch.2692

While Steve Austin’s superstrong attachments are mechanically improbable, much progress has been made toward the goal of a bionic arm which performs better than the original. Dr. Vert Mooney at the Rancho Amigos Hospital in California has built a prototype 3½ kilogram artificial arm with self-contained battery pack and motors. Sensors connected to muscles in the forearm allow the device to respond almost as well as the original. It was first used on Reid Hilton, a 24-year-old karate expert from Santa Ana who lost his right arm in an automobile accident. Hilton was able to perform extremely fine movements such as tying shoelaces, as well as the larger motions required in karate. Amazingly, the bionic arm has a grip strength of nearly 20 kilograms, as compared to only 10 kilograms for the average man.2691

Another example is the bionic eye. Opthalmologist William Dobelle of the University of Utah, with the cooperation of blind volunteers, has developed a primitive system for artificial sight. In his experiments, a teflon strip with an array of 64 platinum points is inserted between the two hemispheric halves of the brain, in direct contact with the visual cortex. This grid is wired to external TV cameras through a coaxial cable plug mounted in the subject’s skull.

When electrical stimulation from the lab cameras reaches the patients’ brains, they report seeing flashes of light -- called phosphenes -- which are about the size of a small coin held at arm’s length. Most are red, yellow or white in color. One subject, blinded by a gunshot wound more than a decade ago, said that they resembled small lights "like a time and temperature sign on a bank, or a scoreboard at a football game."2660 This same man has been trained to read in a phosphene-Braille system with 85% accuracy at a rate of six words per minute.

Says Dobelle of the system currently in use: "Our objective is not normal vision. It is low definition black and white -- analogous to the first television pictures sent from the moon by the astronauts. We do not propose to create a reading system. Mobility is more important to the blind than reading." Still, the ultimate objective of the bionic eye project is considerably more ambitious: "We hope to develop a functional artificial eye for the blind, consisting of a small TV camera in a glass eye, a small computer system perhaps built into the frame of a pair of glasses, and an array of electrodes on the visual cortex."2447 Dobelle estimates that the entire system may be on the market in about ten years, and might sell for a few thousand dollars each.2661

The development of artificial replacements for human body parts is one of the fastest growing areas in medical research today. Bionic ears, complete with sound pickup, amplifier, and rechargeable implantable power supply, will be on the market in the early 1980's.2365 Bionic lungs, kidneys, livers and pancreases have been developed with reasonable success. The spare-parts catalog runs into the hundreds, including dentures and artificial jaws, skull plates, bionic joints and bones, orthopedic pins and shanks and spinal disks, bionic tracheae, larynxes, sphincters, tendons, ligaments and muscles.*

If sentient extraterrestrials invest heavily in bionics, the brain/machine interface will become all-important. Much research is now in progress in human laboratories to enable computers to "read minds." Dr. Lawrence Robert Pinneo at Stanford Research Institute, for example, has constructed a "thinking cap" which picks up the subject’s electrical brain wave activity via scalp electrodes, analyses them, and then translates them into action. Pinneo’s volunteers can move dots from side to side on a computerized television screen, or run an object through a video maze, simply by thinking.2365 The executive computer can also recognize words, spoken aloud or silently thought (it makes no difference), by comparing them to prerecorded characteristic brain wave patterns of the particular subject.2662

Dr. Grey Walter at the Burden Neurological Institute in Bristol, England, has devised a similar computer-directed brain reading apparatus which operates as a remote controlled TV channel selector. By sheer force of thought, subjects can cause pictures to change or to hold on a television screen placed before them.92

Speaking at the 1976 annual AAAS Conference, Dr. Adam Reed claimed that within fifty years miniaturized computers implanted under the scalp will be programmed to read and speak the electrochemical language of the human brain. In ten years -- by 1986 -- Reed believes we will have cracked the code the brain uses for information processing. According to one science writer, "once that’s done, information can be fed directly into the brain’s central processing unit without going through peripheral equipment such as eyes and ears. You don’t read a book: the computer literally squirts its contents into your head."2664 To achieve these results, it is estimated that at least 100,000 electrodes/mm2 will be required in the implanted matrix (Figure 16.2).


Figure 16.2 Practical Electronic Telepathy?2699

Wearing the latest in this fall’s, scientific hat fashions is Tom Santoro, a researcher at the California Institute of Technology. Arrays of 30 to 50 scalp electrodes in the hat are designed to measure distribution of nerve activity in the brain that is evoked by visual stimulus. Studies of scalp potentials have shown they are related to certain visual perceptions Hence the brain-wave hat is able to detect what a subject thinks he sees or, in other words, measures the brain’s visual acuity.


Alien cyborgs outfitted with such "biocybernetic links" would be able to plug into modular units containing vast quantities of data in specialized areas. Internal or external storage devices could increase memory capacity by a billionfold. Bionic ETs with computer implants will have access to virtually all knowledge possessed by their civilization -- mathematical, physical, medical, psychological, and cultural. Alternatively, each individual could have an on-line radio link to a mammoth external computer intelligence -- one need only think of some problem, request a solution, and patiently wait for the answer to appear in his thoughts moments later.

Such systems would also make possible a form of practical electronic "telepathy." Messages and other information might be dispatched from one brain to the master computer network, and then relayed on to any other biocybernetically equipped brain. Like telephone conference calls, ETs may be able to link minds together through an electronic medium to confer rapidly and obtain solutions to particularly complicated dynamic problems. And if a generalized, mathematical computer language is used in the external system, this may also provide an ideal channel for interspecies communication when first contact occurs.

