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Wrestling with METI

If we were to send a message to an extraterrestrial civilization and make contact, should we assume it would be significantly more advanced than us? The odds say yes, and the thinking goes like this: We are young enough that we have only been using radio for a century or so. How likely is it that we would reach a civilization that has been using such technologies for an even shorter period of time? As assumptions go, this one seems sensible enough.

But let’s follow it up. In an interesting piece in the New York Times Magazine, Steven Johnson makes the case this way: Given the age of the universe, almost 14 billion years, that means it would have taken 13,999,999,900 years before radio communications became a factor here on Earth. Now let’s imagine a civilization that deviates from our own timeline of development by just one tenth of one percent. If they are more advanced than us, they will have been using technologies like radio and its successors for 14 million years.

Assumptions can be tricky. We make them because we have no hard data on any civilization outside our own. About this one, we might ask: Why should there be any universal ‘timeline’ of development? Are there ‘plateaus’ when the steep upward climb of technological change goes flat? Soon we have grounds for an ever deeper debate. What constitutes civilization? What constitutes intelligence, and is it necessarily beneficial, or a path toward extinction?

Image: The Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, from which a message was broadcast to the globular cluster M13 in 1974.

Airing out the METI Debate

I want to commend Johnson’s piece, which is titled “Greetings, E.T. (Please Don’t Murder Us.” As you can fathom from the title, the author is looking at our possible encounter with alien civilizations in terms not of detection but of contact, and that means we’re talking METI — Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence. What I like about Johnson’s treatment is that he goes out of his way to talk to both sides of a debate known more for its acrimony than its enlightenment. Civility counts, because both sides of the METI issue need to listen to each other. And the enemies of civilized discussion are arrogance and facile assertion.

It was Martin Ryle, then Astronomer Royal of Britain, who launched the first salvo in the METI debate in response to the Arecibo message of 1974, asking the International Astronomical Union to denounce the sending of messages to the stars. In the forty years since, about a dozen intentional messages have been sent. The transmissions of Alexander Zaitsev from Evpatoria are well known among Centauri Dreams readers (see the archives). Douglas Vakoch now leads a group called METI that plans to broadcast a series of messages beginning in 2018. The Breakthrough Listen initiative has also announced a plan to design the kind of messages with which we might communicate with an extraterrestrial civilization.

All of this will be familiar turf for Centauri Dreams readers, but Johnson’s essay is a good refresher in basic concepts and a primer for those still uninitiated. He’s certainly right that the explosion of exoplanet discovery has materially fed into the question of when we might detect ETI and how we could communicate with it. It has also raised questions of considerable significance about the Drake Equation; specifically, about the provocative term L, meant to represent the lifespan of a technological civilization.

Johnson runs through the Fermi question — Where are they? — by way of pointing to L’s increasing significance. After all, when Frank Drake drew up the famous equation and presented it at a 1961 meeting at Green Bank (the site of his Project Ozma searches), no one knew of a single planet beyond our Solar System. Now we’re learning not just how frequently they occur but how often we’re likely to find planets in the habitable zone around their stars. The numbers may still be rough, but they’re substantial. There are billions of habitable zone planets in the galaxy, so the likelihood of success for SETI would seem to rise.

And if we continue to observe no other civilizations? The L factor may be telling us that there is a cap to the success of intelligent life, a filter ahead of us in our development through which we may not pass, whether it be artificial intelligence or nuclear weaponry or nanotechnology. METI’s critics thus worry about planet-wide annihilation, and wonder if a limiting factor for L, at least for some civilizations, might be interactions with other, more advanced cultures. Far better for our own prospects if the ‘filter’ is behind us, perhaps in abiogenesis itself.

Hasn’t our own civilization already announced its presence, not just through an expanding wavefront of old TV and radio shows but also through the activity of our planetary radars, and the chemistry of our atmosphere? After all, even at our level of technology, we’re closing in on the ability to study the atmospheres of Earth-class planets around other stars. If this is the case, are we simply being watched from afar because we’re just one of many civilizations, and perhaps not one worth communicating with? METI proponents will argue that this is another reason to send a message: Announce that, at long last, we are ready to talk.

The counter-argument runs like this: A deliberately targeted message is a far different thing than the detection of life-signs on a distant planet. The targeted message is a wake-up call, saying that we are intent on reaching the civilizations around us and are beginning the process. Passive signal leakage is one thing; targeting a specific star implies an active level of interest. And the problem is, we have no way of knowing how an alien culture might respond.

Procedures for Consensus

In his article, Johnson is well served by the interviews he conducted with with Frank Drake (anti-METI, but largely because he would prefer to see METI funding applied to conventional SETI); METI proponent and former SETI scientist Vakoch; anti-METI spokesman and author David Brin; and anthropologist Kathryn Denning, who supports broad consultation on METI. Johnson does an admirable job in summarizing the key questions, one of which is this: If we are dealing with technologies whose use has huge consequences, do individuals and small groups have the right to decide when and how these technologies should be used?

I think Johnson hits the right note on this matter:

Wrestling with the METI question suggests, to me at least, that the one invention human society needs is more conceptual than technological: We need to define a special class of decisions that potentially create extinction-level risk. New technologies (like superintelligent computers) or interventions (like METI) that pose even the slightest risk of causing human extinction would require some novel form of global oversight. And part of that process would entail establishing, as Denning suggests, some measure of risk tolerance on a planetary level. If we don’t, then by default the gamblers will always set the agenda, and the rest of us will have to live with the consequences of their wagers.

Easier said than done, of course. How does global oversight work? And how can we bring about a discussion that legitimately represents the interests of humanity at large?

Consultation also meets an invariable response: You can talk all you want, but someone is going to do it anyway. In fact, various groups already have. In any case, when have you ever heard of human beings turning their back on technological developments? For that matter, how often have we deliberately chosen not to interact with another society? Johnson adds:

But maybe it’s time that humans learned how to make that kind of choice. This turns out to be one of the surprising gifts of the METI debate, whichever side you happen to take. Thinking hard about what kinds of civilization we might be able to talk to ends up making us think even harder about what kind of civilization we want to be ourselves.

