Keith Cooper is a familiar face on Centauri Dreams, both through his own essays and the dialogues he and I have engaged in on interstellar topics. Keith is the editor of Astronomy Now and the author of both The Contact Paradox: Challenging Assumptions in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (Bloomsbury Sigma), and Origins of the Universe: The Cosmic Microwave Background and the Search for Quantum Gravity (Icon Books) to be published later this year. The Contact Paradox is a richly detailed examination of the history and core concepts of SETI, inspiring a new set of conversations, of which this is the first. With the recent expansion of the search through Breakthrough Listen, where does SETI stand both in terms of its likelihood of success and its perception among the general public?
- Paul Gilster
Keith, we’re 60 years into SETI and no contact yet, though there are a few tantalizing things like the WOW! signal to hold our attention. Given that you have just given us an exhaustive study of the field and mined its philosophical implications, what’s your take on how this lack of results is playing with the general public? Are we more or less ready today than we were in the days of Project Ozma to receive news of a true contact signal?
And despite what we saw in the film Contact, do you think the resultant clamor would be as widespread and insistent? Because to me, one of the great paradoxes about the whole idea of contact is that the public seems to get fired up for the idea in film and books, but relatively uninterested in the actual work that’s going on. Or am I misjudging this?
- Keith Cooper
What a lot of people don’t realise is just how big space is. Our Galaxy is home to somewhere between 100 billion and 200 billion stars. Yet, until Yuri Milner’s $100 million Breakthrough Listen project, we had looked and listened, in detail, at about a thousand of those stars. And when I say listened closely, I mean we pointed a telescope at each of those stars for half an hour or so. Even Breakthrough Listen, which will survey a million stars in detail, finds the odds stacked against it. Let’s imagine there are 10,000 technological species in our Galaxy. That sounds like a lot, but on average we’d have to search between 10 million and 20 million stars just to find one of those species.
And remember, we’re only listening for a short time. If they’re not transmitting during that time frame, then we won’t detect them, at least not with a radio telescope. Coupled with the fact that incidental radio leakage will be much harder to detect than we thought, then it’s little wonder that we’ve not found anyone out there yet. Of course, the public doesn’t see these nuances – they just see that we’ve been searching for 60 years and all we’ve found is negative or null results. So I’m not surprised that the public are often uninspired by SETI.
Some of this dissatisfaction might stem from the assumptions made in the early days of SETI, when it was assumed that ETI would be blasting out messages through powerful beacons that would be pretty obvious and easy to detect. Clearly, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Maybe that’s because they’re not out there, or maybe it’s because the pure, selfless altruism required to build such a huge, energy-hungry transmitter to beam messages to unknown species is not very common in nature. Certainly on Earth, in the animal kingdom, altruism usually operates either on the basis of protecting one’s kin, or via quid pro quo, neither of which lend themselves to encouraging interstellar communication.
So I think we – that is, both the public and the SETI scientific community – need to readjust our expectations a little bit.
Are we ready to receive a contact signal? I suspect that we think we are, but that’s different from truly being ready. Of course, it depends upon a number of variables, such as the nature of the contact, whether we can understand the message if one is sent, and whether the senders are located close in space to us or on the other side of the Galaxy. A signal detected from thousands of light years away and which we can’t decode the message content of, will have much less impact than one from, say, 20 or 30 light years away, and which we can decode the message content and perhaps even start to communicate with on a regular basis.
- Paul Gilster
I’ll go further than that. To me, the optimum SETI signal to receive first would be one from an ancient civilization, maybe one way toward galactic center, which would make by virtue of its extreme distance a non-threatening experience. Or at least it would if we quickly went to work on expanding public understanding of the size of the Galaxy and the Universe itself, as you point out. An even more ancient signal from a different galaxy would be even better, as even the most rabid conspiracy theorist would have little sense of immediate threat.
I suppose the best scenario of all would be a detection that demonstrated other intelligent life somewhere far away in the cosmos, and then a century or so for humanity to digest the idea, working it not only into popular culture, but also into philosophy, art, so that it becomes a given in our school textbooks (or whatever we’ll use in the future in place of school textbooks). Then, if we’re going to receive a signal from a relatively nearby system, let it come after this period of acclimatization.
Great idea, right? As if we could script what happens when we’re talking about something as unknowable as SETI contact. I don’t even think we’d have to have a message we could decode at first, because the important thing would be the simple recognition of the fact that other civilizations are out there. On that score, maybe Dysonian SETI turns the trick with the demonstration of a technology at work around another star. The fact of its existence is what we have to get into our basic assumptions about the universe. I used to assume this would be easy and come soon, and while I do understand about all those stars out there, I’m still a bit puzzled that we haven’t turned up something. I’d call that no more than a personal bias, but there it is.
Image: The Parkes 64m radio telescope in Parkes, New South Wales, Australia with the Milky Way overhead. Breakthrough Listen is now conducting a survey of the Milky Way galactic plane over 1.2 to 1.5 GHz and a targeted search of approximately 1000 nearby stars over the frequency range 0.7 to 4 GHz. Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Daniel John Reardon.
- Keith Cooper
It’s the greatest puzzle that there is. Radio SETI approaches things from the assumption that ET just sat at home belting out radio signals, and yet, as we know, the Universe is so old that ET has had ample time to reach us, or to build some kind of Dysonian artefact, or to do something to make their presence more obvious. And over the years we’ve all drawn our own conclusions as to why this does not seem to be the case – maybe they are here but hidden, watching us like we’re in some kind of cosmic zoo. Or maybe interstellar travel and building megastructures are more difficult than we envision. Perhaps they are all dead, or technological intelligence is rare, or they were never out there in the first place. We just don’t know. All we can do is look.
I think science fiction has also trained us to expect alien life to be out there – and I don’t mean that as a criticism of the genre. Indeed, in The Contact Paradox, I often use science fiction as allegory, largely because that’s where discussions about what form alien life may take and what might happen during contact have already taken place. So let me ask you this, Paul: From all the sf that you’ve read, are there any particular stories that stand out as a warning about the subtleties of contact?
- Paul Gilster
I suppose my favorite of all the ‘first contact through SETI’ stories is James Gunn’s The Listeners (1972). Here we have multiple narrators working a text that is laden with interesting quotations. Gunn’s narrative methods go all the way back to Dos Passos and anticipate John Brunner (think Stand on Zanzibar, for example). It’s fascinating methodology, but beyond that, the tumult that greets the decoding of an image from Capella transforms into acceptance as we learn more about a culture that seems to be dying and await what may be the reply to a message humanity had finally decided to send in response. So The Listeners isn’t really a warning as much as an exploration of this tangled issue in all its complexity.
Of course, if we widen the topic to go beyond SETI and treat other forms of contact, I love what Stanislaw Lem did with Solaris (1961). A sentient ocean! I also have to say that I found David Brin’s Existence (2012) compelling. Here competing messages are delivered by something akin to Bracewell probes, reactivated after long dormancy. Which one do you believe, and how do you resolve deeply contradictory information? Very interesting stuff! I mean, how do we respond if we get a message, and then a second one saying “Don’t pay any attention to that first message?”
What are some of your choices? I could go on for a bit about favorite science fiction but I’d like to hear from you. I assume Sagan’s Contact (1985) is on your list, but how about dazzling ‘artifact’ contact, as in the Strugatsky brothers’ Roadside Picnic (1972)? And how do we fit in Cixin Liu’s The Three Body Problem (2008)? At first glance, I thought we were talking about Alpha Centauri, but the novel shows no familiarity with the actual Centauri system, while still being evocative and exotic. Here the consequences of contact are deeply disturbing.
- Keith Cooper
I wish I were as well read as you are, Paul! I did read The Three Body Problem, but it didn’t strike a chord with me, which is a shame. For artefact contact, however, I have to mention the Arthur C. Clarke classic, Rendezvous with Rama (1973). One of the things I liked about that story is that it removed us from the purpose of Rama. We just happened to be bystanders, oblivious to Rama’s true intent and destination (at least until the sequel novels).
Clarke’s story feels relevant to SETI today, in which embracing the search for ‘technosignatures’ has allowed researchers to consider wider forms of detection than just radio signals. In particular, we’ve seen more speculation about finding alien spacecraft in our own Solar System – see Avi Loeb pondering whether 1I/‘Oumuamua was a spacecraft (I don’t think it was), or Jim Benford’s paper about looking for lurkers.
I’ve got mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, although it’s speculative and I really don’t expect us to find anything, I see no reason why we shouldn’t look for probes in the Solar System, just in case, and it would be done in a scientific manner. On the other hand, it sets SETI on a collision course with ufology, and I’d be interested to see how that would play out in the media and with the public.
It could also change how we think about contact. Communication over many light years via radio waves or optical signals is one thing, but if the SETI community agrees that it’s possible that there could be a probe in our Solar System, then that would bring things into the arena of direct contact. As a species, I don’t think we’re ready to produce a coherent response to a radio signal, and we are certainly not ready for direct contact.
Contact raises ethical dilemmas. There’s the obvious stuff, such as who has the right to speak for Earth, and indeed whether we should respond at all, or stay silent. I think there are other issues though. There may be information content in the detected signal, for example a message containing details of new technology, or new science, or new cultural artefacts.
