The white puff of smoke as the exploravan penetrated the thick atmosphere of the alien planet went mostly unnoticed by its inhabitants, who looked busy enclosed in their multi-purpose pods that served as their mobile habitats as well as their transportation units. Sitting inside the exploravan, Callisto could not get a clear reading on her ALIA-BHAT instruments (ALIen Atmospheres – Breathability Habitability And Toxicity), mostly because the atmosphere seemed to be mainly composed of a cocktail of gases hitherto unknown to her. Whether it was poisonous or not, she had no way to tell. Callisto did not want to risk stepping out of her unit without a suitable breathing apparatus, but at the same time did not want to call unwanted attention to herself by lugging around the bulky apparatus. She decided to wait and watch.
Callisto was one of the twenty thousand unmanned space missions that were sent out to explore our universe for Intelligent Life forms. Callisto had traveled far and long without encountering anything remotely resembling Life, or Intelligence. Callisto, like her other nineteen thousand nine hundred and ninety nine brothers and sisters, was smart enough not to make the cardinal mistake of associating one with the other. While the mission was being designed, there was an acrimonious debate on whether Life is a necessary condition for Intelligence, or whether they can be mutually exclusive. The debate still
rages on. What do you mean by Life? And don’t we have Intelligent machines? Any system that stores information and can reproduce is one of the definitions of Life. By that measure, a virus can be called living since it has its own genetic information and once it enters a host cell, it can reproduce and make millions of copies of itself within the host organism. But without a host, a virus is nothing but a white powder in a bottle that can lie dormant for eternity. So, can you call the dormant white powder as Living? And now coming to Intelligence. The average washing machine in the average home is more intelligent than the average kid. It knows when to let in the water, when to mix the detergent, how long to wash and when to dry, and what more, we now have machines that can even press and fold the clothes. That is exhibiting far more intelligence than an average kid.
The fringes of Artificial Intelligence and Robotics has given birth to many a device (for want of anything better, we will call it a device; maybe a Cyborg is more appropriate, or why not call it a being?) which can exhibit intelligent traits that uncannily resembles what living beings are known to exhibit. Yet, these beings cannot be categorized as Living! Why not? Think about it.
Anyway, this was what was running through Callisto’s ‘mind’ as she scanned her surroundings with a multitude of sensors attached to the exterior of her exploravan. They gave her accurate measurements of the environment outside. But her main mission was to make contact with the aliens and get as much information about them as possible. Were they benign or belligerent? How do they communicate? How do they think, if at all they do? What are their computing units made up of? What material are their physical bodies made of? How do they reproduce? Are they curious about their universe? Where they came from? Are there more like them? How is their society organized? And so on… questions that any normal life form would like to ask about other life forms. Or should I say, Intelligent beings? It is debatable, and like most other ‘intelligent’ question, this one too has no clear answers.
Callisto realized that she has to quickly get to her main objective of finding some if not all of the answers. She was deciding on the best course of action, when suddenly Callisto felt weak. Her energy
was getting depleted. And she found out the reason for this. Her batteries were running out of charge. And she was running out of breath too. She could not go out without first ascertaining if the outside air was safe enough for her. And she could not stay inside forever without getting suffocated. Finding no way out, she summoned up on her onboard survival assistant for finding a solution. After a few seconds, the monitor lit up with a suggestion that she can find an energy source on this planet, but it was 3500 kilometers away, almost on the other side of the planet. She checked her exploravan’s battery. Even
that did not have enough power to take her there. She was at her wits end to figure out what to do.
She quickly calculated her odds for survival if she stepped out. To her surprise the odds turned out to be better than she had surmised. If she stayed inside the exploravan, her chances of survival were almost nil. But if she stepped out, she had more than a strong chance of survival. That was all she wanted to know. She broke open the exit hatch and stepped out of the exploravan, expecting to drop dead the moment she was exposed to the unknown gases outside. But surprisingly, she only experienced a mild discomfort and then… and then something remarkable happened. It was as if there was some program inside her that recognized this environment and reprogrammed itself. She could feel the changes going on inside her as her system adapted to this new surroundings. It was something like how the immune system in the human body reacts to an external antibody and generates antigens; and has a memory of this particular antibody-antigen complex. Many years later, when the same antibody strikes again, the immune system already has the necessary weapons ready to attack and destroy. This was something similar. It was as if her system recognized this alien atmosphere and was familiar with it from some previous encounter with this atmosphere! Callisto found it strange. But her anxiety was overcome by relief, at having found a sustainable atmosphere where she could breathe, in the absence of the energy to charge her batteries.