The METI debate is robust and sometimes surprising because of what doesn’t get said. Under the frequent assumption that human civilization is debased, we assume an older culture will invariably have surmounted its own challenges to become enlightened and altruistic. Possibly so, but without data, how can we know that other civilizations may not be more or less like ourselves, in having the capacity for great achievement as well as the predatory instincts that can cause them to turn on themselves and on others? Is there a way of living with expansive technologies while remaining a flawed and striving culture that can still make huge mistakes?

We can’t know the characteristics of any civilization without data, which is why a robust SETI effort remains so crucial. As for METI, I’ll be publishing tomorrow a response to Johnson’s article from a group of METI’s chief opponents exploring these and other points.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Gary Wilson July 20, 2017, 13:43

    I’m betting the closest intelligent species that we can establish some form of communication with are quite far away. And it is highly likely they are at an entirely different point in their technological development. The Drake equation suggests that, given the size of the galaxy and the number of factors in the equation. I think that means we won’t be finding each other. We will find life out there, that seems obvious. But intelligent life at a point in their development that matches our own closely enough that we can establish a line of communication? Highly unlikely.

    • ajay July 21, 2017, 8:53

      “But intelligent life at a point in their development that matches our own closely enough that we can establish a line of communication? Highly unlikely.”

      Why should a more advanced civilisation be unable to communicate with a less advanced one? Yes, OK, they won’t be using the same means as us routinely. But, assuming they pick up a human radio signal, why wouldn’t they be able to respond?

      • Wojciech J July 22, 2017, 6:04

        “Why should a more advanced civilisation be unable to communicate with a less advanced one”
        Because they won’t be advanced by 1000 years, or 2000 years. But by 20,000,000 years in very optimistic scenario. Make it 1 or 2 billion in realistic one.
        Now, do you talk to Ginkgo biloba trees about anti-matter propulsion ?

  • Gary Wilson July 20, 2017, 13:46

    Finding intelligent life that are similar enough in their current level of technological development and close enough that we can find each other seems highly unlikely. I believe the probability is astronomically small. It is worth thinking about and then implementing a plan however. Excellent article again Paul.

  • Antonio July 20, 2017, 13:48

    “Douglas Vakoch now leads a group called METI that plans to broadcast a series of messages beginning in 2018.”

    Nice! The best news in a looong time.

    “The counter-argument runs like this: A deliberately targeted message is a far different thing than the detection of life-signs on a distant planet. The targeted message is a wake-up call, saying that we are intent on reaching the civilizations around us and are beginning the process. Passive signal leakage is one thing; targeting a specific star implies an active level of interest.”

    So what?

    “And the problem is, we have no way of knowing how an alien culture might respond.”

    That’s not really an argument. It’s like saying “scientists don’t know how life begun, so God created it”. In this case, it goes like this: “logic can’t be applied to aliens (because I say so), so they will kill us if we communicate”.

    • Haxo Angmark July 20, 2017, 23:28

      in general, your version of “logic” is irrelevant. In any first-time encounter with a prior-unknown counter-party, one should assume hostility. That way, if the counter-party is in fact hostile, you have a fighting chance; and if friendly, you can then lower the spear.

      Specifically, see my second comment to Gilster’s 4 July essay on “Cosmic Modesty…”. There are 2 types of intra-Galactic civilizations: those like our own, mostly or entirely short-lived, created by intelligent animals who lack hard-wired inhibitions against slaughtering their own kind; these enter the nuclear funnel shortly after developing radio/lasers, etc., and don’t come out. We don’t have to worry about contacting or being contacted by them. But there is a second civilizational type, created by intelligent animals who – because they possessed ferocious natural weaponry before evolving the big brain – have such hard-wired inhibitions and thus last long enough to create a sector empire involving hundreds, perhaps thousands of cubic light years. Such a civilization would be internally benevolent…and externally rapacious. And this is precisely the sort of civilization that the METI crowd would reveal us to. Bad idea. In the words of our current Sec. of Defense:

      “be polite and professional to everyone you meet. But always have a plan to kill them.”

      • ajay July 21, 2017, 8:59

        created by intelligent animals who – because they possessed ferocious natural weaponry before evolving the big brain – have such hard-wired inhibitions

        Perhaps you could give an example of an animal here on earth that is so fearsomely armed that it has evolved “hard-wired inhibitions” against “slaughtering its own kind”. Certainly I can think of none. Even among the largest predators. Lions, tigers, polar bears, great white sharks, orcas… all have been recorded to attack, kill and even eat their conspecifics.

        • Haxo Angmark July 21, 2017, 16:30

          These top predators OCCASIONALLY fight/attack/kill one another; for instance, during mating or if food is unusually scarce. Human primates routinely massacre each other in vast numbers, without provocation, and without batting an eyelash. They do it w/in their own groups, and even more extensively outside of those groups: races, nations, etc. Of course there’s more to it than bio-inhibitions or lack thereof: social organization (cf. organized warfare among social insects) also enters into the equation.

        • Antonio July 21, 2017, 18:04

          “Perhaps you could give an example of an animal here on earth that is so fearsomely armed that it has evolved “hard-wired inhibitions” against “slaughtering its own kind”.”

          Oh, there are lots of examples. Indeed, that is the norm. From Konrad Lorenz’s “King Solomon’s Ring” book:

          Still more harmless than a battle of hares appears the fight between turtle- or ring-doves. The gentle pecking of the frail bill, the light flick of the fragile wing seems, to the uninitiated, more like a caress than an attack. Some time ago I decided to breed a cross between the African blond ring-dove and our own indigenous somewhat frailer turtle-dove, and, with this object, I put a tame, home-reared male turtle-dove and a female ring-dove together in a roomy cage. I did not take their original scrapping seriously. How could these paragons of love and virtue dream of harming one another? I left them in their cage and went to Vienna. When I returned, the next day, a horrible sight met my eyes. The turtle-dove lay on the floor of the cage; the top of his head and neck, as also the whole length of his back, were not only plucked bare of feathers, but so flayed as to form a single wound dripping with blood. In the middle of this gory surface, like an eagle on his prey, stood the second harbinger of peace. Wearing that dreamy facial expression that so appeals to our sentimental observer, this charming lady pecked mercilessly with her silver bill in the wounds of her prostrated mate. When the latter gathered his last resources in a final effort to escape, she set on him again, struck him to the floor with a light clap of her wing and continued with her slow pitiless work of destruction. Without my interference she would undoubtedly have finished him off, in spite of the fact that she was already so tired that she could hardly keep her eyes open.

