UK science minister Malcolm Wicks met yesterday with leading British astronomers in a London gathering whose subject was life in the universe. The researchers, drawn from UK universities and research institutes, proved quite optimistic about the chances of intelligent life elsewhere. An article in this morning’s Guardian quotes Glenn White, head of astrophysics at the Open University: “You can be pretty sure that if there’s life out there, we’ve a good chance of being able to say so.”

White’s optimism doubtless stems from his work on the Darwin project. The mission, scheduled for a 2015 launch, will deploy a set of telescopes to look for terrestrial worlds around other stars. And although the technology is still in the development stage, the hope is that Darwin’s capabilities will extend to conducting spectral analyses on the most interesting planets it finds. That makes detecting biomarkers like large amounts of oxygen along with methane or nitrous oxide a real possibility.

Of the seven scientists who met with Wicks, six believe life exists elsewhere, with one holding out for humans as the only intelligent beings in the universe. The latter vote was cast by astrophysicist Michael Perryman (European Space Agency), who also noted that “If there’s intelligent life out there, they sure as hell know we’re here,” a reference to stray radio signals from our planet that have penetrated perhaps as far as 80 light years into space. My thought on that is that the signal strength of old Jack Benny shows may be too low to justify the claim.

Meanwhile, Reuters reports on the SETI Institute’s plan to put 42 radio telescope dishes (the Allen Telescope Array) online 24 hours a day by the end of this year. Here again the notion is that stray radio signals may be detectable even at these extreme ranges. Says the Institute’s Scott Hubbard: “You don’t have to have somebody who is planning to broadcast a signal. You hope to pick up somebody’s old radio broadcast that left a different planet hundreds or thousands of years ago.”

Maybe, but a re-thinking of SETI’s core principles has been ongoing for some time now, one focusing less on radio and more on the various other ways an advanced civilization might communicate. As George Dvorsky notes in this interesting post on his Sentient Developments blog, the radio ‘window’ may already be closing here on Earth as we move away from the old broadcast model. What other forms of communication might an alien civilization use, and are there ways we might detect their signals?

For that matter, are there megascale engineering projects we might detect long before the reception of a radio signal? Dvorsky discusses all this in the context of the Singularity hypothesis and what civilizations on the other side of it may do that would make their presence known. My guess is that we’ll have hard data from Darwin or other planet-finder missions before we have a SETI detection of any kind. That data will tell us we’re looking at a living world, but whether its biomarkers flag high technology or single-cell organisms may take a long time to deduce.

And if we do find a megascale engineering project one day, let’s hope it doesn’t house a civilization that has, in the words of evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller, disappeared up its own brainstem. Miller talks about the pleasure principle trumping the reality principle (what exactly goes on inside those matrioshka brains anyway)? It’s an alluring, perhaps deadly prospect:

This is the Great Temptation for any technological species — to shape their subjective reality to provide the cues of survival and reproductive success without the substance. Most bright alien species probably go extinct gradually, allocating more time and resources to their pleasures, and less to their children.

And again:

Technology is fairly good at controlling external reality to promote our real biological fitness, but it’s even better at delivering fake fitness — subjective cues of survival and reproduction, without the real-world effects. Fresh organic fruit juice costs so much more than nutrition-free soda. Having real friends is so much more effort than watching Friends on TV. Actually colonizing the galaxy would be so much harder than pretending to have done it when filming Star Wars or Serenity.

Thus Miller’s answer to the Fermi Paradox — SETI won’t work because alien civilizations are all addicted to computer games and runaway consumerism. Why even attempt communication with actual beings (who are in any case quite difficult to reach and perhaps impossible to understand), when you can create a virtual reality that’s so much more malleable and responsive to your needs? That’s a dark view indeed, but we’ve a long way to go before drawing any serious conclusions about Fermi’s ‘Where are they?’ question. And in the meantime, we have near-term planet finder missions to fly and biomarkers to detect.