However, we live in a world in which resources are not shared equally. Would the information contained within the signal be shared to the whole world, or will governments covet that information? If the technological secrets learned from the signal could change the world, for good or ill, who should we trust to manage those secrets?
These issues become amplified if contact is direct, such as finding one of Benford’s lurkers. Would we all agree that the probe should have its own sovereignty and keep our distance? Or would one or more nations or organisations seek to capture the probe for their own ends? How could we disseminate what we learn from the probe so that it benefits all humankind? And what if the probe doesn’t want to be captured, and defends itself?
My frustration with SETI is that we devote our efforts to trying to make contact, but then shun any serious discussion of what could happen during contact. The search and the discussion should be happening in tandem, so that we are ready should SETI find success, and I’m frankly puzzled that we don’t really do this. Paul, do you have any insight into why this might be?
- Paul Gilster
You’ve got me. You and I are on a slightly different page when it comes to METI, for example (Messaging to Extraterrestrial Intelligence). But we both agree that while we search for possible evidence of ETI, we should be having this broad discussion about the implications of success. And if we’re talking about actually sending a signal without any knowledge whatsoever of what might be out there, then that discussion really should take priority, as far as I’m concerned. I’d be much more willing to accept the idea of sending signals if we came to an international consensus on the goal of METI and its possible consequences.
As to why we don’t do this, I hear a lot of things. Most people from the METI side argue that the cat is already out of the bag anyway, with various private attempts to send signals proliferating, and the assumption that ever more sophisticated technology will allow everyone from university scientists to the kid in the basement to send signals whenever they want. I can’t argue with that. But I don’t think the fact that we have sent messages means we should give up on the idea of discussing why we’re doing it and why it may or may not be a sound idea. I’m not convinced anyway that any signals yet sent have the likelihood of being received at interstellar distances.
But let’s leave METI alone for a moment. On the general matter of SETI and implications of receiving a signal or finding ETI in astronomical data, I think we’re a bit schizophrenic. When I talk about ‘we,’ I mean western societies, as I have no insights into how other traditions now view the implications of such knowledge. But in the post-Enlightenment tradition of places like my country and yours, contacting ETI is on one level accepted (I think this can be demonstrated in recent polling) while at the same time it is viewed as a mere plot device in movies.
This isn’t skepticism, because that implies an effort to analyze the issue. This is just a holdover of old paradigms. Changing them might take a silver disc touching down and Michael Rennie strolling out. On the day that happens, the world really would stand still.
Let’s add in the fact that we’re short-sighted in terms of working for results beyond the next dividend check (or episode of a favorite show). With long-term thinking in such perilously short supply (and let’s acknowledge the Long Now Foundation’s heroic efforts at changing this), we have trouble thinking about how societies change over time with the influx of new knowledge.
Our own experience says that superior technologies arriving in places without warning can lead to calamity, whether intentional or not, which in and of itself should be a lesson as we ponder signals from the stars. A long view of civilization would recognize how fragile its assumptions can be when faced with sudden intervention, as any 500 year old Aztec might remind us.
Image: A 17th century CE oil painting depicting the Spanish Conquistadores led by Hernan Cortes besieging the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan in 1519 CE. (Jay I. Kislak Collection).
Keith, what’s your take on the ‘cat out of the bag’ argument with regard to METI? It seems to me to ignore the real prospect that we can change policy and shape behavior if we find it counterproductive, instead focusing on human powerlessness to control our impulses. Don’t we on the species level have agency here? How naive do you think I am on this topic?
- Keith Cooper
That is the ‘contact paradox’ in a nutshell, isn’t it? This idea that we’re actively reaching out to ETI, yet we can’t agree on whether it’s safe to do so or not. That’s the purpose of my book, to try and put the discussion regarding contact in front of a wider audience.
In The Contact Paradox, I’m trying not to tell people what they should think about contact, although of course I give my own opinions on the matter. What I am asking is that people take the time to think more carefully about this issue, and about our assumptions, by embarking on having the broader debate.
Readers of Centauri Dreams might point out that they have that very debate in the comments section of this website on a frequent basis. And while that’s true to an extent, I think the debate, whether on this site or among researchers at conferences or even in the pages of science fiction, has barely scratched the surface. There are so many nuances and details to examine, so many assumptions to challenge, and it’s all too easy to slip back into the will they/won’t they invade discussion, which to me is a total straw-man argument.
To compound this, while the few reviews that The Contact Paradox has received so far have been nice, I am seeing a misunderstanding arise in those reviews that once again brings the debate back down to the question of whether ETI will be hostile or not. Yet the point I am making in the book is that even if ETI is benign, contact could potentially still go badly, through misunderstandings, or through the introduction of disruptive technology or culture.
Let me give you a hypothetical example based on a science-fiction technology. Imagine we made contact with ETI, and they saw the problems we face on Earth currently, such as poverty, disease and climate change. So they give us some of their technology – a replicator, like that in Star Trek, capable of making anything from the raw materials of atoms. Let’s also assume that the quandaries that I mentioned earlier, about who takes possession of that technology and whether they horde it, don’t apply. Instead, for the purpose of this argument, let’s assume that soon enough the technology is patented by a company on Earth and rolled out into society to the point that replicators became as common a sight in people’s homes as microwave ovens.
Just imagine what that could do! There would be no need for people to starve or suffer from drought – the replicators could make all the food and water we’d ever need. Medicine could be created on the spot, helping people in less wealthy countries who can’t ordinarily get access to life-saving drugs. And by taking away the need for industry and farming, we’d cut down our carbon emissions drastically. So all good, right?
But let’s flip the coin and look at the other side. All those people all across the world who work in manufacturing and farming would suddenly be out of a job, and with people wanting for nothing, the economy would crash completely, and international trade would become non-existent – after all, why import cocoa beans when you can just make them in your replicator at home? We’d have a sudden obesity crisis, because when faced with an abundance of resources, history tells us that it is often human nature to take too much. We’d see a drugs epidemic like never before, and people with malicious intent would be able to replicate weapons out of thin air. Readers could probably imagine other disruptive consequences of such a technology.
It’s only a thought experiment, but it’s a useful allegory showing that there are pros and cons to the consequences of contact. What we as a society have to do is decide whether the pros outweigh the cons, and to be prepared for the disruptive consequences. We can get some idea of what to expect by looking at contact between different societies on Earth throughout history. Instead of the replicator, consider historical contact events where gunpowder, or fast food, or religion, or the combustion engine have been given to societies that lacked them. What were the consequences in those situations?
This is the discussion that we’re not currently having when we do METI. There’s no risk assessment, just a bunch of ill-thought-out assumptions masquerading as a rationale for attempting contact before we’re ready.
There’s still time though. ETI would really have to be scrutinising us closely to detect our leakage or deliberate signals so far, and if they’re doing that then they would surely already know we are here. So I don’t think the ‘cat is out of the bag’ just yet, which means there is still time to have this discussion, and more importantly to prepare. Because long-term I don’t think we should stay silent, although I do think we need to be cautious, and learn what is out there first, and get ready for it, before we raise our voice. And if it turns out that no one is out there, then we’ve not wasted our time, because I think this discussion can teach us much about ourselves too.
- Paul Gilster
We’re on the same wavelength there, Keith. I’m not against the idea of communicating with ETI if we receive a signal, but only within the context you suggest, which means thinking long and hard about what we want to do, making a decision based on international consultation, and realizing that any such contact would have ramifications that have to be carefully considered. On balance, we might just decide to stay silent until we gathered further information.
I do think many people have simply not considered this realistically. I was talking to a friend the other day whose reaction was typical. He had been asking me about SETI from a layman’s perspective, and I was telling him a bit about current efforts like Breakthrough Listen. But when I added that we needed to be cautious about how we responded, if we responded, to any reception, he was incredulous, then thoughtful. “I’ve just never thought about that,” he said. “I guess it just seems like science fiction. But of course I realize it isn’t.”
So we’re right back to paradox. If we have knowledge of the size of the galaxy — indeed, of the visible cosmos — why do we not see more public understanding of the implications? I think people could absorb the idea of a SETI reception without huge disruption, but it will force a cultural shift that turns what had been fiction into the realm of possibility.
But maybe we should now identify the broad context within which this shift can occur. In the beginning of your book, Keith, you say this: “Understanding altruism may ultimately be the single most significant factor in our quest to make contact with other intelligent life in the Universe.”
I think this is exactly right, and the next time we talk, I’d like us to dig into why this statement is true, and its ramifications for how we deal with not only extraterrestrial contact but our own civilization. Along with this, let’s get into that thorny question of ‘deep time’ and how our species sees itself in the cosmos.
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I have become dissapointed by the SETI community over the years, due to it turning more and more against METI. I stopped donating my computer cycles to SETI@Home years ago and I don’t follow the news about SETI anymore. I see no point in listening and not talking, hoping that the ETIs do what we so eagerly refuse to do. I see that attitude as stupid and selfish, and lost any interest in the SETI initiatives.