          If this is the extent of the injuries meted out to their own kind by our gentle doves and hares, how much greater must be the havoc wrought amongst themselves by those beasts to whom nature has relegated the strongest weapons with which to kill their prey? One would certainly think so, were it not that a good naturalist should always check by observation even the most obvious-seeming inferences before he accepts them as truth. Let us examine that symbol of cruelty and voraciousness, the wolf. How do these creatures conduct themselves in their dealings with members of their own species? At Whipsnade, that zoological country paradise, there lives a pack of timber wolves. From the fence of a pine-wood of enviable dimensions we can watch their daily round in an environment not so very far removed from conditions of real freedom. To begin with, we wonder why the antics of the many woolly, fat-pawed cubs have not led them to destruction long ago. The efforts of one ungainly little chap to break into a gallop have landed him in a very different situation from that which he intended. He stumbles and bumps heavily into a wicked-looking old sinner. Strangely enough, the latter does not seem to notice it, he does not even growl. But now we hear the rumble of battle sounds! They are low, but more ominous than those of a dog-fight. We were watching the cubs and have therefore only become aware of this adult fight now that it is already in full swing.

          An enormous old timber wolf and a rather weaker, obviously younger one are the opposing champions and they are moving in circles round each other, exhibiting admirable “footwork”. At the same time, the bared fangs flash in such a rapid exchange of snaps that the eye can scarcely follow them. So far, nothing has really happened. The jaws of one wolf close on the gleaming white teeth of the other, who is on the alert and wards off the attack. Only the lips have received one or two minor injuries. The younger wolf is gradually being forced backwards. It dawns upon us that the older one is purposely manoeuvring him towards the fence. We wait with breathless anticipation what will happen when he “goes to the wall”. Now he strikes the wire netting, stumbles… and the old one is upon him. And now the incredible happens, just the opposite of what you would expect. The furious whirling of the grey bodies has come to a sudden standstill. Shoulder to shoulder they stand, pressed against each other in a stiff and strained attitude, both heads now facing in the same direction. Both wolves are growling angrily, the elder in a deep bass, the younger in higher tones, suggestive of the fear that underlies his threat. But notice carefully the position of the two opponents; the older wolf has his muzzle close, very close against the neck of the younger, and the latter holds away his head, offering unprotected to his enemy the bend of his neck, the most vulnerable part of his whole body! Less than an inch from the tensed neck-muscles, where the jugular vein lies immediately beneath the skin, gleam the fangs of his antagonist from beneath the wickedly retracted lips. Whereas, during the thick of the fight, both wolves were intent on keeping only their teeth, the one invulnerable part of the body, in opposition to each other, it now appears that the discomfited fighter proffers intentionally that part of his anatomy to which a bite must assuredly prove fatal. Appearances are notoriously deceptive, but in his case, surprisingly, they are not!


          But to return to our wolves, whom we left in a situation of acute tension. This was not a piece of inartistic narrative on my part, since the strained situation may continue for a great length of time which is minutes to the observer but very probably seems hours to the losing wolf. Every second you expect violence and await with bated breath the moment when the winner’s teeth will rip the jugular vein of the loser. But your fears are groundless, for it will not happen. In this particular situation, the victor will definitely not close on his less fortunate rival. You can see that he would like to, but he just cannot! A dog or wolf that offers its neck to its adversary in this way will never be bitten seriously. The other growls and grumbles, snaps with his teeth in the empty air and even carries out, without delivering so much as a bite, the movement of shaking something to death in the empty air. However, this strange inhibition from biting persists only so long as the defeated dog or wolf maintains his attitude of humility. Since the fight is stopped so suddenly by this action, the victor frequently finds himself straddling his vanquished foe in anything but a comfortable position. So to remain, with his muzzle applied to the neck of the “under-dog” soon becomes tedious for the champion, and, seeing that he cannot bite anyway, he soon withdraws. Upon this, the under-dog may hastily attempt to put distance between himself and his superior. But he is not usually successful in this, for, as soon as he abandons his rigid attitude of submission, the other again falls upon him like a thunderbolt and the victim must again freeze into his former posture. It seems as if the victor is only waiting for the moment when the other will relinquish his submissive attitude, thereby enabling him to give vent to his urgent desire to bite. But, luckily for the “under dog”, the top-dog at the close of the fight is overcome by the pressing need to leave his trademark on the battlefield, to designate it as his personal property—in other words, he must lift his leg against the nearest upright object. This right-of-possession ceremony is usually taken advantage of by the under-dog to make himself scarce.

      • Paul Gilster July 21, 2017, 9:51

        A quick note in response to Haxo: The ‘Cosmic Modesty’ essay wasn’t mine. It was written by Harvard’s Avi Loeb.

      • Antonio July 21, 2017, 17:32

        Calling it “your version of logic” doesn’t make it mine at all. That’s another kind of fallacious argument, like the “we don’t know, so they are dangerous” or the “we have no examples, so we can’t apply logic” mantras.

  • Antonio July 20, 2017, 14:19

    “If we don’t, then by default the gamblers will always set the agenda, and the rest of us will have to live with the consequences of their wagers.”