Of course, there’s really no need for fragile organic brains to venture out into wild foreign environments. Detachable bionic senses and effectors-called "teleoperators" -- may be sent out to explore strange planetary surfaces while the alien’s flesh-and-blood brain remains safely in geosynchronous orbit high above. If ETs are receiving data via biocybernetic channels, what difference does it make whether the bionic eyeball which is doing the actual seeing is located in the eye socket of the skull or halfway around the planet? Except for minor time delays due to the finite speed of radio wave propagation, perception would be as instantaneous on "local" as on "remote." Alien astrocyborgs may send their eyes, ears, arms and legs wandering through space or across the surface of a world, leaving their minds safely at home.


* Artificial penises and bionic erections are now available, although at considerable cost. Developed as a treatment for physical impotence, the device is made up of two collapsible silicone rubber cylinders placed inside the corpus cave nosum of the male organ. Upon squeezing a tiny pump tucked away behind the scrotum, hydraulic fluid is transferred from an implanted spherical reservoir to the cylinders in the penis, causing the member to become erect.349 This can be maintained for an indefinite period of time, and permits full sensitivity and normal ejaculation. Says neurologist William Bradley, one of the proud developers of the "bionic penis" at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas: "It isn’t like a real erection -- it is a real erection. Enlargement, growth in diameter... it's great!"2365



16.3.3 Enter the Robot? (aka. Uploading)

What about the possibility of totally bionic brains? Might extraterrestrial biotechnologists be able to transfer personality and consciousness into virtually indestructible and immortal bionic bodies? In theory, there are no technical objections to "total prosthesis," as it is sometimes called. Using advanced atomic or molecular electronics, fully synthetic brains which function as well as or better than the originals can easily be imagined. However, one major difficulty is frequently overlooked.

In most schemes, the subject’s brain contents are somehow "read out" and recorded using sophisticated high-capacity computer data storage devices. This data is later played back and imprinted upon the tabula rasa bionic brain. The mortal flesh-and-blood organ is then replaced by the immortal synthetic one in the cyborg body. Upon awakening, it is discovered that the words, thoughts, and behavior of the new entity are indistinguishable from those of the original in every way.

But it is not the original! The cyborg is only a copy. A duplicate person has been created and the original (presumably) destroyed -- its sentience, its self-awareness, its personal consciousness. The new bionic brain, perhaps graced with a blissful continuity of memory, may not be aware of the change at all. But the original self is dead nevertheless. (The author, for one, would hesitate to accept such immortality by proxy.)

This fundamental problem is difficult, but by no means impossible, to resolve. It may turn out to be relatively easy to transfer from a biological to a synthetic brain without any loss of self or interruption of consciousness in the original. Dr. Jonathan Boswell, a nuclear physicist at the University of Virginia, recently gave me one simple example of such a process:

I visualize the process of consciousness transfer as taking many years. First, biocybernetic electrodes would be implanted permanently in the brain of the aging patient. Many of them, so that the data pathways are wide. As the body decays -- let us suppose it first goes blind -- the consciousness inside finds that it can "see" through the cameras of the machine it's connected to. Later, it could hear, touch.... Placed in direct contact with the bionic brain, the two minds would begin to share the thinking function. Ultimately, when the old hulk of the body finally shrivels up and dies, the shared mind lives on without interruption in the synthetic brain.2665

Artificial intelligence expert Hans Moravec has come up with a somewhat more elaborate scheme:

You are in an operating theater, and a brain surgeon (probably a machine) is in attendance. On a table next to yours is a potentially human equivalent computer, dormant now for lack of a program to run. Your skull, but not your brain, is under the influence of a local anaesthetic. You are fully conscious. Your brain case is opened, and the surgeon peers inside. Its attention is directed at a small clump of about 100 neurons somewhere near the surface. It examines, nondestructively, the three dimensional structure and chemical makeup of that clump with neutron tomography, phased array radio encephalography, etc., and derives all the relevant parameters. It then writes a program which can simulate the behavior of the clump as a whole, and starts it running on a small portion of the computer next to you. It then carefully runs very fine wires from the computer to the edges of the neuron assembly, to provide the simulation with the same inputs the neurons are getting. You and it check out the accuracy of the simulation. After you are satisfied, it carefully inserts tiny relays between the edges of the clump and the rest of the brain, and runs another set of wires from the relays to the computer. Initially these simply transmit the clump’s signals through to the brain, but on command they can connect the simulation instead. A button which activates the relays when pressed is placed in your hand. You press it, release it and press it again. There should be no difference. As soon as you are satisfied, the simulation connection is established firmly, and the now unconnected clump of neurons is removed.

The process is repeated over and over for adjoining clumps, until the entire brain has been dealt with. Occasionally several clump simulations are combined into a single equivalent but more efficient pro gram. Though you have not lost consciousness, or even your train of thought, your mind has been removed from the brain and transferred to the machine. A final step is the disconnection of your old sensory and motor system, to be replaced by higher quality ones in your new home. This last part is no different than the installation of functioning artificial arms, legs, pacemakers, kidneys, ears and hearts and eyes being done or contemplated now.3233

Moravec then goes on to point out the many advantages that would become apparent as soon as the process was complete:

Somewhere in your machine is a control labeled "speed." It was initially set to "slow," to enable the simulations to remain synchronized with the rest of your old brain, but now the setting is changed to "fast." You can communicate, react and think at a thousand times your former rate.