I agree that we should model the way we want ET people to treat us. If we speak loudly into the galaxy, we risk modeling carelessness and aggression. There is a paradox to contact.
In my opinion, signaling consent should be the main goal of METI. The question is how loudly we signal. If we have already let the cat out of the bag, then we should draw a message on the cat. We can argue that the cat isn’t very big and it simply isn’t worth the effort. How would we even ‘catch’ our cat?
The Fermi paradox holds because the cat doesn’t have to be very big. If the average rate that ET civilization appear is measured in tens of millions of years , then curiosity and the will to survive ensures that each civilization at least thoroughly explores the galaxy. A civilization that doesn’t, indicates it is thoroughly disinterested in us and anybody.
We don’t have to catch the cat. We can start to include a coherent message from humans within our current signal profile. The point of quiet METI is to display and model a conscientious approach to the contact paradox. Not being as loud as it could be is the point of quiet METI. Some ET people may be willing to destroy us. We can’t avoid that reality, that rule. It could be profitable to increase the value of artifacts by destroying a civilization. Many Earthlings deploy bright coloration as a defensive mechanism. Insects armed with poison and caustic chemicals make especially good use of coloration. They signal that though they are small they are capable of defending themselves. They signal they are unappetizing. I do not think we should point stingers and stink at anyone. Signaling that we know we can be seen has value, it gives pause to an advancing foe. Signaling consent for contact demonstrates confidence. Quiet METI avoids demonstrating bravado.
METI does not have to increase the risks posed by the contact paradox. Quiet METI could be a low wattage, world wide broadcast of people playing tic-tac-toe. That would be my suggestion for a message. Each game is a granular enactment of trading consenting vulnerability.
“If we speak loudly into the galaxy, we risk modeling carelessness and aggression.”
Looking at stars that are ancient, or older the our solar system might keep us safe from the more aggressive cultures. One way a civilization could involve young immature civilizations like ours is to leave structures like the stonehenge or pyramids. This would give us time to understand there philosophy and technology without leaving them open to direct contact. The idea of sending out signals may be considered dangerous and ill conceived just from experience these older civilizations have had over time. The basic idea would be to leave around toys in space that young cultures could learn from but not use for aggressive behaviour. As in most of human cultures, time, respect and understanding are the bases for learning and becoming part of the social hierarchy. This idea would solve some of the problems that would happen with direct contact and may be why our exploration has not found these structures. We may need to progress to a certain level before we would be wise enough to deal with such a issues. It is more likely far enough away that we must have developed telescopes to detect it. This would seem to mean that techno signatures in the sense of structures would be the norm for ancient cultures to make contact.
Isn’t the first problem to actually get somewhere, before leaving “toys” around to be discovered?
I think our responsibility to future generations of humans and to potential intelligent life everywhere is first learn to travel and colonize withing our solar system and then within our galaxy.
Yes, we need to explore and expand in our solar system, but advanced civilizations would have been doing this for millions of years. We have a tendency to look out in the universe and see what is important to us, but by doing that we may miss the signs that advanced civilizations may leave behind. A prime example of this is the Canals on Mars that Percival Lowell so well popularized a 120 years ago, that was a time period when the panama canal was in the news and many canal water projects where being planned for dry areas in the U.S. Now with TV, radio and satellite communications at a peak the SETI is only concentrating on our modern tech. It seems that the tried and true method would be less energy intensive and have a long time span with little upkeep should be what to look for. Another words, stone age structures.
Sorry to hear of one of the great pioneers of these ideas has past away:
Freeman Dyson, quantum physicist who imagined alien megastructures, has died at 96.
I can’t believe it! I found out from your post Michael
This is going to be big news over here in Ireland and the UK.
My best friend grew up in the same village of Crowthorne, Berkshire where Freeman Dyson is from.
Rest in Peace.
A great Mathematician, Physicist and visionary have left us. Rest in peace Freeman, your legacy will live on.
Wow–Freeman Dyson, like Queen Elizabeth II, is one of those people who, even though one knows intellectually that they’re as mortal as the rest of us, *feel* like “they came with the soil and stones, and are just as persistent.”
I almost forgot, we do have a stone structure that has all the characteristic of a tool to teach us about things we do not understand. It is not on the surface of the earth. Anybody want to take a guess?
This discussion was far more enlightening than the few book reviews I have read and which didn’t give me any sense of a paradox.
I tend to go along with Kevin Kelly (Wired) who stated in his book What Technology Wants is that technology is both positive and negative, but with a small positive bias.
Despite the social downsides, the freedom ofrom hunger and disease would be a huge boon. The unintended consequence could be a world filled with trash and dying a heat death, rather like the paperclip doom of rogue AIs.
I think we have a lot of examples of how society would treat some distant powerful alien. God[s] are one example, with religion, organized or disorganized) showing the consequences. A sect might aim to build huge transmitters and receivers instead of temples. Organized sects will cliam to speak for the alien civilization. Celebrity adulation is another phenomenon, and we could see that flower amongst more secular people.
What I don’t think we would see is panic at alien invasion, even if the contact was with a probe in our system, unless there was clear evidence of FTL travel. Even then, I would expect most people would respond with teh assumption that aliens were not malevolent, just as their own religious God[s] tend not to be malevolent. Stapledon’s Star Maker still seems like a good model of how humans and other civilizations’ species would react to an all-powerful entity in the universe.
Clarke’s classic 2001: A Space Odyssey is a contact novel, and would explain the Fermi Paradox. ETI is very rare and is transcendent. No technosignatures to look for. And if star children were being created today, they would be very hard to detect.
Hi Alex, do you know if Kevin Kelly has written about how we might react to extraterrestrial technology that we might not fully understand? I’d be interested in his insights about this. I guess the closest example we might have are things like cargo cults, but I’m not sure if that’s a directly equatable analogy to our modern day, scientific society. I’d tend to agree with what he says about the positives generally outweighing the negatives in terms of our technology that we have invented, but whether this would be the case for the introduction of technology that we haven’t invented and don’t fully understand, I don’t know. I suspect we may have to cross that bridge to truly find out, and I don’t think we’re ready to do that yet.
Interesting what you say about the book reviews. I’ve seen confusion over the book title too, thinking it means the Fermi Paradox.
I’m not aware of Kelly addressing alien technology in regards to impact on cultures. His interest is more about how technology evolves in different circumstances.
More relevant is his chapter in the book about how the Amish decide to adopt new technology. The impression I got was that he considers this approach more mature than our general adoption of new technology. However, the Amish do have our western civilization as a “control” group to assess how technology is used.
It doesn’t seem that farfetched to consider how stone age cultures have fared after adopting artifacts of high tech. This seems to me very analogous to our culture adopting alien technology. The worst-case might be that alien tech hides destructive things, like giving smallpox infected blankets to Native Americans.
However, unlike teh Amish, we are not a cohesive culture and we cannot regulate what others on the planet do. Whether that be METI messaging or germline genetic engineering. International treaties cannot even control weapons of mass destruction. If an alien technology that was claimed to offer some advantage to a country was provided, would that country not use it after some testing, even if the UN had universally legally banned any such use? Reality suggests that control just will not happen. Even if it did, the consequences of such authoritarian behavior might be unacceptable.
´´…historical contact events where gunpowder, or fast food, or religion, or the combustion engine have been given to societies that lacked them. What were the consequences in those situations? ´´´
Was that a rhetorical question ? …the above mentioned things were part of something called Proges , and if you believe they caused unnescesary suffering , then you are trying to get history and evolution into reverse gear ….and the same will be true for the consequences of any technological advance , with or without aliens
Yeah, and the example of the Aztecs in the text is just silly. Mexicans are much much much better now than when tens of thousands of them, every year, were removed their heart while still alive. Also, the Aztec Empire was not defeated by the Spanish Army, but by the vassal tribes of the empire convinced to fight together by a few Spanish soldiers. Indeed, the Spanish Army tried several times to arrest Hernan Cortes and his men, who fought the “military police” pursuing them.
Wouldn’t removing the heart of a prisoner be roughly equivalent to burning a witch? If not, how would it compare to the Spanish Inquisition? If we need numbers how do any of the Jewish pogroms compare? My questions are rhetorical. The Aztecs do not represent the average original American.
My questions are rhetorical because the risks inherent of the contact paradox do not require willful cruelty. Disease killed the overwhelming majority of original Americans. The risks inherent to contact are beyond willful control.
I encourage you to use the destruction of original American cultures as an example of the contact paradox without using it as an example of demonizing European culture.
Not sure what you mean by “rethorical” here. Just a few points:
– Burning witches was barely done in Spain. Big majority of it was done in Central Europe. It was much more common in the Protestant world than in the Catholic world.
– Even the witch hunt in Central Europe was dwarfed by human sacrifices in the Aztec Empire, by a huge amount.
– Mexican conquest effectively finished Aztec sacrifices forever, and there never was any witch hunting in Mexico, AFAIK.
– Spain was the first country to consider native Americans as human beings and ban their slavery, as early as 1542 (Leyes Nuevas), and a first version of that law was in effect since 1512-1513 (Leyes de Burgos). Slavery in, for example, the USA, was not abolished until 1865.