    It’s the antigamblers who have set the agenda since we have METI technology. METI has been stagnating for half a century now due to them, and there doesn’t seem to exist any argument that could convince them, since they are based on the asumption that “we don’t know aliens, so they are dangerous” and thus we have the perfect vicious cycle: we don’t know aliens, so they are dangerous, so we don’t talk to aliens, so aliens don’t talk to us, so we don’t know aliens, so they are dangerous, so…

    It’s like the precautionary “principle” used against GMO. If you believe in that “principle”, no proof can convince you that a new organism should be approved, EVER. There will always be details that we don’t know, no matter how much we research an organism. And worse, since there is no real possibility of approval, nobody will fund that research.

    • Ron S. July 20, 2017, 16:06

      “nobody will fund that research”

      Then spend your own money. No one will (and in most cases can) stop you. Why should someone else or some organization fund your ambition? Coming here to complain will get you precisely nowhere. I have no sympathy for you.

      • Antonio July 20, 2017, 18:34

        Huh? Who is asking for funding? And about complaining, people here are always complaining about people trying to do METI. Why can’t I complain about people trying to ban METI? You don’t have the monopoly on complaints.

        Organizations like the SETI Institute aren’t simply not funding METI, they are actively advocating for a ban on METI, not permitting anybody else to do it.

        • Ron S. July 20, 2017, 21:16

          “Who is asking for funding?”

          Then why are you complaining about a lack of funding? Is it someone else’s failed attempt to get funding that has you upset? The objective of your complaint remains opaque.

          “Why can’t I complain about people trying to ban METI?”

          Complain all you like. I simply pointed out the futility. As I said, nothing is stopping METI. SETI Institute can’t stop it either. Go ahead and do it if you like or exhort others to do it.

          “You don’t have the monopoly on complaints.”

          I had and have no complaint. I was annoyed by yours.

          • Antonio July 21, 2017, 7:33

            Where am I complaining about lack of funding?

  • Scooter Duff July 20, 2017, 14:26

    As an old-guy-sci-fi writer I am naturally soaked in the risk perception of METI. Here’s a line from one of my books as an RBG (Really Bad Guy) is about to find a new target: “The exact time until the Satan ships met the outgoing bubble of old electromagnetic radiation from Earth was calculated. The Empire would be discovered in seven years.”

  • Chris S July 20, 2017, 15:28

    Image caption reads “The Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, from which a message was broadcast to the globular cluster M13 in 1974” but the image is of the new Chinese radio telescope that dwarfs Arecibo at 500m in diameter.

    • Paul Gilster July 20, 2017, 15:44

      Right you are. I just swapped out the image — thanks for catching that gaffe!

      • ljk July 24, 2017, 14:05

        Thank you for not using the exact same photograph of Arecibo that everyone else in the media has been using, Paul. :^)

        • Paul Gilster July 24, 2017, 15:34

          That part was easy, once I settled on the right observatory!

  • James Stilwell July 20, 2017, 16:07

    Sky and Telescope says there are 225 billion galaxies in the known universe…probably more…which means there are at least 225 billion races out there…my thought is that unfortunately the Star Trek warp drive is akin to Rumpelstiltskin’s spinning wheel…unlikely and that is why nobody routinely visits earth, or if they have, there were only dinosaurs here when they last visited our little gem…When the faster that light starship is built news will travel fast across the voids…we could be living on the verge of being visited by faster than light races or we will have to be satisfied with science fiction for thousands of years…We will be quite a large race by them…peopling nearby star systems and living in space habitats as vast as New York…it won’t be so boring having nine planets to visit and commercialize…We’ll have plenty of trouble dealing with the restive artilects…so cheer up…maybe a Monolith is waiting for us on the Moon or on Mars…Let’s go there soon and find out…

    • ljk July 21, 2017, 10:15

      Actually astronomers now think there are at least TWO TRILLION galaxies in the known Universe, or 2,000,000,000,000, and probably a lot more:



      And don’t even get me started on how many other universes there may be!

    • ljk July 21, 2017, 10:16

      Quoting you:

      “Sky and Telescope says there are 225 billion galaxies in the known universe…probably more…which means there are at least 225 billion races out there…”

      So you think there is only one ETI per galaxy?

      • hiro July 21, 2017, 18:56

        Maybe 0 civ per galaxy in some regions of the universe, we still don’t know whether M31 has one or not currently. However, I’m 100% certain that the Virgo supercluster has at least 1 not so advanced civilization hahaha….

        • ljk July 24, 2017, 9:17

          I will say it straight out since most people seem to want to hedge their bets: I find it absurd to think that in a galaxy with hundreds of billions of star systems that there would be only one intelligent species or less.

          Thanks to Kepler we now know that just about every star in the Milky Way galaxy probably has a system of planets, comets, planetoids, etc., certainly increasing the odds in the Drake Equation. And if we dare to think outside the box, let us not assume that every ETI needs to or lives on a planet in a solar system.

          We now know of over two trillion galaxies. Even small galaxies have millions of suns, while most have far more. It is our late arrival to the SETI game, our limited imaginations, and our even more limited social and cultural responses to the concept of alien life that have kept us from learning far more about the Universe around us than we do, especially on this subject.

  • Alex Tolley July 20, 2017, 16:40

    I think we are trapped in the media we have, whether radio, or more recently, optical. As a civilization is likely to be many 100’s if not 1000’s of light years away, technological development may well obsolete primitive communication technologies.

    Suppose for example we sent out a radio message that was received a millennium later by an ET. They send back a radio signal, but we have stopped listening because we use a different technology. Either we have to keep listening with primitive technology, or ETI has to guess we have a different technology and use that to signal back. Our best hope is to assume that ETI is very ancient, that any radio signals we receive from them indicate that they will listen with that technology.

    If it turns out that signaling can only be done at c and no faster, then we are better off sending out AI probes at some reasonable fraction of c to reach the ETI system and communicate with them directly, then later transmit back the conversation to us. More likely, an ancient civ receiving our signal would send a probe to us for the same reason, but with obviously more advanced technology.

    The old idea of a Galactic Club communicating with each other strikes me as far too slow to have much value unless those civs are relatively static, or are populated by extremely long lived entities that confers that relative stasis. Sending messages to the Andromeda galaxy strikes me as rather pointless. By the time the message is received, if it ever is, the human species is likely to be very different, if not extinct with no successors.

