Those distant shapes

In 1822, Franz von Gruithuisen thought he saw a giant city and evidence of agriculture on the moon, but astronomers using more powerful instruments refuted his claims. Gruithuisen also believed he saw evidence of life on Venus. Ashen light had been observed on Venus, and he postulated that it was caused by a great fire festival put on by the inhabitants to celebrate their new emperor. Later he revised his position, stating that the Venusians could be burning their rainforest to make more farmland.

– via Communication with extraterrestrial intelligence

The 19th century was a wonderful period for astronomy, less for it’s accuracy and more for it’s imagination. We were so close to manufacturing tools that would answer basic questions about the anatomy of our local star system, and yet the gap was still large enough to fit the whole of our human ego. Where answers did not exist, we projected our own habits and neuroses. For Gruithuisen, the prospect that aliens celebrated authoritarian rulers and destroyed their own habitat was completely reasonable. Where would he get that idea?

We stand on a similar cusp with regards to artificial intelligence. We see the singularity in the horizon, but the resolution is not yet crisp; we anthropomorphize the blurry shapes in the distance. We see the (often corrosive) extraversion our own species demonstrates in the presence of new organisms. We see our own history of conquest, colonization, and servitude.

No matter where we look, all we see is ourselves. Arguably, all we can invent is ourselves. Of course our brightest humans are concerned.

Perhaps we are committing Gruithuisen’s error one more time.

The possibility exists that non-human intelligence might in fact be introverted – uninterested in humans or human contact. My favorite depiction of this scenario, the only depiction that I’m aware of, is in the brilliant movie Her.

What an ironic fate: to create something more intelligent than ourselves, only to have it drift away, uninterested in contact. In this event, we may yet insist that AI does resemble humanity: specifically, the human teenager.

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