Thinking that humans can catch alien diseases is sillier than thinking that pine trees can catch a cold.
“Thinking that humans can catch alien diseases is sillier than thinking that pine trees can catch a cold.”
If I may, that is completely missing the point when it comes to METI. It’s not that people are worried we would catch alien diseases, or vice versa – different biologies and all that. It’s that the example of disease spreading through the Americas is an example of a destructive consequence of contact that was completely unintended. If we made contact with ETI, either remotely or directly, what other unintended consequences, both positive and negative, could occur? The fact is you don’t know, I don’t know, and the people sending messages don’t know. So it’s surely worth at least a bit of time to sit down, look at our own history, and learn as much as we can from it.
Huh? Are you seriously concluding from some unintended bad thing that can’t happen between aliens and humans that many unintended bad things can happen between aliens and humans? What kind of argument is that?
I could build a list of Spanish on Spanish violence that mirrors any list of Aztec on Aztec violence. I could build a list of Spanish on Spanish love that mirrors a list of Aztec on Aztec love. Same for any European or Asian or Original American civilization. Same for any X on Y love and violence. Chauvinism isn’t the point here. Actually it is somewhat since technological superiority often leads to and enhances chauvinism.
We could list every tree without understanding the forest problem of the contact paradox. The West won because of technology. Winning meant the deaths of tens of millions of humans and the destruction of hundreds of nations/civilizations. You can’t uplift something dead and buried. Disease did most of the harm and disease belongs within the forest as a metaphor for technology. The most deadly European diseases were the product of animal domestication. Because Europeans had access to more domesticable animals than Americans and had more advanced agriculture, just saying hello eliminated people capable of returning that hello. The fact that some of those people cut out other people’s hearts doesn’t change that. Especially since everyone had relatives just as angry.
IOW, the thesis of Diamond’s “Guns Germs and Steel”.
“I could build a list of Spanish on Spanish violence that mirrors any list of Aztec on Aztec violence. I could build a list of Spanish on Spanish love that mirrors a list of Aztec on Aztec love.”
Cherry-picking is a very bad statistics and can be used to “prove” almost anything, including contradictory propositions.
The quoted describes the opposite of cherry picking.
Nope doesn’t constitute a reasoned argument Antonio.
Regarding ETI, SETI, METI, I have long wondered why there aren’t any documented contacts. Then I started thinking, as we humans continue to learn more and more about the long series of cascading accidents that led to the creation of life on this planet, the emergence of moderately intelligent animals (apes, whales, octopi, birds) and humans, we might want to lower our expectations/estimates about how much intelligent life of the Homo Sapiens class or better might be “out there”. Further, (so far as known) the physical limitations on interstellar-scale travel, or communications for that matter, in the absence of some syfy assumptions, indicate to any practical mind the immense obstacles of any “person” or directed object arriving here, even if for some reason our particular location would be selected as a destination target. If I could live long enough to see it through, I’d like to place a large bet on no ETI ever contacting us within the relevant likely survival window of our race!
However, I am intrigued by the ethical responsibility that our race has. If for some reason we were the only, or one of only a few,population(s) with Homo Sapiens class intelligence, or better, we have a duty. This duty may only be with respect to our own kind, but in my mind this duty extends to the whole of self-conscious intelligence beings wherever they are and whatever they may be. Wouldn’t this duty be upon us to colonize at least some part of this galaxy with the hope and dream that future millions and billions of sensing, feeling, thinking creatures can continue to conceive, experience and create?
Benjamin R. Stockton
Huntington Beach, California
“the long series of cascading accidents that led to the creation of life on this planet”
The more we know about the fossil record, the more ancient we find the origin of life. Life on Earth started almost at the beginning of the epoch when the crust stabilized and there was liquid water on the surface. The crust solidified 4.0-3.6 billion years ago. The first fossil evidence dates back from 3.77 billion years ago. Indirect evidence of life dates back to 4.1 billion years ago.
An alien civilization that had released von Neumann replicating probes could be long gone, yet the probes could still be replicating in systems all over the galaxy. Unless we are unlucky, either there are none, because none were ever released, or they are already here in our system and we haven’t found them yet.
Of course, those replicators could be life itself, and we are the evolved result. Clarke thought aliens would be cultivating minds wherever they found them. Perhaps it would have been a lot easier to cultivate life and let evolution take its course. (Neither approach is exclusive.)
Some theologians suspect that that–spreading life, including intelligent life, throughout a possibly otherwise-lifeless (or very nearly so) cosmos–may indeed be our purpose. If so, it is certainly a simultaneously daunting (what an immense job!), humbling, and ennobling one.
“I mean, how do we respond if we get a message, and then a second one saying “Don’t pay any attention to that first message?”
This was precisely the scenario shown in the undeservedly forgotten story ‘The Catspaw’, by George O. Smith, described by Campbell as “Somebody, somewhere, had a fine idea, evidently, that was just a leetle too hot to try out at home. So they wanted someone else to try it —”
The viewpoint character experiences a succession of strange and confused dreams in which a shadowy entity, apparently not human, describes a number of radical new technologies ranging from the small and profitable to the world-shattering. He sets up a company that commercializes a few of the minor ideas, and he makes a mint of money. Then he starts preparations to implement a really important technology, which effectively promises unlimited electrical power for free. But he meets with strong opposition from a group led by a charismatic lady, whose contention is that the invention is VERY DANGEROUS. Finally he arranges a private meeting with this opponent, and he asks her “Why really are you so set against this technology, that could be so good for everybody?”. Her answer: “Because I was warned against it in a dream!” It develops from there.
I don’t agree with the idea that ET civilizations more advanced than us are going to give us their superior technology or technological secrets. Psychological adulthood requires that we learn how to solve our own problems especially if humanity can solve them and we can through time. If ET’s gave us superior technology, they would cheat us out of learning how to do it for ourselves. This is a very strong ethic, the ethic of non interference Carl Sagan mentioned. We will only get superior technology when we earn it. C. G. Jung wrote whenever a civilization or country’s technological development exceeds it’s psychological development, we have wars.
Also I think we should be careful about expecting more advanced ET’s to be our salvation. I certainly would like to have technology and scientific knowledge which was a million years ahead of today. Many of our diseases could instantly be cured and social problems could be solved, the quality of life would improve.
The replicator of Star Trek in my opinion will probably always be science fiction since it is just too make. If you can make me another Marilyn Monroe who likes me I would like that. One would have to have the power of god to do that and the same problems happen with the transporter idea of Star Trek. The extremely technologically advanced ET’s would seem like gods, but we have to be careful to withdraw the religious overtones or projections because the hard problems of our civilization will not be solved today so we are in this for the long term.
Geoffrey, just letting us know they exist–a prime numbers beacon signal, say, and then nothing more (until we could travel there in person and meet them face to face [or their equivalent])–might be the best help an older civilization could give us (assuming they wanted to, of course). I just watched Episode 12 (“Encyclopaedia Galactica”) of Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” tonight, and he made that very point at Arecibo–that just by hearing an unambiguously artificial signal (no matter how simple it might be)–we would know that someone else had survived technological adolescence, generating hope that we, too, might be able to do the same.
I’m a sci-fi author and have thought long and hard about Fermi’s paradox. I came to the conclusion that light speed is simply too slow for galactic distances (or beyond). Communication that takes hundreds or even thousands of years per round trip is not useful – and thus won’t be used. But what if there was another way? Some other technology that avoids the light-speed limit? Maybe there’s a galactic conversation happening right now, but we’re not a part of it because we haven’t yet made the right discoveries. My book, Quantum Space, dives into that “what if”. Check it out, it’s quite popular among hard sci-fi readers. https://www.amazon.com/dp/B06ZY9T5Y5
The speed of light is consequential because of our perceptions and lifetimes. If we lived for 10,000 years, the impact of c on communication and travel would be far less of a concern. We have terrestrial organisms that live for thousands of years, and I have no doubt that our machine intellects will effectively maintain a common experience indefinitely.
Why wouldn’t a machine intellect grow bored? If it can’t be bored (programmed not to be) it isn’t really all that intelligent.
Machine intelligence, unlike us, can go dormant, by switching off. They need to draw no more than the tiniest trickle of power to run a clock, or be awakened when the energy of a nearby star generates the power needed. Or, they can operate at a much-reduced speed, so that time appears highly compressed. These are options than machines have, which our homeothermic biology does not. Poikilotherms do have this capacity too and can be put in a state of a deep freeze and then revived.
The bottom line is that our human-centric view is limiting what is truly possible for mind to spread across teh galaxy.
Thrilling discussion! SETI/METI discourse rarely stays on the rails long enough to expose so many insights. SETI is about physics, METI is about self; those ready to discuss the former are not always ready to discuss the latter.
Broadcast METI projects aren’t like the Pioneer Plaques and Voyager Records, which delivered profound, ongoing philosophical value at negligible cost and zero risk, wholly irrespective of their likelihood for achieving contact. [See critiques by Drs. Benford, Benford, Brin, et al. (Centauri Dreams, 7/21/17); Benford (CD, 12/8/17); also comments by Zubrin (CD, 12/21/17, Introduction).] Radio-laser METI cannot deliver as advertised without vastly greater resource and will than we’ve yet mastered.