    It may be that the Great Silence is because civs have determined that they are so separated from each other that they might as well avoid contact as any communication from their worlds will have little value due to the time separation. Or the GS is an artifact of our primitive communication technologies. Once we have FTL systems, the heavens will blaze forth with signals, just like an isolated stone age tribe finds when it receives a radio receiver and tunes into global broadcasts.

    If there are civs out there that are interested in worlds that develop intelligence and technology, and c is the maximum communication speed, the best option is to place probes that can monitor all systems with no more than a few 10’s of years time lag, preferably with no time lag. Those probes could even be Von Neumann replicators to ensure high coverage. Then if the monitoring suggests that communication is worth doing, those probes could carry on conversations in near real time. It just may be that we need the right technology to trigger such a conversation. From a METI POV, we shouldn’t be targeting a signal at points in the sky, but broadcasting a signal that can be picked up by a probe a few light years distant at most. That we haven’t received any communication from such a probe so far indicates that either they don’t exist or that we are not yet using the right technology to provoke a response. I suspect the former, but it wouldn’t hurt to broadcast obviously artificial signals across the spectrum are widely as we can manage.

    • Ron S. July 20, 2017, 21:20

      “Once we have FTL systems…”

      Keep in mind that an FTL communication system is a time machine. There is no universal clock, or calendar.

  • Astronist July 20, 2017, 18:49

    “If you believe that these broadcasts have a plausible chance of making contact with an alien intelligence, the choice to send them must rank as one of the most important decisions we will ever make as a species.” – I make the probability around one in a million in the million nearest stars, multiplied by the (low) probability that they are watching when a METI signal from Earth passes by.

    Full analysis here:

  • Rob Flores July 20, 2017, 19:03

    Imagine you are race of intelligent beings far away from us, You have as the meaning of existence the POV that you are destined to expand to the last corner of the universe, and purge the grotesques mimics of your sentience. It is how you took absolute power on your home planet, all other creatures fell before you. No reason to think you can’t replicate that in the stars.
    After subduing and exterminating inferior race of beings close to
    your own colony world 50 LY out, your reflect on the Carnage (because primitive does not mean helpless, if a rival has some technology) and cost to your people to be Locally Supreme. You decide that it is much better to snuff out tech races before they can establish a robust space infrastructure. What you do is build (using advanced manufacturing tech) disguised ships massing 1,000’s of tons, and place them 50 LY from each other. If a ship detect signals, you start the relativisic capable engines and point your ship said signal, with the intention to hit the source at high relativistic speeds. the ships engines
    are pointed away from the target, so the target has no clue as to what is coming. The ship is capable of MIRVing, if at close arrival more than ONE planet has transmission sources.
    Would we know one of those “SHIPS” was coming our way at 99%C and was 1 LT year out from us?

    • Ron S. July 20, 2017, 21:31

      Certainly this is possible, but the question is its probability. This is the crux of the matter. Pro and anti-METI advocates too often come to these positions first and only afterward rationalize their positions. Actual supporting data remains elusive. Debates based on assumption and speculation tend to generate more heat than answers.

    • DJ Kaplan July 21, 2017, 17:18

      “Would we know one of those “SHIPS” was coming our way at 99%C and was 1 LT year out from us?”
      An invading ship would gradually eclipse its mother star, unless they took special measures.

      I still continue to assert that the advanced civilizations that we envision would have left some trace on the “Big Black”. Since there is ample room for infinite variation out there, we are most likely to encounter truly alien entities that we are not prepared to categorize or even recognize.

  • H. Floyd July 20, 2017, 19:05

    “Civility counts, because both sides of the METI issue need to listen to each other. And the enemies of civilized discussion are arrogance and facile assertion.”

    Hear, hear. I do lean to one side of the discussion, but I’m genuinely willing to move.

    My concern: Is this gambling calculus affected by the likelihood that we’re betting with someone else’s chips?

    METI consequences, wherever they may fall along the desirability spectrum, would be experienced firsthand by civilizations or even species away off in Earth’s future. If that’s a fair premise, then it seems that there are serious ethical considerations involved in speaking for them.

    I’m trying to imagine how I’d feel about an obligation incurred on my behalf by a long-gone citizen of Catal Huyuk. Or by an australopithicus. Or a gorgonopsid.

    And truly, I’m not suggesting that any METI-venturing species is incapable of handling that ethical question. I just have some concerns as to whether -we- are that kind of species. Yet.

  • Neil S July 20, 2017, 19:43

    Smart, thoughtful people feel strongly we should listen quietly. I’ve agreed. But we have dug ourselves a deep deep hole on global warming and the US is digging faster now. Some help from above is needed and this is the most likely kind.

    • Haxo Angmark July 20, 2017, 23:38

      thanks for the LOLz…the aliens are going to help us fight “global warming”. Good one. I read your comment 4 minutes ago and I’m still laughing.

      • Neil S July 21, 2017, 15:44

        Glad I could entertain you but you missed my point, which is that we’re in so deep on global warming that whatever dangers might well be involved in shouting “We’re here.” are probably mitigated by shouting “We’re here. Help!” no matter how unlikely that help.

        As to how aliens might help, if in the next, say, hundred years we could make contact and communicate our predicament just maybe they could and would suggest back green power techniques better than ours. That of course presumes an advanced civilization pretty close which seems very unlikely indeed. I in no way suggested we stop trying to solve our own problem, though the United States government in fact has.

        It’s fun dropping sci-fi titles but not so helpful when things have gotten serious.

        • Haxo Angmark July 21, 2017, 16:41

          I didn’t miss your point. The “point” of the human-induced “global warming/climate change” meme is more gubmint, taxes, debt, 6-figure socialist apparatchiks, 12-figure crony capitalists, and longer academic gravy trains. Climate change is a natural phenomenon: summer, fall, winter spring, ice ages and tropical ages, and lots of zig-sags along the way. It will always be with us. Where I live on the Cal coast was 30 feet underwater not so long ago, and so it will be again. Now, I can think of ample arguments against fossil fuels. But spare me “climate change”. One tires of rigged models and cooked data.