Major possibilities stem from the fact that the machine has a port which enables the changing program that is you to be read out, nondestructively, and also permits new portions of the program to be read in. This allows you to conveniently examine, modify, improve and extend yourself in ways currently completely out of the question. Or, your entire program can be copied into a similar machine, resulting in two thinking, feeling versions of you. Or a thousand, if you want. And your mind can be moved to computers better suited for given environments, or simply technologically improved, far more conveniently than the difficult first transfer. The program can also be copied to a dormant information storage medium, such as magnetic tape. In case the machine you inhabit is fatally clobbered, a copy of this kind can be read into an unprogrammed computer, resulting in another you, minus the memories accumulated since the copy was made. By making frequent copies, the concept of personal death could be made virtually meaningless. Another plus is that since the essence of you is an information packet, it can be sent over information channels. Your program can be read out, radioed to the moon, say, and infused there into a waiting computer. This is travel at the speed of light. The copy that is left behind could be shut down until the trip is over, at which time the program representing you with lunar experiences is radioed back, and transferred into the old body. But what if the original were not shut down during the trip? There would then be two separate versions of you, with different memories for the trip interval.

When the organization of the programs making up humans is adequately understood, it should become possible to merge two sets of memories. To avoid confusion, they would be carefully labeled as to which had happened where, just as our current memories are usually labeled with the time of the events they record. This technique opens another vast realm of possibilities. Merging should be possible not only between two versions of the same individual but also between different persons. And there is no particular reason why mergings cannot be selective, involving some of the other person’s memories, and not others. This is a very superior form of communication, in which memories, skills, attitudes and personalities can be rapidly and effectively shared.3233



16.4 Machine Life

Can machines live? Evolve? Think? Many scientists would answer in the negative. Gears, relays, and integrated circuits certainly aren’t alive in the traditional sense. Evolution typically involves reproduction and natural selection, but no Earthly machines are known to reproduce themselves. And, it is said, cold steel cannot cogitate.

From the xenological point of view, however, we’ve already determined that the most useful definition of life involves the concept of negative entropy, or negentropy. That is, to be considered "alive" an entity must (1) feed on negentropy (absorb order from the environment) and (2) store negentropy (create order within itself). The amount of stored information in a living organism determines exactly how alive it is.

Philip Morrison at MIT has taken a first stab at a quantitative analysis of "how much life" is present in any entity of specified complexity. It will be recalled from Chapter 6 that a refrigerator or other similar contemporary machine technically is "alive" by our definition, because it feeds on negentropy and uses this to create internal order. But most machines "alive" today aren’t very alive because they store only miniscule amounts of information at the molecular level. Morrison has shown that patterns imposed on lumps of inert matter will not begin strongly to affect the matter thermodynamically "until the pattern is constructed with molecular fineness."1704 His calculations, summarized in Table 16.3, pertain to an hypothetical black-and-white checkerboard pattern superimposed on a slab of otherwise inert matter.

Table 16.3 Molecular Fineness and the Thermodynamic Significance of Patterns of Information
(modified from Morrison1704)

Nature of the Pattern

Characteristic Size of the Pattern

Contribution of the Pattern to Thermodynamics of Inert Matter
(Relative Intensity of Life)

Macroscopic mechanical pattern

1 centimeter


Visible pattern



Microscopic pattern

1 micron


Electron micrographic pattern

0.1 micron (1000 Angstroms)


X-ray lithographic pattern

100 Angstroms


Molecular pattern

10 Angstroms



We may view the last column of Table 16.3 as representing, in a sense, the intensity of life achieved by an information-laden pattern imposed on inanimate matter, Clearly, the finer the pattern (Figure 16.3), the more "alive" is the entity. By implication, we cannot concede that machines are "very alive" until their components are constructed with molecular fineness. Only then will the information storage in machines be comparable to those found in biological lifeforms.


Figure 16.3 Microstructure in Machine Lifeforms and Biological Lifeforms Inhabiting the Planet Earth

(both photographs)

An x-ray lithograph of a magnetic bubble computer memory device developed by IBM (state-of-the-art, 1977).2700

An electron micrograph of a polygon-shaped bacterial virus, or phage, of a strain designated as "lambda" by microbiologists. The smaller splotches peppering the picture are bacterial ribosomes, the RNA containing protein factories of living cells.2701

The scale in both photos is identical. The average bacteria would fill this entire page if photographed on the same scale.

The need for a biochemistry as a prerequisite of organic life is far less compelling for beings of purely artificial construction. As such creatures perhaps can be modified or repaired simply by replacing modular parts, the only fundamental requirement appears to be Morrison’s "molecular fineness of construction." The distinction between biological and mechanical life be comes quite blurred -- are not machines constructed of iron and silicon with molecular patterns examples of "ferrosilicon-based lifeforms"?


16.4.1 Artificial Intelligence

Intelligence may be broadly defined as any system capable of processing information -- a negentropic ordering process of higher capacity than life itself. It is of critical significance that the actual physical form of the system is of comparatively little importance to what is taking place. The ability to reason -- to think -- is not a property of biological organisms alone. Rather, it is a property of specialized, highly-organized, complex patterns. Whether these patterns find expression in biological, artificial, extraterrestrial or even nonmaterial form is largely irrelevant to the fact of intelligence.

Time does not permit a detailed discussion of the arguments favoring the proposition of intelligent thinking machines. The objections are many, but their refutations are sound.* Projecting the advances in human computer technology over the past century into the century ahead, many leading scientists are now predicting the creation of artificial machine intelligence of extremely high order. And if we can do it, so can ETs.

Many decades ago an English mathematician named Alan Mathison Turing defined a crucial test to prove the existence of machine intelligence.2667,3698 According to the "Turing Test," a computer is intelligent if a man is unable to distinguish it from another human being by talking to it over a teletype communications link. This is the ultimate objective test: If an entity speaks and acts like a man, presumably it is just as intelligent.

