AI will find aliens before us – but wont try to kill us yet, says NASA chief

AI is now so important to space exploration that it is likely to discover alien life before we humans do – but luckily, machines are unlikely to betray astronauts any time soon.

That's according to the head of AI at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Dr Steve Chien, who helps steer some of NASA's major artificial intelligence programmes both on Earth and on Mars.

In an exclusive interview with the Daily Star, Dr Chien explained that AI – often known as 'machine learning' – has become completely integral to NASA missions.

This is because AI enables NASA scientists to analyse huge amounts of data quickly and understand 'unusual events' in space.

"NASA generates vast amounts of data, and we use machine learning to try and pull out subtle signatures and look for unusual events in these large datasets," Dr Chien says.

AI can automatically sift through things like satellite imagery and narrow down the most interesting parts of these cosmic events, which could be anything from supernovas to deadly meteorites.

It passes these onto humans for further analysis – but often, it's the AI that will spot these anomalies first.

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AI will find potential alien life first, but it will be a 'team discovery'

If an AI did discover signs of extra-terrestrial life first, it would take human analysis to confirm its existence in a process Dr Chien calls "intelligence amplification".

"Would it go to [AI] before humans? I would say almost certainly yes, but I would consider it a joint discovery," he says.

"The pre-screening happens with artificial intelligence. If we're getting 500,000 images down per night, there's no way humans could look at all of it. But the machine learning [AI] narrows it down to fifty per night. Then the humans can look at those fifty."

"So if we see that signature and it turns out that we can eventually determine that it is an extraterrestrial life signature, is it the machine learning that did the discovery or is it the humans? I would consider a team discovery."

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As part of one project over the last five years, NASA has even used AI to analyse mysterious radio signals from deep space and try to understand their origin.

"That's always a fun thing, because there are some people who think that these are some signs of an alien civilization reaching out to us," said Dr Chien.

"All I would say on that, because, you know, I'm not an astrobiologist, is that it is an explanation, and I don't think we can rule it out."

"But is it the most likely explanation? That would not be the consensus of the science community."

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AI means humans won't need to 'call the plumber' on Mars

While the likes of Elon Musk and SpaceX haven't quite landed anyone on Mars just yet, AI has been playing an important role in Mars missions for some years and is likely to be central to any Mars colonisation efforts in future.

"We absolutely have to have AI if we're going to send humans to Mars," argues Dr Chien. "The reason is that, when you go someplace in space, you have to bring this huge infrastructure with you in order to ensure the people survive."

The International Space Station, for example, has five to eight astronauts on it at any one time, and they are completely reliant on a huge supply chain of food, fuel, and support systems.

Every time something goes wrong, the ISS can be assisted from Earth thanks to being in constant communication with mission control.

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But Dr Chien says this won't be possible on Mars due to its distance from Earth.

"You can't really do that on Mars, because you're not going to have the same kind of communications," he says. "You can pretty much send something there roughly every two years, it's not like doing launches every few weeks to the Space Station."

He believes AI will have a vital role to play in ensuring a Mars colony stays functioning, allowing astronauts to focus on the "intellectual" tasks of exploration and research.

"If you think about your house, whenever something breaks, you have to call in the plumber or the electrician or whoever," says Dr Chien. "There's no such person like that on Mars. So it's very important that these things take care of themselves"

He adds: "The whole point of sending astronauts to Mars is to allow them to explore. We can't spend all this money and all these resources to get astronauts to Mars, just to have them fixing things and tinkering with the refrigerator."

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Humans will be reliant on AI once we get to Mars – but it will help us stay up there for longer

As part of his day job, Dr Chien helps oversee AI systems that power the Perseverance rover, including its navigation system, a 'targeting' system that can search for samples, and even the kit that helps Mars rovers travel across rough terrain.

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He believes colonising Mars will involve sending a small team of human astronauts who are supported by these AI-powered rovers that can scout around the red planet, send back pictures, and ask astronauts if they want to investigate further.

However, we don't have to worry about these rovers or AI systems turning on humans while they're on Mars

"I would say that kind of scenario is very far off in the distant future. It's more likely the opposite situation would occur. If you didn't have the AI, it would be so much harder to maintain things on Mars and it would be much less tenable for humans. With AI, you could certainly be able to operate a habitat for much longer."

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