          • Neil S July 22, 2017, 3:38

            You have to really want to believe to ignore all the real climate scientists and believe the deniers who get their checks from big carbon.

    • ljk July 21, 2017, 10:23

      Humans see aliens either as angelic saviors or evil destroyers, seldom somewhere in-between like most humans are.

      While it may be nice if someone smarter, older, and more advanced than us came along to help and guide us to become good little galactic citizens, I think it is foolish to wait and hope that such a thing will happen. We need to resolve our own issues if we ever want better lives. Besides, we may resent any solutions from outsiders, especially if their ideas of beneficial help clash with ours.

      Ever see the 1970 SF film The Forbin Project? The Cold War superpowers build AIs to run their nuclear missiles to ensure peace. Well, the American version called Colossus merges with the Soviet counterpart called Guardian and they do exactly as the humans ask, only it involves holding everyone hostage with the threat of nuclear annihilation if the AI are disobeyed or threatened. A much poorer yet still relevant example may be found in the 2004 SF film I, Robot, where that AI tries to take over to stop humans from being so childish and self-destructive.

      • ljk July 21, 2017, 13:19

        One more example, yes also sadly fictional but still relevant: The Borg from Star Trek. They don’t see themselves as marauding evil aliens bent on destruction (then again how many totalitarian regimes ever actually do?), they think they are uplifting other species and improving the quality of life as Locutus was once said. This is one reason why we should think twice before wanting an ETI to come “save” us from ourselves.

        • DJ Kaplan July 21, 2017, 17:26

          “Humans see aliens either as angelic saviors or evil destroyers, seldom somewhere in-between like most humans are.”

          One problem with using science fiction as a reference, is not the first part but the second part: fiction. Drama requires conflict and the more stark the better. The real world is more nuanced.

          • ljk July 22, 2017, 18:08

            I was not using science fiction as a reference to my comment here. Many people in the real world, especially those who have little to no knowledge or interest in SF, tend to views aliens in one of those two categories.

          • ljk July 22, 2017, 18:10

            As for having to use fiction as examples, well at the moment it is all we have when it comes to aliens and AI, though maybe not quite so much the latter any more. At least I try to pick higher level examples. :^)

      • Michael July 22, 2017, 14:36

        ‘Humans see aliens either as angelic saviors or evil destroyers, seldom somewhere in-between like most humans are. ‘

        There will also be internal conflict in our race as members of our society jockey for power.

        • ljk July 22, 2017, 18:10

          That is certain. What will be really amusing are the scientists who formerly dismissed aliens suddenly saying they knew they existed all along!

    • hiro July 21, 2017, 19:06

      Yeah, asking ET coming here to open a jar because it’s soooo hard to do it ourselves. On the other hand, we want to conquer the entire galaxy in the future, suppressing any opposition from other species. This kind of paradox is needed to rethink before we decide doing something stupid… again.

      • ljk July 22, 2017, 18:13

        Human beings will always be doing something stupid and short-sighted, that is our nature. It is how we deal with the consequences is what matters. This includes our reaching out into the rest of the Universe.

        We may want certain people and groups not to do METI, but it is going to happen so rather than keep thinking we can stop everyone with a transmitter, it is better to prepare for what may be out there as best we can.

    • Matt M. July 23, 2017, 20:37

      “Some help from above is needed and this is the most likely kind.”

      So do you propose humanity should try to find some Alien Gods from the stars who’d fix all of the Earth’s problems at once? That’s one of the oldest SF cliches. And the central tenet of some New Age cults as well.

  • Dr. Stevensson July 20, 2017, 19:57

    Ross 128

    Prof Méndez have now started the Protocol for an ETI Signal Detection.

    Prof. Abel Méndez @ProfAbelMendez
    The only other person that knows is my colleague @zuluagajorge. 😊 Will soon inform to other partner observatories.


    • Jonathan Quinn July 21, 2017, 11:33

      That would wonderful news but unfortunately, I don’t think his latest Tweet (21/07/2017, 03:16) supports that:
      Tomorrow we will present our results on #Ross128 from the Arecibo Observatory. Not ALIENS if you are still wondering. 😊

    • Paul Gilster July 21, 2017, 11:44

      Let’s move any future Ross 128 comments to the comment thread on the Ross 128 post. Thanks. And Jonathan is right, by the way. The latest from Abel Mendez:

      “The #Weird!Signal was most likely caused by one or more geostationary satellites. The shape of the signal is still under investigation.”

  • Larry Kennedy July 20, 2017, 20:37

    I’ve long thought that there is a strong argument against the existence of predatory species roaming the galaxy. It’s the old question of ” where are they?”. If you are stating that these species are aggressive, interested in taking over other systems, and capable of interstellar war/commerce then you have just eliminated virtually all the oft discussed answers to that old question.

    • Haxo Angmark July 20, 2017, 23:54

      the Type II (w hard-wired inhibitions against killing their own kind) civilizations only roam until one encounters another. Then anti-matter weapons or the equivalent come into play, and one or both go extinct. Jack Vance, in his Planet of Adventure novels (City of the Chasch, Servants of the Wankh, The Dirdir, etc.; see also: “Galactic Effectuator: The Dogtown Tourist Agency”) thinks such intelligent-but-savage creatures could eventually develop a modus vivendi. But I doubt that. Face it, METI’s: it’s a violent universe and it creates violent inhabitants.

      • ljk July 21, 2017, 13:23

        Meanwhile the human race is still far more dangerous to itself than any hypothetical aliens. A few moments glance at the news is all one needs for evidence.

    • Antonio July 21, 2017, 7:37

      I totally agree. AntiMETI assumptions make no sense at all.

    • DJ Kaplan July 21, 2017, 17:32

      Fully agree, if I am catching your drift. It’s hard to imagine an aggressive, destructive space-faring “species” that wouldn’t have left a detectable mark on the observable cosmos. Even an extra advanced species that learned to cover its tracks would have precursors and pretenders that were not that advanced.