To date, no machine on Earth has passed the generalized Turing Test. However, the Test has been passed by computers restricted to limited areas of discourse or to certain well-defined human emotional or psychiatric states.

For instance, in the early 1970’s Dr. Kenneth Mark Colby at Stanford University created a program called PARRY that imitates the verbal behavior of a human paranoid. The system was designed to give psychiatry students useful experience in talking to severely mentally ill patients. PARRY is supposedly 28 years old, unmarried, and a postal clerk. He is sensitive about his looks, education, religion and sex. He once attacked a bookie for not paying a bet at the racetrack, and he’s afraid that the underworld is out to get him. A sample conversation with PARRY follows (his words in capitals):

Are you connected with the Mafia?


How do they know you?


Why do they?


What do they have against you?


What for?


Are you sure of all this?


I am doing my best.




You seem hostile to me.


I am sorry.


Don’t you trust me?


Okay, tell me more about the Mafia.


Can PARRY pass the Turing Test? Forty-eight psychiatrists were given paired transcripts of conversations with the computer and with a genuine human paranoid mental patient. Only half of the doctors could distinguish man from machine. Realizing that psychiatrists might not be able to recognize the subtle cues that might tip off a computer science expert, Dr. Colby sent similar transcripts to a hundred members of the Association for Computing Machinery. Of the 67 respondents, 32 guessed correctly and 35 guessed wrong.2670 On his own, very limited turf, PARRY passed the specialized Turing Test with flying colors.

Besides mimicking human psychoses, computers have been programmed to play intellectual games as well as men. Machines are now World Class checkers players. In 1965, A. L. Samuel estimated that only a dozen of the world’s checkers masters could defeat a program he’d written.2673 Far more challenging, however, is the complex game of chess.

Attempts to devise computer programs to play chess have been underway for decades.2674,2675 In August of 1968, David Levy, then Chess Master of Scotland and later International Master, made a bet of $2100 with several computer scientists that no machine program could beat him at regulation chess within ten years. In the early 1970’s, Lawrence R. Atkin and David J. Slate of the Computation Center at Northwestern University wrote "Chess 4.5." This program held the United States computer chess championship title in 1977.

In the Spring of that year, Levy sat down with Chess 4.5 to play a regulation 40-moves-in-two-hours game. Levy won, but the machine made him work hard for it. Then came the real shocker. After the regular match was concluded, the two contestants played an off-the-record "blitz" game in which each side was allowed only 5 seconds per move. Chess 4.5 won handily.

Experts estimate the official ranking of Chess 4.5 in regulation play to be about 2000-2200 points on the standard scale, as compared to 2325 for Levy and 2690 for the current World Champion. It is believed that in "blitz" chess the computer improves its rating by 200-400 points over human opponents.2676 Thus, in blitz matches at least, Chess 4.5 is already at the grandmaster level.

Earthly computers may be quite clever, but how much can they really understand what is communicated to them? Dr. Terry Winograd at MIT has developed an amazing machine program, named SHRDLU. This complex system was designed for the express purpose of understanding English.2696

Like a small child secluded in a playroom, SHRDLU inhabits a world that includes a toy box, building blocks and pyramids of various sizes colored blue, green, and red. Mechanical arms and mobile camera eyes give SHRDLU the ability to stack or assemble the blocks in any desired configuration on the playroom floor. Most important, the computer responds to commands and gives answers to questions in an intelligent manner.** Extracts from conversations between Winograd and SHRDLU (in capitals) follow.

SHRDLU can understand spatial relationships:

How many blocks are not in the box?


Is at least one of them narrower than the one which I told you to pick up?


Is it supported?


Can the table pick up blocks?


Can a pyramid be supported by a block?


Stack up two pyramids.


SHRDLU can identify its own motives:

Had you touched any pyramid before you put the green one on the little cube?


When did you pick it up?




Why did you do that?


Why did you clear off that cube?


Why did you do that?


Why did you do that?


SHRDLU can assimilate novelty in its environment:

Is there a steeple?


A "steeple" is a stack which contains two green cubes and a pyramid.


Are there any steeples now?


Build one.

{the machine does so}

SHRDLU makes assumptions to help resolve ambiguities in speech:

Call the biggest block "superblock."


Have you picked up superblock since we began?


Is there anything to the right of the red pyramid?


Why did you drop it?


Can Winograd’s program really think? Is it truly intelligent? We aren’t permitted to dismiss SHRDLU solely because it's "just a computer." The Turing Test for machine intelligence is an objective one: If the entity appears to be thinking, Turing maintained, it is pointless to deny that it is thinking.

Although SHRDLU passes the Test only in a limited way, recent developments in the artificial intelligence field have clearly demonstrated that computers can be taught to interpret meanings by the same processes that humans use.2851 Dr. A.M. Andrew, cyberneticist at the University of Reading, England, predicts:

Turing’s test will be passed…with no restrictions on topics of conversation or manner of reply by the year 2000 A.D. However, even then the computer will seem like a person behaving rather stiffly and refusing to be drawn into small talk. Perhaps by 2050 A.D. a computer will seem to be someone with whom a joke can be shared, and with whom the conversant identifies to the extent that it becomes important not to hurt the other’s feelings.2707

