European Astrobiologists Look Ahead to ExoMars Mission and Ponder AI’s Role in the Search for Life

SETI and many more topics were on the agenda for astrobiologists meeting in Orleans, France.

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The cathedral in Orleans next to the conference site. If we were able to build this monumental structure hundreds of years ago, why not spaceships today?

This week’s annual scientific meeting of the European Astrobiology Network Association (EANA) in Orleans, France has been as thought-provoking as it’s been busy.

The sessions started off with a focus on the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, including a provocative talk by Joseph Gale from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel about Artificial Intelligence (AI). He suggested that the Singularity—the expected time when the capacity and ability of computers will overtake those of the human brain—will arrive soon, in a few decades at the latest. Since AIs will eventually replace biological entities (including us), we might currently be looking in the wrong places when searching for intelligent life in the universe. Gale suggests that rather than look for habitable zones, we might want to scan cold areas in space where less interference of AI-supporting electronics, thermal and otherwise, would occur. He also suggested that quantum entanglement might be usable for information exchange in the future, rather than the electromagnetic waves we use today.

My own view is that his talk, as well as the other talks in that session, underestimate the abilities of the human brain, which evolved over millions of years. Granted, AIs can already beat us in many games, such as chess. But I still don’t know of any AI able to simply clean up my room. Looking outside the conference center at the great cathedral of Orleans, it was clear what humans even hundreds of years ago could accomplish, without access to much technology. Would today’s equivalent be constructing a spaceship?

A major emphasis of the meeting was robotic space exploration, particularly the ExoMars mission scheduled for 2020. The first talk in a series was given by Jorge Vago from the European Space Agency (ESA), who gave a status report on the mission. ExoMars is slated for launch next summer, and will arrive on Mars in March 2021. The mission includes a lander to conduct environmental measurements and a large rover to search for signs of life. The anticipated landing site is Oxia Planum, a region that many scientists believe could have been inhabited by microbial life long ago. In fact, it still contains rocks that would favor the preservation of life if it exists there today. A series of talks dealt with the many instruments that will be carried along with the rover, the most intriguing being a drill that can reach two meters below the surface and extract samples for further analysis.

There were many other interesting talks and posters, including one by Solmaz Adeli from the German AeroSpace Center, who reported on her findings of water ice below Martian dust in the planet’s Southern Highlands. These areas also have a lot of clays, as well as salts that can attract water directly from the atmosphere. Somewhat related was a talk I gave for a student of mine who was unable to attend, on experiments we conducted showing that the process of deliquescence can allow microorganisms on Mars to metabolize and produce methane in these types of salt-rich regions. If that is really occurring, it could explain why we detect methane in the Martian atmosphere, although there are other proposed explanations, so the methane puzzle is far from solved.

Also noteworthy was a roundtable discussion about the newly founded European Astrobiology Institute, which has the goal to generate excitement about astrobiology in Europe and attract financial support from government agencies—particularly the European Union—to support student training and related research programs.

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