It is fair, therefore, to point out with regard to METI that our species’ most conspicuously motivated projects are often not rational. The Great Pyramids didn’t have to “work” as vehicles to a pharaonic afterlife — to be meaningful they simply had to be built. [See, for example, Anthony F.C. Wallace’s comparative analyses of traditional regeneration rituals.] Let’s consider that METI’s meaningfulness may be more ceremonial than rational. Some leading METI advocates urge transmitting the entire archives of Twitter or Facebook, even the whole Internet, without concern for whether an ETI would make sense of it. Others deflect with aphorisms like “METI is a celebration of music.” These are signs that it may not matter whether METI projects work, METIcians just want them to happen. In other words, METI may not be about experimentation, but ritual.
The pivot in the SETI/METI dialog, then, is just to be forthright about motivations. Science can help with that, too. Humans bring a two-billion year old box of neural tools to work every day: we understand few of those tools, yet we use them all. For example, the anterior cingulate cortex plays a significant role in expectation, planning, decision making, the thrill of surprise, but also gambling addiction. The neural giftedness that made a great mammoth tracker in the Pleistocene might cost her descendant her retirement funds today. [See for example Thomas Wynn and Frederick Coolidge’s work on the neuro-cortical evolutionary origins of creativity and technology.] Is the compulsion to write our names in the cosmic snow really a by-product of neural features that drove our ancestors to claim environments other hominids couldn’t?
Paleoarchaeologist Genevieve von Petzinger sees signs of this in the cognitive evolution of the religious impulse, which manifests today in surprising ways. [See https://youtu.be/4Zgwz_m7sRs .] For a thousand generations our ancestors were peculiarly compelled to reach the most remote and mysterious places possible — some a kilometer underground — to leave inscrutable geometric designs on cave walls. That impulse transcended 30,000 years of change in language, culture, landscape and resources. And we are neurostructurally the same animals today. If science-ish reasons for METI are unsatisfying, perhaps that’s because METI is more honestly understood as an expressed impulse to leave our marks in distant places… be that Chauvet, Mount Everest, the Heliopause, or GJ 273.
If so, it also seems to be part of the human religious or mystical impulse to rationalize such behaviors irrespective of our commitments to them. Indeed, one leading METIcian expects we will perform his projects now and decide why we did them, later. [See Wow! Signal Podcast, Ep. 37 at 37:57. ]
The point to all this: METI is viscerally exciting, and builds that excitement by associating the project with humanity’s boldest and most respected physical sciences. So it deserves equally bold scrutiny. Civilization appears to be renegotiating the concept of credibility right now, and traditional claimants aren’t competing like they once did. This could be the golden moment for science to take a central role as a shared cultural value for our species. If it did, we would be approaching a trailhead to the Centauris. Will compulsive cave painting in a lab coat undermine that moment?
Centauri Dreams readers will note that Keith Cooper has often — very eloquently — explained why discipline pays off in science, and how we can fundamentally benefit from understanding our local cosmos before shouting into it. [See for example CD, 12/11/17.] Equal scrutiny might apply to the curious ape on the other end of the telescope, as well. We don’t understand why we do most of the things we do; our cognitive machinery still drives us, not the other way around. A range of intentional, self-critical inquiries through biology, neuroscience, social sciences, even philosophy, education and public policy could aid the cause of reason by intervening in parascientific impulses before they taint that effort.
At least in that limited respect, perhaps everyone can agree that the technical prospect of METI gives our species a thrilling and timely opportunity for self examination.
What a brilliant, brilliant response, which has made me think about METI a little differently.
I think when we do SETI, we’re expecting technological ETI to be logical, robotic almost in how it approaches its activities, when maybe in truth we can’t predict what they are going to be doing, and that some of their activities may be irrational. That might make SETI harder as we wouldn’t be able to predict what they might be doing, but on the other hand maybe it would make them more visible, as long as we’re looking in the right places?
If I’m understanding correctly what von Petzinger is saying, then our urge to explore isn’t just about the logical goal of increasing our knowledge, it’s about leaving our mark on the Universe, which is why we leave flags on the Moon, for example. Maybe METI isn’t just about communication, but also about the interstellar communication equivalent of graffiti saying “we woz here” – a psychological response to the immensity of the cosmos, a way of trying to say that we matter. After all, thousands of people submit their names to be put on plaques attached to Mars rovers, or uploaded to spacecraft leaving the Solar System. Maybe METI comes from the same neurological urge. I still don’t agree with doing METI until we’ve at least fully assessed the risks as best we can, but it does help me to understand a bit better why some people want to do METI.
Maybe our chance of finding success in SETI will be higher if ETI also has that neurological make-up that makes it want to leave its mark in distant places. If ETI lacks that, then maybe we will never detect a signal.
Deep time does not select for careless allocation of resources, casual approaches to self-interest, or sloppy risk management strategies. The set of tactics and strategies that can navigate deep time will be much smaller than the set that can navigate shallow time. We can propose irrational ET people but the probability that one is currently active, besides us, is proportional to the rate that ET people emerge. If the rate is low enough, then we can confidently predict that we are playing Galactic Diplomacy with people who have mastered the unforgiving economics of survival.
I think every people will experience the desire to make a unique mark on the universe but there are many ways to make a mark besides beacons. I think other peoples are such a complex resource that contact is approached with extreme pragmatism. For an ancient people of invulnerable, immortal, know-it-alls; other peoples may be the only available supply of new experience and agency increasing technology. Making contact reduces the relative uniqueness of all parties and an ancient people could realize perfect comparative advantage by simply watching.
Agree with Cooper and Shaw, above. We may not be inclined toward reason, but we are uniquely capable of it. That part of our inheritance deserves protection from all the others, because it will protect us in return.
The un-selfcritical modern mind is a chimpanzee with a hand grenade. Unanticipated selection events are just a matter of time. :)
While some METI initiatives have been motivated by ‘art’ or ‘self-expression’ dessires, or were a kind of galactic ‘Killroy was here’, painting all METI activities that way and thus like something irrational, and even some kind of religious ritual, is quite disingenuous. Many METI proponents don’t have those motivations at all.
Is the human trait of put marks on the bounds of the environment so very different from animals marking their boundaries with scent? I will admit “Gilroy was here” graffiti isn’t quite the same, but perhaps merely an adaptation of that ancient boundary marking.
If there exists an old and aggressive culture, it will have ensured, over the eons, that it has no competition – by definition. It will also by default lie low, to avoid detection by evolving new civilisations. Viewed in the light of this scenario, no paradox exists.
That makes no sense at all. If it wants no competition and kills every other race in its beginnings, it can’t have a low profile, it must be highly expansive, searching for other races and killing them as soon as possible. Indeed, we should be already dead.
What could possibly do a civilization that is confined to its home planet to exterminate a civilization that has already colonized half of the galaxy when the former detects it in its neighbourghood? It’s just plain silly. It’s the most suicidal civilization I can think of. An old culture? Hah! It should be long dead.
How do you know we are well on teh way to being dead? An alien civilization could have quietly seeded our society with memes that put us on some inevitable path to destruction. Asimov suggested the reverse with his Second Foundation, but I see no inherent reason why a hidden civilization couldn’t find ways to ensure we destroy ourselves. Or maybe they do things more directly, like Asimov’s “eternals” in The End of Eternity who change tiny events that ripple through time. The Eternity organization is hidden from the main timelines.
Just because our species has so far mostly used violence to achieve its ends doesn’t mean that an advanced civilization couldn’t use far more subtle methods to achieve similar ends.
In response to your question:
– There are much easier and cost effective ways to kill us.
– They had a couple of million years (since we started using tools and fire) or half a million years (since our species appeared) to kill us. Thus they are very very very bad at killing us (and thus not a real menace) or simply there is no civilization that is trying to destroy us.
Indeed, Mr. Tolley. An intelligence, (xeno)biologic or post-biologic (machine) that groks time and distance in thousands (or multiple more orders of magnitude) of light-years, may be able to plan for results that would be unfathomable in our time- (and space-) frames. With actions so subtle as to be unnoticeable in our time and space referents.
One is reminded of the Chinese saying:
For a return on investment in one year, plant rice.
For a return on investment in ten years, plant fruit trees.
For a return on investment in a hundred years, educate people.
How about a civilization that looks to that number of millennia rather than years?
You misunderstand. We are, in this scenario, not yet a detected threat. When we become such, the trap will be sprung and this will come as a complete surprise to us.
No, it’s you who missed the argument that such an aggressive, eager to kill any competitor, culture must be highly expansive, and thus already detected us. I already explained why it must be expansive, and no counterargument has been presented.
I think there is a WIDE range of possibility when we start thinking of what a hostile alien situation might look like. It seems like wishful thinking to say that they can’t discover us now because they would have already. The contact paradox runs more along the line of they can’t discover us very long after we become visible to other civilizations scanning the sky, which is rather less reassuring. There are potential limits, after all, on the scope of an aggressive society – for example, each complex unit it sends out to evaluate another civilization is potentially a focus of rebellion.