It appears not only possible but probable that many different sentient extraterrestrial races will develop advanced artificial intelligences. It is not yet clear exactly how complex these systems must be. Dr. Marvin Minsky of the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory claims that 106 bits would probably be enough to create true intellect -- provided they "were all in the right place."22 Winograd’s program has about this many -- a million bits -- and the spunky Viking Mars Lander computers carried preprogrammed instructions amounting to a few million bits. In the animal world, this would correspond roughly to the intelligence level of amphibians such as frogs. Says Minsky of Winograd’s SHRDLU:

We see here a computer program that has a small but noticeable fraction of the intelligence of humans. The fraction is somewhere between 10-6 and 10-1. I cannot conceive that it would take 1012 bits {mammal and primate brains) to hold a superintelligent being.22

Some scientists believe that intellect is the direct consequence of the enormous intricacy of interactions among ten billion active neural components. Experiments performed by Dr. S.A. Kauffman at MIT in 1961 lend some support to this notion. Kauffman wanted to know what would happen if a large number of arbitrary computer components -- "electronic gates" -- were connected to each other at random, with inputs and outputs linked higgledy-piggledy throughout the network. With 100 units, one might suppose that approximately 2100 (or 1030) different states would be possible, thus rendering the system totally unpredictable. But Kauffman discovered that for a 100-element network there are rarely more than ten distinct cycles of about ten transitions each.2678 This result has since been confirmed by others,1785 and demonstrates that intelligence may be a necessary adjunct to complexity.

If alien electronic artificial intellect is possible, how physically small might it be? The theoretical lower limit of cell size is about 400 Angstrom, a bit smaller than the tiniest known living organism (the PPLO). A brain with 1010 neurons of this size would neatly fill a minute cube one-tenth millimeter on a side.

But artificially designed alien microbrains theoretically could be vastly smaller still. Using molecular electronics with components on the order of 10 Angstrom in size, 1010 microneurons could be packed into a space of a few microns. This is small enough to hide inside a bacterium, a fact which may have several very interesting consequences.2873 Also, if a brain the size of the head of a pin were constructed, it could house as many as ten million times as many neurons as a single human brain. Alternatively, an intelligent space probe the size of a grapefruit might carry a "city" of billions of advanced cybernetic intellects.


Table 16.4 Energy Consumption and Efficiency of Natural and Artificial Data-Processing Devices



per Unit

Binary Acts
per Second

Energy Expended
per Binary Act




(Relative Efficiency)

Vacuum tube



6 x 10-5 joules/bit

TTL Semiconductor Gate



1 x 10-11 joules/bit

Human Neuron

3 x10-9


3 x 10-12 joules/bit

Experimental Superconducting
Josephson Junction Gate



3 x 10-18 joules/bit

Theoretical Minimum at 3 K

3 x10-9


3 x 10-23 joules/bit


The great late Princeton mathematician von Neumann once calculated the power consumption of brains designed with maximum efficiency, using thermodynamic criteria.1726 There is a certain minimum amount of energy that must be expended to accomplish a single "binary act," or simple decision, within a brain. In Table 16.4, this value is compared both with human biological neurons and with a variety of modern electronic devices. The relative efficiency of artificial devices is just now passing that of the biological ones, here on Earth, but terrestrial technology clearly still has a long way to go.

Intelligent alien robots may have more closely approached, or already achieved, the ultimate thermodynamic limit of cerebral efficiency.


* Cynics and the otherwise unconvinced are referred to Armer,957 Clarke,55,81 Cosma,896 George,952 McCarthy,85 Michie,953 Puccetti,71,977 Putnam,1803 Raphael,2687 Rose,583 Sagan,318,2552 Turing,955 and Wesley.1717

** The system, while not perfect, is capable of carrying on a real-time discourse. Analysis of and response to each sentence requires from 5-20 seconds.175



16.4.2 Robots and Robotics

Robots are now on the human scene in all but their most advanced forms. One writer has observed that "robots are at about the same stage as electronic calculators about a decade ago.... Specialists in the field suggest that ten years from now robots will be as common as calculators are today."2681 The word "robot" itself comes from a 1920 play written by the late Czech author Karel Capek entitled Rossum’s Universal Robots. In this early science fiction tale of the future, sentient robots revolt against human-enforced slavery and conquer the world themselves.

One of the first writers with the courage to portray intelligent mechanical beings as benign, or at least indifferent, was Dr. Isaac Asimov. His well-known Three Laws of Robotics -- intended to be incorporated into the basic psychology of every sentient machine -- were designed to prevent a revolt against biological creators such as was envisioned by Capek:

First Law


A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

Second Law


A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

Third Law


A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.2682

While these rules may guide human planners, there is no guarantee that extraterrestrial robots will obey the Three Laws or any similar failsafe system. ETs may choose to give their automatons considerably greater freedom of action, especially if they are the products of "total prosthesis" (biological consciousness transferral). Mechanicals from other worlds designed to perform military, emergency rescue, or political functions may require considerably more autonomy than Asimov’s Laws would permit.

Terrestrial robotics technology is actually fairly advanced in the area of physical locomotion (Figure 16.4). Human roboticists at Stanford Research Institute (SRI) have constructed an computer-directed automaton with wheels, two retractible arms, and a television camera mounted in its "head." The device, nicknamed "Shakey," is free to roam about a room strewn with objects of various shapes and sizes. The SRI robot can be programmed to perform specific lifting, moving and stacking operations. (E.g., "Pick up the smallest cube and take it to the doorway."1779)


Figure 16.4 Humanoid Robot-Building Technology: Terrestrial State-of-the-Art

Century I

Century I is a 2-meter, 300-kilogram (7-foot, 650-pound) bullet-proof automated security guard. The $75,000 robot was unveiled at the 1977 annual seminar of the American Society for Industrial Security.

