Extraterrestrials & the Digital Universe -Von Neumann & Edward Teller


I’ve been reading George Dyson’s Turing’s Cathedral lately & today I read something interesting about intelligent life & computers from the age of John von Neumann & Edward Teller, which I’d like to share [1]:

Von Neumann rarely discussed extraterrestrial life or extraterrestrial intelligence; terrestrial life and intelligence were puzzling enough.

…”There is every reason to believe that any planet on which a large variety of molecules can reproduce by interconnected (or symbiotic) autocatalytic reactions, may see the formation of organisms with the same properties.” One of these properties, independent of the local conditions, might be the development of the Universal Machine.
Over long distances, it is expensive to transport structures, and in expensive to transmit sequences. Turing machines, which by definition are structures that can be encoded as sequences, are already propagating themselves, locally, at the speed of light.

…Those best able to survive the passage of time, adapt to changing environments, and migrate across interstellar distances will become the most widespread. A life form that assumes digital representation, for all or part of its life cycle, will be able to travel at the speed of light. As artificial intelligence pioneer Marvin Minsky observed on a visit to Soviet Armenia in 1970, “Instead of sending a picture of a cat, there is one area in which you can send the cat itself.” [p.290]

The host planet would have to not only build radio telescopes and be actively listening for coded sequences, but also grant computational resources to signals if and when they arrived. The SET@home network now links some five million terrestrial computers to a growing array of radio telescopes, delivering a collective 500 teraflops of fast Fourier transforms representing a cumulative two million years of processing time. Not a word (or even a picture) so far -as far as we know. [p.291]

In a discussion with Edward Teller, the authors quotes Teller:

 “…If there is life in the universe, the form of life that will prove to be most successful at propagating itself will be digital life; it will adopt a form that is independent of the local chemistry, and migrate from one place to another as an electromagnetic signal, as long as there’s a digital world -a civilization that has discovered the Universal Turing Machine- for it to colonize when it gets there. [p.292]