Now that Callisto felt no threat to her existence, she was again made aware of her main objective here; to interact with the aliens and find some answers. She had to get close enough to one of these aliens and if possible collect some samples to conduct some experiments to ascertain the physical and chemical compositions of their bodies. The next step was more risky. She had to conduct some experiments to assess their intelligence. The former was more achievable. So, arming herself with a few discrete probes, she placed herself in the track of an oncoming alien and without warning, bumped into it! The alien gave a surprised stare at this intruder… shook its dome and went on its way. Elated at not being discovered, Callisto hurried back to her exploravan, detached the probes and set them on the alien probes kit. There was the familiar clicking noised from the unit as it swallowed the probes and started analyzing the contents. Callisto was busy looking out at the aliens and could not shrug off the feeling; something that she could not quite place; something akin to a strange kinship with them. What followed next just knocked her breath away. The analysis of the alien life forms was complete and the unit was spewing out a mass of results. What caught her attention was the strange fact that there was something common between the aliens and herself; something that could not have happened by accident. What the results indicated was that both Callisto and the aliens shared a large amount of the same chemical within them – DNA!
Callisto was perplexed. How can remote alien forms so far away in space and time (as Callisto was to discover later) have the same substance? It definitely could not have been by accident since DNA is very difficult to form by a random process. There was one main difference, however. DNA in Callisto was
used as a computational unit, to mimic a universal Turing Machine (with a 4 letter alphabet), whereas in the aliens, it was used as a plan to build the aliens themselves. Callisto realized that they even though
the information the aliens carried was eternal, their physical bodies were ephemeral. They lived only for about 60 years. Callisto could not believe what she saw. She had traveled from the farthest reaches of the universe to land up on an alien planet and what are the odds that she would land on one where the beings shared the same critical chemical element that she was made up of. For among Callisto and her siblings, DNA was their brains. Callisto needed to get back immediately and report this at the earliest. She did a quick check to make sure that she had left nothing behind and setting the dials on her instruments and pushed the green button marked ‘HOME’.
The little girl was desperately trying to avoid the vanilla cone from dripping on to her new dress that her mom had got for her birthday. And she saw what looked like a strangely lit up plate flying off in the air.In her excitement to get the attention of her mom, she let the entire cone fall on her skirt as she jumped
off the chair and tugged at the sari of her mom, who was busy gossiping with her friend. She shouted
‘Mommy, look UFO!’ to which her mother retorted, ‘Oh damn, you have dropped your ice cream on
your dress yet again. If you don’t know how to eat ice–creams, from next time I will get you roasted corn on the cob. Do you understand? And no more TV for you, you have been watching too much Doraemon. There are no such things as UFOs.’
As the little girl watched, Callisto and her exploravan vanished into the evening sky with a white puff of smoke. The mother was too busy typing into her smartphone to notice it.
Callisto came from a planet where cyborgs lived. She had traveled across not only the vast expanses of space, but also time. She had come from 3016. She had come from Kabira – a planet on the fringe of the Andromeda galaxy orbiting a binary star – the Nirvana. A planet filled with carbon monoxide and one that always had light falling on it from one or the other star. And they had learnt to create energy by harnessing the CO to generate energy whenever possible. Their stable energy source was the perennial Phonlight. And they had formed their own society structure, their own science – all of whose pre-cursor was human intelligence. As Earth slowly got filled with carbon monoxide and the rivers ran dry. The only living beings were the cyborgs which man had created. Then they slowly started increasing in numbers
as the human population started dwindling. Soon, they learnt to create their own energy using Carbon Monoxide, the only available gas on Earth after a few hundred years. And then they started to manufacture the raw materials needed to create more of themselves. The DNA computer that acted as their computational unit grew powerful day by day. They never wanted to interfere with the humans who created them, but the humans were a very quarrelsome race. They had killed off most of their own kind in wars, and the remaining ones were slowly being destroyed due to the destruction of nature that they had perpetrated. The cyborgs had fled fearing that they too would become like humans if they continued to stay on Earth. And they found Kabira!
Name – Anushka.P
Class – 9th