The humanoid’s sensors detect movement, body heat, or noise and lock onto the source. At speeds up to 30 kph (20 mph), Century I closes on its quarry. When it gets within about 3 meters, it orally instructs the intruder to halt with an imperious voice.

If disobeyed, the robot gets tough. Standard equipment includes an ultrasonic sound transmitter that causes extreme pain in the inner ear. A blinding strobe light, an electronic pistol that shoots powerful shocks, and a spray gun filled with laughing gas are also available. While admitting that Century I could be programmed to kill, Anthony J. Reichelt of Quasar Industries Inc. (Rutherford, N.J.) added that his firm plans to use only "nonlethal restraint" in its machines.

Quasar is also developing a $125,000 Century II robot for the U.S. Army. "Once he’s put on program," explained inventor Reichelt in regard to the improved model, "nobody can stop him."2702


Another product of Quasar Industries, Klatu is seen as a possible prototype for the first "domestic android." At 1 meters tall and 80 kilograms (5 feet, 180 pounds), the robot reputedly may be programmed to accept a wide variety of household chores.

According to Reichelt, president of Quasar, Klatu can: Vacuum floors, greet guests and take their coats, serve drinks and dinner, guard the house, walk the dog, clear dishes from the table, wash windows, speak "intelligently" with a 250-word vocabulary, and play nursemaid to the children and the bedridden. Robotologists and other experts in the scientific community are skeptical.

The price -- a cool $4000.2703


Grade school students at Public School 106 in the Bronx receive instruction from a robot substitute teacher. The picturesque 1-meter, 90-kilogram (5'5", 200-pound) automaton with black plastic arms and legs was created by Dr. Michael Freeman for only $1000. (The legs are motorized, but the robot is chained to a table for security.)

The humanoid’s brain is a computer, made partly from components cannibalized from an RCA Spectra 70. Leachim has memorized parts of Compton’s Encyclopaedia, Webster’s New World Dictionary, a Ginn science book, a thesaurus and a Macmillan reading series, as well as the national anthem, the Pledge of Allegiance, Aesop’s fables, a round of jokes, a few words in Spanish, and detailed biographical and educational information for each student.2693

The Russian automated lunar rover Lunakhod is a mobile eight-wheeled robot with TV camera eyes, able to navigate the surface of the Moon. Soviet scientists also are developing a spider-like surface exploratory vehicle that will be able to cross obstacles impassable by wheeled or caterpillar-tracked machines. This device, now under development at the Leningrad Institute of Aviation Instrument Makers, has six legs, a computer "brain," and a laser eye that scans ahead for trouble.1138 It reportedly can negotiate steep slopes, stairs, narrow corridors with sharp turns, and landscapes littered with stones or fallen trees.2694

Mechanical "feeding" has also been accomplished. Robots have been designed that are capable of searching for "food" and thus of maintaining their own active existence. Dr. W. Grey Walter designed a small electronic turtle in his laboratory in Bristol, England, decades ago. Dubbed Machina speculatrix by its creator, Walter’s "machine lifeforms" each consisted of two tiny radio tubes, a photoelectric cell and a touch sensor, motors for crawling and steering, and a light bulb for "speaking," all hooked up to a miniature 6-volt storage battery.1783

Each robot exhibited various interesting behaviors. When the battery ran low, the turtle was programmed to hunt for its "hutch" where it could plug in and recharge.* When placed in front of a mirror, the device displays a primitive form of self-recognition. An encounter between two mechanical creatures is described by Walter thus: "Each, attracted by the light the other carries, extinguishes its own source of attraction, so the two systems become involved in a mutual oscillation, leading finally to a stately retreat."2106 Later models were equipped with microphones so they could respond to whistles. More complicated circuitry allowed more variable behavior as well as the ability to "learn."60 With a behavior repertoire attributable to no more than 1000 bits, the intelligence of Machina speculatrix probably rivals that of the rotifer.

The purpose behind Walter’s work was to demonstrate that quite simple machines could fairly well mimic the goal-seeking ability of animals. All the major attributes of life on Earth -- feeding, metabolizing, mobility, response to stimuli and so forth -- can and have been designed into various machines built by humans.1782 We’ve seen that emotions and intellect can be impressed upon artificial structures. There appear to be no real limits to the complexity of organization and behavior that might be displayed by alien robots. Indeed, extraterrestrial automata may even have the ability to reproduce.85,956

Von Neumann demonstrated during the 1940’s that self-reproducing machines are quite possible in principle.1726 Basically, the problem is to find the proper parts and to know how to put them together. Von Neumann envisioned a machine that could move around in a special stockroom, selecting the pieces required to build another machine exactly like itself -- and then doing so. Such a device necessarily consists of two parts: One part to build a duplicate copy, and another part able to program the duplicate so it can make more copies too. (This is analogous to the distinction between phenotype and genotype in biology.2364) According to one computer scientist, such a reproducing system could be as small as 150,000 bits of information.1737 <Note added: A general review of kinematic self-replicating machines was published by the author in 2004 and is available online at>

A large population of such organisms would constitute an ecology. They will evolve. Wrote von Neumann:

If there is a change in the description. . . the system will produce, not itself, but a modification of itself. Whether the next generation can produce anything or not depends on where the change is. So, while this system is exceedingly primitive, it has the trait of an inheritable mutation, even to the point that a mutation made at random is most probably lethal, but may be nonlethal and inheritable.1726

Sentient alien automata thus may be "alive" both in the popular as well as the technical sense.