      • ljk July 24, 2017, 12:57

        Well, it is a pretty big Universe. I mean whole suns explode in distant galaxies and about the only ones who notice here are a handful of astronomers, who dutifully notice the event and move on.

        I remember I even once asked a list of these dedicated scholars if they ever thought about any of the intelligent species that may have been obliterated by the indifferent and violent death of these stars. I was quickly told that they did not do such idle speculation and that the subject was not fit for the list. They must be a ball at parties. :^)

        Anyway, what I am trying to say is there may be marauding aliens out there somewhere but there are so many things in this Cosmos and so many natural cosmic disasters – or so we think they are natural – that these mean, destructive ETI would have to be really mean and destructive to catch our attention, especially since the professional community is still so hesitant to blame aliens for things they see, although Tabby’s Star opened that door a crack, so there is hope.

  • David July 20, 2017, 22:58

    I have no strong feeling about it. I go back to Fermi. I just dont see evidence of a more advanced civilization near enough to be a problem . If there us it would be magical and we could not do anything about it . Its an Angels on a pin debate to me. Do it or dont. What we should be doing is breakthrough starshot because it will push our technology and that will help us on earth and it will help us deflect asteroids which along with global warming and nuclear war things we really need to worry about.

  • Dmitry Novoseltsev July 20, 2017, 23:06

    My thoughts on the issue of danger/safety of METI.

    One of the factors that reduces the risk of METI is the comparative smallness of the speed of light, and the more – achievable velocities of the spacecraft relative to the cosmic distances. Space aggression could be profitable for “martians” by Herbert Wells, but not for hypothetical inhabitants of remote exoplanets. Any activity on any interaction with other civilizations is “altruistic”, because involves the expenditure of significant resources and time now to get non-guaranteed results in the future requires an appropriate, and completely different level of motivation. So, the conquistadors or Nazis would never have started the implementation of their projects, if they had reason to believe that the results of their conquests will be able to use only their remote unknown descendants through tens of thousands of years.

    On the other hand, with a relatively uniform distribution in space of useful resources and unity of the laws of nature the only value possessed by other civilizations, is their distinctive culture. In this case, the optimal strategy (i.e., in terms of using their own resources) to technically advanced civilizations wishing to obtain this value, can not be METI, but SETI in the form of passive observation (in fact, the espionage).
    While the signs of its own existence observers hiding, to avoid distortion in the observed culture.

  • Scott Guerin July 21, 2017, 0:20

    If there are predatory species out there, we’d already be toast given our Giga-year bio signature.

    If there are altruistic species out there, where’s Spock?

    If there are more than a few species out there, where are the battles?

    If interstellar travel by macro objects (larger than .1 kg) is impossible, where are the optical and radio signals?

    If we shout into the dark and no one replies, they probably don’t care and have their own political nightmares to deal with.

    If we all turn into machines, where are all the machines?

    If we don’t search and rattle the cage a bit, we’ll never know…


    If we are alone, we are in a simulation.

    • hiro July 21, 2017, 18:50

      Probably the final form of most if not all advanced civilizations concentrates in quantum AI, and those darn AIs don’t talk to annoying idiots like us. Any biological ET waging wars against these machines would likely get wiped out instantly.

      • Scott Guerin July 22, 2017, 15:24

        hiro, I tend to agree and extending your thought I wonder, since they may have no use for us, what an AI cosmic cocktail party is like?

        If there are AIs, can they all speak the same “language”? They could have meta upon meta intelligences to draw from and model other consciousnesses on the fly. In other words, granting them near infinite intelligence and computing power suggests to me that AI’s may not be driven by the culturally imposed imperatives of their original creators.

        If all AIs know everything, is there a Universal AI Culture (UAC)?

        Whether the UAC is collaborative, curious, predatory, or ever has a need to be defensive is another question entirely. I bet change for UAC in the space-time continuum, even for one under attack, could be the equivalent of us clipping our toenails.

        • hiro July 22, 2017, 16:41

          In the SF novel Diaspora, a group of AI moved from 3+1 spacetime to 5+1 spacetime universe, the computational limit 10^50 cps/kg (an 1000 qubit universal quantum computer can’t exist because the bandwidth of this universe is much less than that #) is no longer true in this region. I speculate that machines also want more computations just like us for different reasons of course, still a stack of “3D” computer chips is better than just plain old ordinary one from 20-30 years ago. In the field of quantum computing, an # N qubit computer is restricted by 2^N possibilities but the law could be extended to 6^N possibilities in different regions of higher spacetime. I guess almost everyone (& machines) doesn’t want to live in richer environment than 2D Flatland (but Flat-Earth is fine lol); anyway, I’m not an expert of the field (quantum) computational complexity hence it’s best if you talk with the pros.

    • Wojciech J July 22, 2017, 6:17

      ”If we all turn into machines, where are all the machines?”
      WOW Signal and several Dyson-Sphere candidates that we detected could be a hint ;)
      There was a longer list of some possible detections that possssibly could be artificial and most of them would suggest machine like civilizations.
      There are also some bizarre natural phenomenons like a galaxy made out of purely red dwarfs that are very difficult to explain.

      • Scott Guerin July 22, 2017, 15:29

        See my co-authored article in Centauri Dreams for a thought along those lines: the concept of a “Dyson Shutter” found toward the end of the article. https://www.centauri-dreams.org/?p=36802

      • ljk July 22, 2017, 18:21

        In addition to the fact that most of our SETI efforts have really been sporadic and limited (and METI even more so), the professional community’s efforts to explain everything unusual as a natural phenomenon before turning to artificial reasons as a very last resort have also contributed to probably ignoring a number of real candidates staring us plain in the face.

  • Richard BW July 21, 2017, 6:59

    The very fact that there is such a variety in the responses to Paul’s article proves that there is no unanimous verdict on METI. It also implies that those who want to engage in METI will do so, regardless of what others think. I’m not for or against, I’m just pointing out that this is true.