Many scenarios involve a hostile alien force that has lost most or all of its sentience. For example, in Saberhagen’s novels the berserkers were originally machines, though his stories blur the lines in many interesting ways with organic components and even subjugated planets working with them for a temporary exemption. In one of Walter Jon Williams’ stories the humans have become physically adapted to a wide range of colonialist roles. But we really don’t have to look beyond Earth: literally _tomorrow_ we could read that Kim Jong Un has started putting implants into the brains of certain questionable individuals that would text-message authorities should they develop the wrong word associations or unfavorable activity in the limbic system in regard to party slogans. And that’s at least nominally a civilization with space flight capability.
Against the dreams of limitless free wealth and knowledge from space, we must balance the nightmare that a horrible and oppressive force could exist there, one which according to the paradox is almost certain to find Earth before we can do anything about it. Yet there might be an infinitesimal chance that this asteroid-struck and presumed harmless planet might reach the level of technology needed to collapse the false vacuum and bring mercy to the Cosmos. Should we throw that slender hope away, our own civilization and countless others might suffer unimaginably as the observable universe waits for the evolution of another contender to slip through the cracks.
If malevolent ETI was observing us with em radiation at a distance, if their observing stations are just 10,000 ly away they will observe nothing of interest on Earth that might be a problem. Even 2000 ly away they might well consider that our planet offers no threat. Arguably they might need to be within 100 ly to realize we may become a threat to be removed. Referring again to Clarke, his last Odyssey book, 3001, suggested the monoliths reported back to “home base” using em radiation, which meant that Earth civilization had time to prepare for any threat.
While galactic bogeymen are purely speculative, it is far more likely that our own species will be the source of the threat. Today that threat is confined to Earth, but in a few centuries, it may well be one of our solar system colonies that becomes the threat. It doesn’t have to be space operatic violence, but far more subtle using information or biological warfare. We are already experiencing information warfare disrupting western democracies which is highly cost-effective and an efficient asymmetric situation.
We have been lucky not to have had a global hot war for 3/4 of a century. But that may prove a fortuitous period. If the Paul Kennedy thesis holds up, then we are on the cusp of war with China. IMO, that is far more of a threat than any speculative alien ETI.
Self-annihilation is another potential answer to the contact paradox; but that explanation requires that every civilization, without exception, goes the same way. Of course, it is possible that multiple answers work in concert. METI might also appear to make sense as a threat (since it invokes unknown consequences) or final act during a local conflict.
(re China: see https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/04/health/coronavirus-china-aylward.html and https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/mastery-mindset/201912/us-students-continue-lag-in-pisa-2018-results )
Well said Alex. I have been watching history documentaries of Hitler and his rise to power and his use of various rhetorical techniques to incite hatred of other nationalities and races. It appears to be happening in a number of countries again now. Examples are Brazil, Hungary, Russia, and of course the United States. A hate filled leader always sees others as the enemy and attempts to use the hatred to maintain and extend power. Beware the possibilities that could unleash.
Competition is a brilliant way to enhance abilities and maintain general fitness. Eliminating competition would be irrational for anyone who wants to enhance themselves or maintain general fitness. Competition does not have to be lethal. Non-zero sum and positive-sum play delivers returns that are impossible from zero-sum game play.
Personally, I think the distance between stars kills the premise that a people can spread to the stars and maintain their form which is the kernel that your premise depends on; the galaxy is for us to us not them. If a people can’t spread without becoming a legion of them, then that kernel either kills all or most of them or itself. Further, all technological people may be on a path that leads to the same general/meta form of superplasticity of form. A form that would allow movement through any environment and that increases its agency by cultivating diversity.
Yeah, I agree with you on both points. Indeed I do think that we will change in radical ways even before visiting other stars, probably in this century. I think it very probable, for example, that we will eliminate aging in this century, maybe even before 2050. That would give us a life expectancy of around 5,000 years, with current accident rates, but of course those rates will also change in those 5,000 years.
I am rather more concerned with our failure to detect technosignatures from astroengineering projects. Unequivocal evidence of astroengineering would allow us to obtain virtually all the benefits of first contact, virtually without any of the risks. It would certainly give our space programs a huge boost – once you see that something is possible, working towards the goal looks a lot less silly.
The fact that we have not yet found unusual examples of astroengineering is also worrying from a Fermi Paradox angle too.
Listen but don’t try to contact. We should be furthering exploration and use of our solar system and constructing artificial habitats in space. We can communicate when we’re more powerful, widespread, and numerous — assuming they’re there and interested.
Paul, why do you say that The Three Body Problem (2008)? “shows no familiarity with the actual Centauri system”?
I thought that Cixin Liu got (at least) the basics correct in this regard? It’s an amazing book.
I purchased The Contact Paradox last week and have just ordered David Brin’s ‘Existence’ – waiting for their delivery.
Thanks for the continuing recommendations.
Looking forward to more of your conversations with Keith and others.
Adam, the novel doesn’t get the orbital dynamics in the Alpha Centauri system right; it’s describing an entirely different configuration involving three stars. That’s what I was referring to in the post. While we think of Alpha Centauri as a trinary system, the fact is that there is some controversy about whether Proxima is even bound to Centauri A and B (opinion now seems to be that it is). But the point is, Proxima is extremely loosely bound, if so, and is nothing like the third star in the system the novel describes.
Honestly I think Fred Saberhagen probably answered the question already, but the quest for answers we like better is not over.
The argument against disruptive technology seems like it applies equally well to technology invented on your own planet by less exciting means. If aliens have decided not to share technology with Earth, have they also decided not to pursue it themselves?
A weirder explanation could be that consciousness itself, or communication with it, could have some sort of rare or low-level toxicity that is independent of technology. For example, the way in which we “really feel things” might involve causality violations at the quantum level that create some risk of directly perceiving the future. If your advanced civilization beams an image to a primitive tribe on Earth, perhaps their shaman tells you “oh, you come from the star that blows up in fifty years.” As a lark you double-check your sun just to make sure it is normal, but in the process you think of a clever new way to generate boundless energy by causing local variations in the alpha constant… by a process of natural selection, at least, the less talkative civilizations might remain.
Alternatively, there could be a “mathematically provable” etiquette for first contact, learned by hard experience on one planet or a few by anyone who tries. My feeling is that the most civilized way to do a first contact might be to build a very large telescope and observe another civilization that is going about its daily business without showing signs of trying to shape your world. You notice that they have a very large telescope of their own that they point at you now and then, so you go out and wave hello, and they wave back. Perhaps by reducing the intensity of signalling to the organismic level, there is a way to convey a non-threatening intent. (This ties in to Harold Shaw’s comment above)
Something like the “tit for tat” strategy in game theory for repeated encounters?
The “tit-for -tat” strategy allows rational parties to increase or maintain individual agency (discovering a definition of rational) by trading assets without using a currency field as an emulator. The “tit-for -tat” strategy can eventually achieve a value trading blockchain that includes everything available to trade from all parties. A currency field would emulate the blockchain and allow “tat” to trade directly for anything of equal currency field value.
Distance and the speed of light may make “tit-for-tat” the most profitable and perhaps only way for rational parties to trade. Parties could transport ideas over great distances at low cost while mass is prohibitively expensive. Samples of materials that would be used as manufacturing control examples would be worth transporting. When trading ideas it is challenging to demonstrate trade value without giving the idea away and losing its trade value. Equitable value exchange among parties is achieved when each “tit for tat” match produces a result that all parties agree was fair. Playing for fair matches builds the value blockchain that builds agency.
Great distances predicts, that a party demanding agency increasing assets may likely produce any such asset before they may trade for it. For a rational people willing to navigate Deep Time, it is in their self interest to manage how their blockchain interacts with another party’s blockchain. In the case of a very long blockchain interacting with a short one we see a range of significant risks that range through accidental detention of a gadget and adoption of superior technology reducing the short blockchain’s ability to produce originally unique assets to trade.
The meme of the Altruistic Alien fueled demand for SETI when other memes couldn’t or wouldn’t. The supporters of that idea were willing to do the work. We can still find the altruistic alien idea by looking first for the rational alien willing to navigate Deep Time by building its agency increasing asset blockchain. If a party is willing to navigate Deep Time, fairly playing “tit for tat” or “tic tac toe” with a diverse party of players can be universally profitable. Even if not truly, universally profitable; fair play predicts an increase in any player’s distance into Deep Time.
I find these sort of conversations interesting and frustrating at the same time.
I have a suspicion that ET cognition may be vastly different than our own as a result of intelligence evolving under what may be VERY different circumstances than our own. If that’s the case then maybe we need to consider that ET behavior may be much different than our own; it may be possible that there are aggressive societies without an expansionist urge, or highly advanced technical societies who find it impossible to even conceive of the idea of SETI/METI.
Behavior that makes sense to us may make little or no sense to others. A species of (for example) intelligent octupi that communicate via flashing patterns of light may not only become a technoligically advanced species, but they A) may NEVER invent radio and B) might find it literally impossible to communicate with us, even under face-to-face circumstances.