* Anyone interested in building such a device should consult Huber’s article "Free Roving Machine," which contains specifications and circuit diagrams for a similar system.1784 A more ambitious design for a "mechanical pet" may be found in Heiserman’s Build Your Own Working Robot.2683



16.4.3 Machine Evolution

Tools have been used on Earth for many millions of years. Baboons use handy sticks to pry up tasty roots and grubs. Thorns are used by birds to probe for insects. Wasp and bee hives are splendid examples of architectural perfection. But each of these represent a static technology. Only with the advent of higher intelligence, the mind of man, could tools -- machines -- really begin to improve and evolve.

This is not to say that machine evolution must occur among all sentient extraterrestrial races. Consider the well-known Van Loon’s Law, which states: "The amount of mechanical development will always be in inverse ratio to the number of slaves at a country’s disposal."972 The more slaves that are available to do drudge work, the slower machines will evolve.

The ancient Greeks, with a population of only five million freemen as against twelve million slaves, neither needed nor invented any startlingly new labor-saving contrivances. The Romans, too, developed no power engines and made few significant improvements in machines or tools. It is said that the emperor Vespasian, when offered a mechanical device with which to cheapen construction work, bought the only model and had it destroyed.

Still, we may expect that many ET races will develop machines because they make the business of survival and reproduction easier. Barring technological stasis, three distinct classes of machine evolution may be clearly identified: Directed Evolution, Participative Evolution, and Natural Evolution. Directed Evolution is mechanical development authorized, planned and executed wholly under the direction of sentient biological lifeforms. As organic beings successively design, build, and test improved models of labor saving or data-processing devices, these machines "evolve."

The term is not inappropriate in this context. In the 20th century on Earth we have witnessed the explosive evolution of the automobile, airplane, radio, and digital computer. Each year new models come out. Improvements are added, troublesome parts deleted or modified. The least versatile or desirable machines become extinct, while the more adaptive ones survive and spawn new generations. The evolution of terrestrial machines, directed by man, is a fact. Elsewhere there must be machines evolving under the guidance of alien minds.

Directed Evolution proceeds much faster than normal biological evolution. In just 1000 years, the tools of man have advanced from axe and shovel to Saturn V moon rockets and 95-ton caterpillar earthmovers. This represents an increase in raw physical power of from four to six orders of magnitude over bare human muscle. Yet Nature required 10-100 million years to achieve comparable results, when giant dinosaurs evolved from their weaker ancestors during the Mesozoic. Another example: It has taken 300 years for human stablemen to create a diminutive breed of horse that bears remarkable similarity to ancient Eohippus. The partial unraveling of 30 million years of natural evolution in only 300 years of directed evolution is again a factor of about five orders of magnitude.

As a rough guess, then, we might suppose that Directed Evolution may be anywhere from 104-105 times faster than natural evolution. Marvin Minsky claims it might be as much as a million times faster. This is, he says, be cause a sentient race "can combine separate improvements directly, where nature depends upon fortuitous events of recombination."92

If Directed Evolution is fast, Participative Evolution must be even faster. Participative Evolution occurs when the sentient biological race turns over its executive functions to an artificial intellect. Further mechanical evolution then occurs at the behest and under the direction of an intelligent computer sentience. We have already seen the benefits of participative evolution in connection with genetic engineering, as when man takes control of his own evolutionary development. Once flesh-and-blood creators abdicate their directive role, machines will participate in their own evolution.

Dr. N.S. Sutherland, Professor of Experimental Psychology at the University of Sussex, believes it will be easier to engineer a superintelligent machine lifeform than to breed a more powerful biological one. If this turns out to be correct, alien civilizations may experience what some writers have termed an "intelligence explosion" -- a chain reaction of rapidly increasing intellectual capacity and mental sophistication.1174 Computers on any world, claims Dr. Sutherland, could rapidly "bootstrap themselves on the experience of previous computers" to create advanced artificial intelligence almost instantaneously on evolutionary timescales. Such machines may quite literally lie beyond the comprehension of any biological being.

Participative Evolution should provide the fastest means for improvement available to any race, mechanical or biological. As in Directed Evolution, superior characteristics are accumulated by each successive generation. But since the executive intelligence is also improving by leaps and bounds, the rate of evolution actually accelerates.

We can estimate how fast this will be. In the last century man has begun to use his computers to design new machines as well as other computers. Total memory capacity of terrestrial artificial intelligences has gone from a few thousand bits of information up into the ten terabit range (1013 bits).583 A similar ten-billionfold rise in biological brain capacity -- from primitive animals to man -- has required on the order of one billion years of natural evolution on Earth. So we might guess that Participative Evolution proceeds perhaps 106-107 times faster than Natural Evolution, or about 100 times faster than Directed Evolution.

All of the above is not to imply that technologically advanced extraterrestrial civilizations must all be robotic, androidic, or bionic. There may be cultural taboos, mineral shortages, or fundamental biological reasons for the lack or slower pace of machine evolution on any given world. ETs may vary widely in their motivational structures, or may be so adaptive or immortal that they have no need for machines.

Still, we must remain alert to the possibility of advanced alien automata in the context of culture contact. For many extraterrestrial races, and perhaps our own, James Wesley’s prediction may prove chillingly accurate:

In terms of the 4½ billion years of carbon-based life on Earth, the advent of machines has been amazingly abrupt. Yet the evolution of machines is subject to the same laws as the evolution of ordinary carbon-based life. Machines have also evolved toward an increased biomass, increased ecological efficiency, maximal reproduction rate, proliferation of species, motility and a longer life span. Machines, being a form of life, are in competition with carbon-based life. Machines will make carbon-based life extinct.1717

Natural Evolution is the third and slowest alternative for the emergence of machine life on other planets. In this case, automata evolve slowly under the forces of natural selection in an environment favoring their development. The main problem is finding the right environment.

