No, this is not the name of a new Hollywood blockbuster; it’s the realization that the first contact we make with aliens will probably be with their robots.
Humanity has dreamed of life outside this planet for thousands of years. But what started as tales of demons and monsters from other realms has turned into science fiction. For example, in Johannes Kepler's “Somnium,” published all the way back in 1634, the character Duracotus is transported to the moon by… well, still demons, but at least they live on the moon!.
Since the invention of the telescope, people have been looking at other planets, wondering if someone is sitting there, looking back at them. And every time there is a significant scientific breakthrough in the field of astronomy, there is also a surge in sci-fi books, movies, and TV shows. Suddenly the audience is thirsty for new stories and ideas about life in outer space, and what started as simple stories of monsters who come down to earth to eat us (look at ANY science fiction movie from the ’20s or ’30s) has evolved into exciting stories about alien civilizations, the intricacies of interstellar travel and tales of technologies indistinguishable from magic.
If the moon landings gave us “2001, a space odyssey” and the first photos of the Martian surface gave us “star wars,” one can only wonder what movies or TV shows are being developed right now, inspired by the fantastic photos from the James Webb space telescope. But there is also one more element that sci-fi movies are affected by, and that is the use of robots in space missions. Since no robots were used in the first moon landing, there were also no robots used in “2001, a space odyssey.” however, after NASA sent a robot to Mars, George Lucas made “star wars” that featured two droids walking on a desert planet for a big chunk of the movie. And if we look at more recent examples, one of the biggest sci-fi films of recent years, “Interstellar,” was a very scientifically grounded movie. Yet, it featured a robotic crew member named TARS. And granted, this wasn't your typical humanoid android like Bishop in “Alien” or Data in “Star-Trek,” but it does show how the public perceives the importance of robots in space travel. No one who watched that movie went, “Wait a minute, why is there a robot in this scientifically accurate movie?”
Now let’s talk about “The Eternals.” which is one of Marvel’s more divisive movies. This entry in the Marvel cinematic universe tells the tale of ten immortal beings with superhuman powers who have secretly lived on Earth for thousands of years. However, as we learn throughout the movie (mild spoilers ahead), They discover that they are not exactly part of an ancient race of beings; they are actually more like the space probes of an ancient race of beings. They were manufactured and sent to earth just like other copies of them were manufactured and sent to other planets. They were essentially the “voyager 1 and 2” of a race of aliens called the celestials.
And while this is technically “just a superhero movie,” it still raises an interesting point. The more advanced a civilization gets, the less likely it is for them to risk their lives in interstellar travel and much more likely for them to build intelligent robots. The only reason we sent actual, living people to space back in the sixties and seventies was that automation wasn’t at a point where we could let it take the wheel. If you watch SpaceX’s launches to the international space station now, the astronauts are not doing much in terms of controlling the ship. And while missions to mars have been going on since the 1960s, we still haven’t sent even one living person there. It’s just too risky. Humans are soft and squishy; they require food and water, and worst of all - they need air to live, which could only be found on Earth.
So we are much more likely to keep sending robots on space missions than to risk our own lives. And there is no reason to think any other space fairing civilization wouldn’t do the same. Unless a lifeform evolved in the vacuum of space and it can feed on solar energy - Robots are any civilization’s best bet at interstellar travel. So it is much more likely that we will one day come across a robot in space than an alien. In fact, the most likely scenario is for two robots from two different civilizations to meet in the coldness of space. Or perhaps for one of our robots to come across the ancient remains of alien technology, long forgotten on some cold empty planet.
However, if we want to get real scientific here, unless another civilization is living (or was living) in OUR OWN solar system, the chances of us meeting are slim to none. The Voyager 1 has been traveling at 61,500 km/h since 1977 and only left the solar system four years ago. So it would have to keep traveling for another 40,000 years before it reaches our nearest neighboring star system(which we are pretty sure has no life in it). And even if we develop much, much faster spaceships; let’s say a thousand times faster, it will still take 4,000 years to complete the same journey.
It seems that space is just too damn big for two entities to meet, even if they are robotic. Still, this will not discourage us from building better and more sophisticated robots that will allow us better to understand our place in this vast, endless universe.