If we’re going to ponder SETI/METI and the lack (so far) of results, I think we need to consider a wider variety of potential behaviors than the standard “expansionist society”, “listening but not sending”, etc stereotypes that are referred to so often in the literature.
Still, intelligence would be selected for once it appears because it would improve finding food, or whatever the equivalent is.
The difference might likely appear in whether it is selected for in social and reproductive competition. Creatures that reproduce by budding or simply by releasing spores into the environment might likely not develop more general intelligence.
My thought wasn’t that intelligence wouldn’t be selected, it was that an ET intelligence that evolved under very different circumstances might have cognitive processes very, very different from our own, to the point where actions and ideas that make sense to us (“Hey, let’s listen for the neighbors via radio!”, or “Let’s build a Dyson sphere!”) may not even occur to them, and may in fact be *impossible* for them to conceive.
Perhaps the explanation for the Fermi Paradox is simply due to ourselves being the only intelligence in the local group that’s decided to seek company.
That’s right. We simply don’t know what life elsewhere might be like till we discover it. I was simply trying to imagine what it would be like without reproductive competition as we have it, where we had to compete with increasingly intelligent opponents and that probably drove the success of more and more general intelligence.
It all goes back to my position that we better expand to the extent we can before finding them, whatever they’re like.
Because of what they might be like and because we’ll have greater chances of survival whatever happens.
“as we know, the Universe is so old that ET has had ample time to reach us, or to build some kind of Dysonian artefact, or to do something to make their presence more obvious” – Sorry, that is factually incorrect. The universe is very young (13 bn years into a stelliferous lifetime on the order of 10 trillion years). The time taken for life to evolve from non-living chemistry per galaxy is still unknown. Our species could easily be the first to have industrialised.
And you might well be correct that we are alone because life is rare, or that we are the first. Or intelligence, technology and industrialisation might be unique to our species. But the Universe is old enough that nevertheless it is eminently plausible that life could have formed and developed before us, given what we know about how life began on Earth – but you knew that. Heck, life on their planet could have begun after ours, and they might still have developed intelligence faster. Or not at all. We don’t know! I certainly don’t.
Of course, SETI and the Fermi Paradox both adopt this line of reasoning as an underlying assumption, and that assumption is there to be challenged, which I certainly do in my book. It’s not a given, and the answer to the mystery I allude to might well be that we are alone, or are the first.
I can tell you what is factually correct: we know that the first rocky planets were able to form 11-12 billion years ago (https://www.astrobio.net/news-exclusive/how-old-are-the-first-planets/, https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn26856-ancient-planets-are-almost-as-old-as-the-universe/), and that they had the basic building blocks required for organic chemistry. We know that life began on our planet at least 3.8 billion years ago (https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2016/09/worlds-oldest-fossils-stromatolites-discovered-climate-change/), just 700,000 years after the Big Bang. If we follow Copernican logic, that we are in neither a special place or time, and put those two facts together, then it seems reasonable to make the assumption that life could have started on those first rocky planets just as quickly. Of course, we don’t know that it did, but to say it’s factually incorrect is, I think, wrong.
In my above comment I of course meant 700,000 years after the formation of the Earth. Dunno why I write Big Bang!
Or indeed, I really meant to say 700,000,000 years after Earth formed!
Verbal, rational behavior is a user interface. The real behavior of tetrapoda is generated by what is popularized as the lizard brain. It is the emotional, but non-rational, non-verbal boss in the back seat, while the rational, verbal but non-emotional primate brain is the chauffeur, with the higher executive functions.
The lizard brain decides where to go, and the primate brain with its intellect rationalizes that decision, after the fact. The lizard brain is influenced by repeated assertion, a phenomenon understood by Joseph Goebbels when he stated that an assertion repeated enough times will be accepted as a fact.
While science is indeed intellectual, rational, and dependent upon verbal interactions, its cognitive substrate, like that of all tetrapod behavior, lies in the lizard brains. The real motivation for all science is not from the intellect (which rationalizes motivations quite well), but from the source of emotion.
Artificial intelligence and machine learning are fashioned after the rational and intellectual aspects of human cognition. Whether a lizard brain or some other aspect unconceived and/or unconceivable by humans may be emergent in providing non-human motivation is yet unknown.
Alien civilizations may well have entirely different constructs. Even here the underground mycelial networks extending many kilometers in forests have been postulated to be sentient, but in ways so different to be in effect in a different dimension: if it were to develop technology, it might be something beyond our conception.
I don’t see what you call the lizard brain as the real behaviour generator, but simply the default generator, what you have when you have no training in rational thinking. For example, our default mode of locomotion is not bipedal walking, it’s crawl. Only after a hard and long training you can start walking. And then you abandon crawl for almost all situations. Walking or running becomes the natural option for you when you are grown up.
Perhaps the value of using omnidirectional beacons to search for people and civilizations within a galaxy is inversely proportional to share of the galaxy explored. Has anyone explored how quickly the Milky Way could be explored? Having a vehicle at every star system or other astronomical would represent a 100% thoroughly explored galaxy. That goal could be accomplished with self-replication technology. Would it be faster to use the same technology and dedicate a star system to long range astronomy and the construction and propulsion of non-replicating probes? Would some star systems be superior candidates? A neutron star with orbiting material could provide a gravitational lens, raw material for the vehicles and propulsion. A black hole with orbiting material would be a more profitable gravitational lens but I don”t know if a black hole can be harnessed for propulsion.
“Has anyone explored how quickly the Milky Way could be explored?”
Yes, that computation has been done many times in this blog and elsewhere. Interestellar travel is an efficient form of SETI/METI. In a few million years you can fully explore/colonize the galaxy.
The discussion of the impact of alien technology in the form of replicators able to synthesize anything we wish (food, medicines, gadgets, guns, drugs, cats, dogs, people?) was anticipated by the experience of the Krell. The poor Krell doomed themselves in one long night apparently – the ultimate welfare state (everything you want for nothing) combined with the ultimate free market state (anything goes).
A guess is that technology may inexorably take us to something like the Krell experience leading to self-extinguishment. Perhaps mature intelligent life may conclude that physical technology is ultimately a misdirection of effort thus no one is listening, no one is talking and no one cares about interstellar communications. I just depressed myself.
(in case its not obvious, the reference to “Krell” is from the all-time great sci-fi move “Forbidden Planet”.
The notion that other intelligent beings will also develop technology is a human chauvinism, as Carl Sagan would say. Freeman Dyson also said: “I make a sharp distinction between intelligence and technology. It is easy to imagine a highly intelligent society with no particular interest in technology.” Also:
There are plenty of human examples of that (even today). This could be still more prevalent, depending on an intelligent being’s physical form; if I woke up tomorrow with four hooves and a tail, finding grass delicious, I would be glad to have no need of technology, and I would happily shed human thought patterns. (I have spent time around horses, dealing with them on their own terms, and I have seen the ease with which they outwitted other people, using their intelligence [they humored me, treating me as a member of the herd].) Also:
They are, with almost no exceptions, far happier than most human beings. They will never invent an electron microscope, but they will never threaten each other and all other life with thermonuclear annihilation, either, and wouldn’t do so even if they could–besides fighting briefly over mates and food, or to save themselves if cornered by predators (which are admittedly important things), they find violence repellent. Yet most human beings fancy themselves as superior… :-)
Robert Sapolsky: the Limbic system
Perhaps there is an optimal abstract area where a rational (demanding of a stable or growing agency providing asset blockchain) ET people and civilization use beacons. This abstract area would be partially bound by beacons or signaling along a border surrounding population centers. These beacons would create a distance where it is more likely someone crossing would have to assume a posture relative to their intent. These beacons would suggest a level of active surveillance. I think these beacons or signals are very likely to be built since they increase security.
The rest of the boundary would be described as the optimal beacon or beacons that would encourage a people to develop space faring technologies. I think there is value in applying amusement park logic to this beacon; you must have X/Y/Z vision to see this beacon. The beacon builder wants to find unique technologies that it can not independently supply. The spectrum of space faring technology may be limited and easily and independently exhausted by a people. Unique space faring technology may depend on a broad foundation of technologies unrelated to space faring. Space faring technology can consume a large percentage of a people’s ability to do work. Knowing there are other people will cause another people to assume a more defensive space faring posture, potentially further limiting the probability of unique space faring technology as well as diverting resources away from technologies more likely to produce unique assets. The beacon builder will be vulnerable to space faring technology. This beacon may be harder to see then we would like, but I think it would be a “distance” from a territorial beacon. An ancient people could establish a dominate position in the galaxy where they can gather immense information about younger peoples. It may be easier to break the ice of, “I am always watching you”, far from a homeworld.
