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Meeting the Alien: Experimenting with Post-Biological forms of Life


The study of technical processes, particularly those at work in robotics and artificial intelligence, offers an original way for thinking about the encounter with extraterrestrials. By mimicking vital or social processes, the technical objects produced in the field of robotics and artificial intelligence aim to understand what life could be. But by failing most of the time to achieve natural interactions, they create a context for an uncanny form of communication and thus confront humans to some sort of post-biological aliens. This issue find surprising resonances with recent elements in the search for intelligent extraterrestrial life. A theoretical physicist like Freeman Dyson or astronomers like Nikolai Kardashev, Carl Sagan or more recently Steven J. Dick brought many theoretical inputs to think about intelligent forms a life outer space. If the evolution of matter inexorably leads to the appearance of life in the universe, and if intelligence is a common phenomenon resulting from a cultural evolution, techniques used to capture the energy of a star (Dyson, 1960; Kardashev, 1964) or to emit radio signals in space (Sagan, 1973) would appear to be a sign of the existence of intelligent extraterrestrial civilizations. With the advent of artificial intelligence, such techno-signatures are no longer the only focus in the search for intelligent civilizations. As astronomer Steven J. Dick suggests, we may live in a universe in which biological intelligences have largely been replaced by artificial intelligences (Dick, 2009). This recent development provides a surprising opportunity to design and experiment with technical devices that could serve as analogues in order to answer the question: what would happen if we were to encounter one of these non-biological beings? Although cultural and social anthropologists have shown that human civilizations do not follow a linear path from archaism to AI, and despite the obvious anthropocentric bias that such a premise would imply, Human-Machine Interaction would appear to be an experimental way of approaching human-aliens encounters. As forms of limit biologies (Helmreich, 2011) involving uncanny sort of interactions (Mori, 1970; Becker, 2015), robots, AIs and automatons simulate life while also exciting the imagination. As such, they proceed to insert the other, the elsewhere, in the familiar universe (Vernant, 1985:341). They thus contribute to address classic anthropological concerns with familiarizing the exotic and exoticizing the familiar (Palsson, 2017; Praet & Salazar, 2017). I will present three interdisciplinary experiments done within the field of human-robot interaction. The first involves a humanoid robot in the exhibition space of the quai Branly museum in Paris. The second involves a robotic lamp and address issues related to non-verbal communication and human inferences. And finally, the last consist in the design of a multi-agent system based on machine-learning, imitation and communication based on vibration. I will conclude on a critical note about human-extraterrestrial communication methods.
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hal-03798216 , version 1 (05-10-2022)


  • HAL Id : hal-03798216 , version 1


Joffrey Becker. Meeting the Alien: Experimenting with Post-Biological forms of Life. Ethnographies of Outer Space: Methodological Opportunities and Experiments, University of Trento, Department of Sociology and Social Research, Sep 2022, Trento, Italy. ⟨hal-03798216⟩
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