Poul Anderson, a well-known science fiction writer, has concocted an imaginative scenario that would readily permit natural robot evolution. In his story "Epilogue," human space travelers return to Earth after a hiatus of three billion years because of unusual relativity effects. They discover to their horror that Earth has been rendered sterile by global war. The planetary ecology is wrecked beyond repair; mankind died out when biology disintegrated around it. The spacemen descend to the surface for one last farewell look, and discover that the planet is teeming with life: Machine life.

"Robot evolution," Frederika said. "After man was gone, the machines that were left began to evolve."

"Before the Traveler departed, self-reproducing machines were already in existence. Each had electronic templates which bore full information on its own design. I expect that hard radiation would affect them, as it affects an organic gene. The {floating sea-mining robot) rafts started making imperfect duplicates. Most were badly designed and foundered. Some, though, had advantages. For instance, they stopped going to shore and hanging about for decades waiting to be unloaded. Eventually some raft was made which had the first primitive ability to get metal from a richer source than the ocean: namely, from other rafts. Through hundreds of millions of years, an ecology developed. The land was reconquered. Wholly new types of machine proliferated.982

Machines with the ability to mine and reproduce may be turned loose on purpose by their alien biological creators. Evolving on the home planet or on some foreign world, these automata would quickly radiate into a multiplicity of machine species under the influence of normal selective forces. However, there may exist environments which don’t require any initial "pump priming" by a biological race. There might be a few locales in the Galaxy where machine life of some form can arise spontaneously much as carbon-based life did on Earth many eons ago.

Electromechanical life may be able to evolve on jovian worlds or at the surface of black dwarf stars. The chemistry of substances at very high pressures is well understood.1177 Many insulators become conductors at pressures above 105 atm. Experiments with metallic hydrogen -- believed to constitute the core of Jupiter -- show that there is a sharp transition in electrical resistivity from 108 down to 102 ohms between 1-3 million atm pressure.2684 Diamond, silicon dioxide (sand), and other common materials have been crushed into the metallic state around 106 atm. Semiconductors such as silicon and germanium collapse into a tin-like material and become electrical conductors under high pressure.

Since different materials conduct differently, an ordered regime of metallized substances may become functional as a kind of primitive electronic intelligence. Evolution of such lifeforms could be possible at or near the Jovian core. Note that this environment will strongly favor machine life over carbon life. Sugar and most other carbohydrates become violently unstable above 50,000 atm, decomposing explosively to carbon dioxide and water.1177 Another possibility is that beings elsewhere may have evolved with superconductive brains. Polymeric sulfur nitride has been shown to be superconductive a low temperatures, and strands of this or related materials may comprise the nervous systems of low temperature creatures on other worlds.

But extreme coldness may not be required at all. A room temperature solution of the enzyme lysozyme, when subjected to magnetic fields in excess of 600 gauss, apparently exhibits distinct regions of superconductivity.2686 And other substances are known to be unidirectional conductors -- a kind of one-dimensional metal. They may have the conductivity of copper in one direction yet are excellent insulators in the other two. According to V.L. Ginzburg of the Lebedev Physical Institute in Moscow; "It is not science fiction to assume that evolution on some other planet, evolution by the methods and materials we know, has given rise to superconducting organisms."22

Still another possible site for the spontaneous natural evolution of machine life might be the surface of a hot planet about the size of Mars at the orbit of Mercury. V.A. Firsoff claims that such a world could not hold on to an Earthly atmosphere for long and would soon shed all lighter gases. All gaseous components with molecular weight less than 30 would be lost. This results in a high-molecular-weight atmosphere, rich in hydrogen sulfide and, perhaps, such oddities as diborane, silane, and carbon disulfide. One planetary solvent, available in limited quantities, might be a form of phosphorus sulfide. P4S3 is the most stable of these.352

A porous surface and a network of caves are cooked in scalding sunlight. There is no oxygen, so free silicon is available at the surface in amorphous form.2192 Planetary rotation, coupled with temperature and pressure gradients, give rise to violent gales of variable composition. By day, the hot phosphorus-and arsenic-laden winds whistle through the surface caves which hide the layers of free silicon, "doping" it with excess electrons. At night the cooler boron-rich atmosphere "drifts" the substrate with electron holes.

Arbitrarily fine photosensitized patterns slowly crawl across the cave floors and walls as the sun passes overhead, due to the changing angles of intense solar radiation filtering through the porous ceiling. Countless random channels of N-doped and P-doped material are slowly carved over the millennia. Caves located near coastlines or on lakeside beaches are periodically flushed with rain and rising tides. Complex electronic "circuits" eventually arise.

Photosensitive spots permit this "intelligence" to see. A piezoelectric crystal formation gives it a limited sense of touch. Contact with sunlight generates solar power.2813,2815 After much time has passed, the intelligence manages to establish "an immense number of dipoles along a polymer thread with regularly spaced charged groups along it" to form a sheet of contractile polymer.2685 (Drops in current across a cell membrane are thought to be able to move certain molecules in the membrane. It’s believed that sodium-ion-driven currents help bring about limb regeneration in salamanders and other small amphibians.) Current passed along its length causes it to contract. After sufficient effort, manipulatory appendages emerge. The geographically-dispersed sentience sets itself the task of constructing a more complex, compact, and mobile physical form.

Eons old, a grey-skinned bloodless humanoid lifts its sensors to the night sky and beholds the glory of a billion suns.

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