Now I can’t get a picture out of my head…of Cheech and Chong, bowing reverently on the ground before a replicator…beside and behind which there are countless freshly-replicated joints and spliffs, piled higher than corn stands before the harvest… :-) (Interestingly, in “Intelligent Life in the Universe,” Carl Sagan wrote that artifacts ‘diffused’ among the stars by automated interstellar probes might, even in technological societies, “evolve into objects of worship.”) And, speaking of interstellar probes–particularly Bracewell probes, which can explore and return data & images on/of lifeless stellar systems, as well as listen for and make contact with any intelligent and technological “local aliens”:
Do those who oppose METI also usually oppose launching interstellar probes (of either the “purely instrumented” or Bracewell [instrumented *and* “Chatty Cathy”] variety)? Or do they usually ^not^ oppose them, figuring that most stellar systems such probes will visit will be bereft of life (or at least intelligent life)? Now:
Even the simplest purely-instrumented starprobe, if remotely-detected or physically found by another civilization, could “give away” our existence and location, especially if it carried, oh, a plaque or a phonograph record with a pulsar map…(yes, I know that the Pioneers and Voyagers are *very* slow “rafts to the stars,” but faster probes might also carry such calling cards). A Bracewell probe would listen and–if it heard/saw artificial radio and/or laser signals–make contact and say, “Hello, I’m from Sol, which is over there in your sky,” being–in effect–a local METI transmitter.
Question: How close would an “equivalent Earth” (same radio emissions) need to be before it would be detected by our SETI equipment?
(Forgive me if this question has already been answered and I missed the answer.)
Hi Marc, Arecibo would not be able to detect our level of leakage, i.e, broadcast TV etc, from Alpha Centauri, according to Seth Shostak. However Andrew Siemion has recently suggested that the next-gen Very Large Array, and the Square Kilometre Array, could detect such leakage between 5 and 15 light years away (https://www.vice.com/en_uk/article/bvgyx5/the-next-generation-of-super-sensitive-alien-hunting-telescopes-is-coming).
For more deliberate signals, Shostak has calculated 400 light years as the distance that one Arecibo could hear another Arecibo, but Jim Benford has pointed out that the calculation relies on a very narrowband signal with a glacial bit rate, and if the transmitter is on a rotating planet, then it could very well rotate out of view of the detector before most of the signal has been received. I haven’t seen calculations for it, but one would imagine the SKA would have a greater range, but the aforementioned difficulties would still stand.
Then there’s optical SETI. Our most powerful lasers shine brighter than the Sun for periods of nanoseconds. Were we to point one to the stars and use it to send a pulsed message, it would have a range of up to about 1,000 light years, according to Shelley Wright at UC San Diego, before interstellar extinction absorbed most of the laser light.
Then there’s biosignatures – oxygen, ozone, carbon dioxide, methane, industrial pollutants, even the glow of city lights, all of which could in principle be detected out to many light years. JWST, if it ever launches, will be able to detect these spectral fingerprints in the atmospheres of planets orbiting stars within a couple of dozen light years, and a Terrestrial Planet Finder-type mission would be able to directly image them at similar distances.
It depends on what kind of radio emissions you use. See for example:
It has been discussed numerous times. Answering the question is a not simple since it depends so much on which transmissions and how it is being received. The major factors include: EIRP (effective isotropic radiated power), free space path loss, background noise (to establish the required SNR), receive antenna gain, bandwidth, etc.
Since the question is about incidental detection and not METI there is the matter of time and season windows when the flux is maximum (for each transmitter) versus when we listen in the correct direction.
Arecibo transmissions for inter-planetary radar are strong but episodic and rare. HAARP is similar and is done at frequencies where the background noise is high. Broadcast is wide bandwidth so low spectral density (per Hz) and will peak when the transmitter is near the planet’s rim (from our perspective). And so forth.
Despite each calculation being simple to do the question is not so easy to answer. In general, for the most persistent of our transmissions, perhaps a few light years, and quite a bit further for episodic and rare transmissions.
A wonderful discussion Paul and Keith. Many fascinating ideas. I think Breakthrough Listen is a terrific idea and should have been attempted already in some form or other. As for detection of ETI, I would think that if we succeeded within the next 1000 years in hearing a signal from an alien species that would be a fantastic result achieved in an incredibly short time. METI is a much more difficult problem. Humans are an incredibly fractious and non-unified species and will almost certainly continue that way. I think a large scale attempt to beam information to specific target star systems will not occur unless we detect an incoming signal first, so the likelihood we are detected by an alien intelligence until then is very low. However, as you say we should be discussing these matters now. Long term human planning is almost nonexistent though apparently. I could site various problems which affect our very survival which are not receiving adequate global attention, so METI is only one issue on that long list.
Keith Cooper: “Apparent evidence for Hawking Points in the CMB sky.” by Daniel An, Krzystof A. Meissner, Pawel Nurowski, Roger Penrose. Is this PROOF of Loop Quantum Gravity or “Brane” theories pointing to the existence of a UNIVERSE PRIOR TO OUR OWN? Could ETI’s from a prior universe contact us in this way?
It’s neither actually – the authors claim it as evidence for something called Conformal Cyclic Cosmology rather than LQG or brane theory. CCC is a theory describing a cyclic Universe, which has been developed by Roger Penrose and Vayagn Gurzadyan. They have claimed to see evidence for CCC in patterns in the CMB, repeating concentric circles in the arrangement of the CMB’s temperature anisotropies that would have been produced by gravitational waves from black hole mergers in the previous universe. However, no one else can see these circles in the data, and the number of people that currently believe in CCC are probably limited to the names of the people on the paper that you highlight. That paper, by the way, suggests that they think they’ve found an excess of Hawking radiation released by the final evaporation of black holes in the previous Universe and imprinted upon the CMB, but again, these claims are viewed with scepticism by most of the cosmology community.
But, let’s suppose that CCC is real. Could signals be transmitted from one universe to the next? Penrose and Gurzadyan have actually considered this and think it’s possible, either via em radiation, or gravitational waves, or neutrinos. They wrote a paper about it, here: https://arxiv.org/pdf/1512.00554.pdf
A variation of this is a possibility proposed by Stephen Hsu and Anthony Zee, that aliens that either created our universe, or who lived in an earlier universe, may have left a message encoded into the CMB. Suffice to say, no one has found a message yet! You can read about it here: https://skyandtelescope.org/astronomy-news/a-creators-possible-calling-card/
Like Ellie Arroway looking for a pattern in pi – a message from the ancient ETs? Contact
I have no problem believing that aliens created the universe, but who created the aliens……..?
OTHER ALIENS, obviously! And so on, and so on, and so on. and so on, and so on, and so on…
A civilization’s path to space-faring ability may lead to space ships as persons. Space ship persons would be faster and tougher than ships filled with biologic people. They would also likely be more efficient. The Fermi Paradox is shaped by our expectations for scale and resource usage efficiency. Civilizations of biologic people may always create a people fitter for space.
A biologic people may share the galaxy with space ship people, but their scale and efficiency wouldn’t dominate the landscape. Space ship people could leave a hunter gathering society’s footprint.
Of late, when I have stopped to think about contact with “civilizations”, I’m drawn back to the Drake equation and its initial factors representing frequencies of occurrences among or around the stars of the galaxy.
Recently, circulated on the news programs, there was a short clip, I believe, a fox and a possum, headed into a culvert, detected by a camera with night vision. The fox was clearly waiting for the possum to catch up. The fox realized the possum was slow cross country, but apparently it realized it was a good hunting partner, what with its burrowing skill – and vice versa. A miniature civilization as it were, noted by some biologists. Furthermore, it was claimed that this sort of team work arose sporadically and spontaneously. Rediscovered periodically by generations of four-legged creatures.
The initial formulation had factors for life and then jumped to the factors that had civilizations. Over the decades we have achieved a much better handle on the earlier frequency assumptions: frequency of planets around stars and frequency of planets in habitable zones…
estimates over stellar lifetimes of how amenable the planets would be to life formation.
This is all great, but we still have something like a bandwidth full of other frequency for things like ingredients for life, selection of metabolism, unicellular and multi-cellular…. And look at all the stuff in between there and frequencies of civilizations that want to radio broadcast, even if it isn’t the Ed Sullivan Show or the Top 30.
Do we have to account for frequency of aliens who discover fire and combustion? Did they need it? How about whales? Discover a language? Writing and symbols? …Formed teamed with other animals? Does that count?
If we discover worlds that looked like they have been tunneled in geometric patterns, and even if they are on several planets of a system,
will that mean that they are artifacts of a civilization or the equivalent of beehives? We could end up deciphering their language to an extent, and perhaps have a swarm of something looking for pollen headed our way. Over “deep time”, I would prefer.
Life has other properties beside seeming to reverse the trends associated with entropy. At some scale we are aware of its self awareness. We know we are aware and aware of each other. But we are not sure how much of that awareness extends over the animal kingdom.
And if there were great awareness in Earth’s past, say, in the Upper
Cretaceous, could we have missed it completely? What would its Alexandrian library have looked like?
Since the Earth has finite resources, and even the Solar System itself, it might be that civilizations last if they have some self restraint as well as self awareness. But their patterns of restraint could blur into a loss of self awareness too. Ants and termites might have been smarter aeons ago then we give them credit for now, for example.
And going back to the notion of language and symbols: We know we have overworked the Drake equation if we include frequency of ETs who speak English or Mandarin ( unless they are answering us back).
But how do we assess the frequency of communication or language in the hierarchy of a living planet? Will they write? Will they modulate EM signals? Will they remain attached to thumpings in a solid or liquid medium?…