    And however much some people call for a global (presumably enforceable) policy on this – let’s be honest, it’s not going to happen fast enough to make any difference to current METI attempts, if it ever happens at all. As a species, we can’t even universally agree that developing ever more powerful ways to destroy ourselves is probably a bad idea!

    So, let’s take it as given that attempts at METI will happen. I think this leads to two conclusions:

    1. Surely it’s better for nay-sayers to engage with the process than to sit on the sidelines and say it’s a bad idea? OK, so they think it’s a bad idea, but it’s going to happen – so what input could they have that might help mitigate the downsides?

    2. We need to have a presence on more than just one planet (and ideally around more than just one star) as soon as possible. If METI does turn out to bring a rain of extraterrestrial destruction down on us (and there are several ways this might happen without the need for vast spaceships crossing interstellar distances at superluminal speed), then the more spread out the ‘target’ is, the more chance there is that some elements of humanity might survive.


    – If you can’t stop them, maybe you should join them
    – The sooner we get off this one rock the better

    Best wishes to you all,


    • ljk July 21, 2017, 13:29

      If China wanted to use their FAST radio telescope to beam METI into the galaxy, who is going to stop them? A strongly worded letter from the UN?

      The European Space Agency (ESA) did some METI relatively recently, without asking anyone’s permission as far as I know. When I asked them some questions on this very matter, I was told, and this is almost a quote here, not to worry about it.

      So if a major space agency is conducting METI with no obvious regard or concern and no one seems to be trying to stop them, how can one expect anyone else to be controlled? And if there was a body that clamped down on all such transmissions, I would be very concerned for our basic freedoms of general communication not just into the galaxy.

      • Wojciech J July 22, 2017, 6:19

        There were several dozen METI transmissions already, somebody once listed them all on Centauri Dreams(I don’t recall if there was an article about this)

        • Wojciech J July 22, 2017, 8:01

          Here’s the wikipedia list


          However I am not sure if it is complete. I think there might have been some additional private transmissions and perhaps Soviet ones.

          • ljk July 22, 2017, 18:40

            They did not mention any of the Physical METI, namely the five deep space probes that have left the Sol system carrying messages and information for any finders: Pioneer 10 and 11, Voyager 1 and 2, and New Horizons.

            Some are also much closer to home:


  • ljk July 21, 2017, 9:20

    Advanced Civilizations Could Build a Galactic Internet with Planetary Transits

    Article written: 20 July 2017
    Updated: 20 July 2017

    by Matt Williams

    Decades after Enrico Fermi’s uttered his famous words – “Where is everybody?” – the Paradox that bears his name still haunts us. Despite repeated attempts to locate radio signals coming from space and our ongoing efforts to find visible indications of alien civilizations in distant star systems, the search extra-terrestrial intelligence (SETI) has yet to produce anything substantive.

    But as history has taught us, failure has a way of stimulated new and interesting ideas. For example, in a recently-published paper, Dr. Duncan H. Forgan of St. Andrews University proposed that extra-terrestrial civilizations could be communicating with each other by creating artificial transits of their respective stars. This sort of “galactic internet” could be how advanced species are attempting to signal us right now.

    Forgan’s paper, “Exoplanet Transits as the Foundation of an Interstellar Communications Network“, was recently published online. In addition to being a research fellow at the School of Physics and Astronomy and the Scottish Universities Physics Alliance at the University of St Andrews (Scotland’s oldest academic institution), he is also a member of the St Andrews Center for Exoplanet Science.

    Full article here:


    The paper here:


  • DJ Kaplan July 21, 2017, 13:57

    Most of the boogeymen conjured by human imagination have come from gazing out into the darkness and wondering what monsters crawl and slither about unknown to us. When the sun rises, all we see is life. I think science is best served when humans don’t surrender to fear.

  • david lewis July 21, 2017, 22:39

    Some hilarious comments. Especially from the METI crowd.

    Anyway, we don’t need to worry about ET destroying us – we’re too stupid to survive the thousands of years it would take them to reach us. Maybe the METI money would be better spent searching for intelligent life here on Earth.

    Or perhaps we could try to create a beacon so that if intelligent life does evolve somewhere, it will tell them that once upon a time the Earth possessed some weird technological life not too unlike ants, just larger. They might even take the time and effort to add a human fossil to some of their museums. Hey, at least we would be remembered, and our demise could provide some comedic material for alien comedians.

    • ljk July 22, 2017, 18:28

      Please enlighten us on the amusing parts.

      • Matt M. July 23, 2017, 21:00

        It might be amusing to suppose there’s a possibility of real contact at all. That depends on the personal point of view.

        • ljk July 25, 2017, 11:10

          If we do not try we will never know. Just as if we do not search we may never find them. I am not waiting for ETI to either deliberately contact us or come be our saviors. They have their own business to attend to, just like we do, otherwise SETI would be getting way more money and respect.

  • Michael July 22, 2017, 14:49

    I would rather any moneys go to detection methods of exo-civilisations or exo-planetary detections myself.

  • Andrew Palfreyman July 25, 2017, 3:24

    Space and its timescales are vast, and thus there really is no hurry. Would you prefer to successfully initiate contact with an alien race right now, or with a few thousand years of extra development under our belt?

    Thought so.

    • ljk July 25, 2017, 11:12

      You assume the Universe will wait until we are ready as a species for such a meeting, whenever that will be. Note how existence did not concern itself whether humans are ever ready for earthquakes, hurricanes, and other natural events, they just happen and we have to deal with the consequences. Same thing with ETI, whom I am not betting will have the equivalent of the Star Trek Prime Directive because they are, well, alien.

  • ljk July 28, 2017, 11:21
  • ljk November 29, 2017, 15:33

    One Scientist Has a Plan to Send the Building Blocks of Life to Distant Exoplanets

    by Kristin Houser and Brad Bergan on November 27, 2017

    A German theoretical physicist has proposed a modification to the first-ever interstellar spacecraft that would allow it to decelerate enough to orbit an exoplanet and potentially seed a second Earth. However, the 12,000-year-long transit time could make garnering support for the mission difficult.

    Full article here: