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SETI and Altruism: A Dialogue with Keith Cooper

Keith Cooper’s The Contact Paradox is as thoroughgoing a look at the issues involved in SETI as I have seen in any one volume. After I finished it, I wrote to Keith, a Centauri Dreams contributor from way back, and we began a series of dialogues on SETI and other matters, the first of which ran here last February as Exploring the Contact Paradox. Below is a second installment of our exchanges, which were slowed by external factors at my end, but the correspondence continues. What can we infer from human traits about possible contact with an extraterrestrial culture? And how would we evaluate its level of intelligence? Keith is working on a new book involving both the Cosmic Microwave Background and quantum gravity, the research into which will likewise figure into our future musings that will include SETI but go even further afield.

Keith, in our last dialogue I mentioned a factor you singled out in your book The Contact Paradox as hugely significant in our consideration of SETI and possible contact scenarios. Let me quote you again: “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, but the reasons may not be apparent unless we take the statement apart. So let’s start today by talking about altruism before we explore the question of ‘deep time’ and how our species sees itself in the cosmos. I think we have ramifications here for how we deal not only with extraterrestrial contact but issues within our own civilization.

I’m puzzled by the seemingly ready acceptance of the notion that any extraterrestrial civilization will be altruistic or it could not have survived. Perhaps it’s true, but it seems anthropocentric given our lack of knowledge of any life beyond Earth. What, then, did you mean with your statement, and why is understanding altruism a key to our perception of contact?

  • Keith Cooper

I think so much that is integral to SETI comes down to our assumptions about altruism. How often do we hear that an older extraterrestrial society will be altruistic, as though it’s the end result of some kind of evolutionary trajectory. But there’s several problems with this. One is that the person making such claims – usually an astrophysicist straying into areas outside their field of expertise – is often conflating ‘altruism’ with ‘being nice’.

And sure, maybe aliens are nice. I kind of get the logic, even though it’s faulty. The argument is that if they are still around then they must have abandoned war long ago, otherwise they would have destroyed themselves by now, ergo they must be peaceful.

And it’s entirely possible, I suppose, that a civilisation may have developed in that direction. In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker attempted to argue that our civilization is becoming more peaceable over time, although Pinker’s analysis and conclusions have been called into question by numerous academics.

  • Paul Gilster

I hope so. I think the notion is facile at best.

  • Keith Cooper

It’s what human societies should always aim for, I truly believe that, but whether we can achieve it or not is another question. When it comes to SETI, we seem to home in on the most simplistic definitions of what an extraterrestrial society might be like – ‘they’ve survived this long, they must be peaceful’. A xenophobic civilization might be at peace with its own species, but malevolent towards life on other planets. A planet could be at peace, but that peace could be implemented by some 1984-style dystopian dictatorship where nobody is free. Neither of which is particularly ‘nice’, and we could think of many other scenarios, too.

Nevertheless, this myth of wise, kindly aliens has grown up around SETI – that was the expectation, 60 years ago, that ET would be pouring resources into powerful beacons to make it easy for us to detect them. To transmit far and wide across the Galaxy, and to maintain those transmissions for centuries, millennia, maybe even millions of years, would require huge amounts of resources. When we consider that the aliens may not even know for sure whether they share the Universe with other life, it’s a huge gamble on their part to sacrifice so much time and energy in trying to communicate with others in the Universe.

If we look at what altruism really is, and how that may play into the likelihood that ET will want to beam messages across the Galaxy given the cost in time and energy, then it poses a big problem for SETI. ET really needs to help us out – to display a remarkable degree of selfless altruism towards us – by plowing all those resources into transmitting signals that we’ll be able to detect.

One of the forms that altruism can take in nature is kin selection. We can see how this has evolved: lifeforms want to ensure that their genes are passed on to later generations, so a parent will act to protect and give the greatest possible advantage to their child, or nieces and nephews. That’s a form of altruism predicated by genes, not ethics. Unless some form of extreme panspermia has been at play, alien life would not be our kin, so they would be unlikely to show us altruistic behaviour of this type.

  • Paul Gilster

But we haven’t exhausted all the forms altruism might take. Is there an expectation of mutual benefit that points in that direction?

  • Keith Cooper

Okay, so what about quid pro quo? That’s a form of reciprocal altruism. Consider, though, the time and distance separating the stars. It could take centuries or millennia for a message to reach a destination, and there’s no guarantee that anyone is going to hear that message, nor that they will send a reply. That’s a long time to wait for a return on an investment, if there even is a return. Why plow so many resources into transmitting if that’s the case? What’s in it for them?

So if kin selection and reciprocal altruism are not really tailored for interstellar communication, then it seems more unlikely that we will hear from aliens. Of course, there is always the possibility of exceptions to the rule, one-off reasons why a society might wish to broadcast its existence. Maybe ET wants to transmit a religious gospel to the stars to convert us all. Maybe they are about to go extinct and want to send one last hurrah into the Universe. But these would not be global reasons, and we shouldn’t expect alien societies to make it easy for us to discover them.

  • Paul Gilster

Good point. Why indeed should they want us to discover them? I can think of reasons a society might decide to broadcast its existence to the stars, though I admit that it’s a bit of a strain. But aliens are alien, right? So let’s assume some may want to do this. I like your mention of reciprocal altruism, as it’s conceivable that an urge to spread knowledge, for example, might result in a SETI beacon of some kind that points to an information resource, the fabled Encyclopedia Galactica. What a gorgeous dream that something like that might be out there.

Curiosity leads where curiosity leads. I wonder if it’s a universal trait of intelligence?

  • Keith Cooper

It’s interesting that you describe the Encyclopedia Galactica as a ‘dream’, because I think that’s exactly what it is, a fantasy that we’ve imagined without any strong rationale other than falling back on this outdated idea that aliens are going to act with selfless altruism. As David Brin argues, if you pump all your knowledge into space freely, what do you have left to barter with? And yet it is expectations such as receiving an Encyclopedia Galactica that still drive SETI and influence the kinds of signals that we search for. I really do think SETI needs to move on from this quaint idea. But I digress.

  • Paul Gilster

It’s certainly worth keeping up the SETI effort just to see what happens, especially when it’s privately funded. But I want to circle back around. I’ve always had an interest in what the general public’s reaction to the idea of extraterrestrial civilization really is. In the 16 years that I’ve been writing about this and talking to people, I’ve found a truly lopsided percentage that believe as a matter of course that an advanced civilization will be infinitely better than our own. This plays to a perceived disdain for human culture and a faith in a more beneficent alternative, even if it has to come from elsewhere to set right our fallen nature.

Put that way, it does sound a bit religious, but so what — I’m talking about how human beings react to an idea. Humans construct narratives, some of them scientific, some of them not.

I’m also talking about the general public, not people in the interstellar community, or scientists actively working on these matters. As you would imagine with COVID about, I’m not making many talks these days, but when I was fairly active, I’d always ask audiences of lay people what they thought of intelligent aliens. The reaction was almost always along two lines: 1) The idea used to seem crazy, but now we know it’s not. And 2) it would be something like an European Renaissance all over again if we made contact, because they would have so much to teach us.

A golden age, with its Dantes and Shakespeares and Leonardos. Or think of the explosion of Chinese culture and innovation in the Tang Dynasty, or Meiji Japan, all this propelled by the infusion not of recovered ancient literature and teaching, as in the European example, but materials discovered in the evidently limitless databanks of the Encyclopedia Galactica.

I ran into these audience reactions so frequently in both talks to interested audiences and just conversations among neighbors and friends that I had to ask what was propelling the Hollywood tradition of scary movies about alien invasion? What about Independence Day, with its monstrous ships crushing the life out of our planet? So I would ask, if you believe all this altruistic stuff, why do you keep going to these sensational movies of death and destruction?

The answer: Because people think they’re fun. They’re a good diversion, a comic book tale, a late night horror movie where getting scared is the point. Whole film franchises are built around the idea that fear is addictive when experienced within the cocoon of a home or theater. Thus the wave of horror fiction that has been so prominent in recent years. It’s because people like being scared, and the reason for that goes a lot deeper into psychiatry than I would know how to go. I admit I may not believe in Cthulhu, but I love going to Dunwich with H. P. Lovecraft.

Keith, as we both know — and you, as the author of The Contact Paradox would know a lot more about this than I do — there is an active lobby against messaging to the stars: METI. I’ve expressed my own opposition to METI on many an occasion in these pages, and the discussion has always been robust and contentious, with the evidently minority position being that we should hold back on such broadcasts unless we reach international consensus, and the majority position being that it doesn’t matter because sufficiently intelligent aliens already know about us anyway.

I don’t want to re-litigate any of that here. Rather, I just want to note that if the anti-METI position gets loud pushback in the interstellar community, it gets even louder pushback among the general public. In my talks, bringing up the dangers of METI invariably causes people to accuse me of taking films like Independence Day too seriously. From what I can see from my own experience, most people think ETI may be out there but assume that if it ever shows up on our doorstep, it will represent a refined, sophisticated, and peaceful culture.

I don’t buy that idea, but I’m so used to seeing it in print that I was startled to read this in James Trefil and Michael Summers’ recent book Imagined Life. The two first tell a tale:

Two hikers in the mountains encounter an obviously hungry grizzly bear. One of the hikers starts to shed his backpack. The other says, “What are you doing? You can’t run faster than that bear.”

“I don’t have to run faster than the bear — I just have to run faster than you.”

Natural selection doesn’t select for bonhomie or moral hair-splitting. The one whose genes will survive in the above encounter is the faster runner. Trefil and Summers go on:

So what does this tell us about the types of life forms that will develop on Goldilocks worlds? We’re afraid that the answer isn’t very encouraging, for the most likely outcome is that they will probably be no more gentle and kind than Homo Sapiens. Looking at the history of our species and the disappearance of over 20 species of hominids that have been discovered in the fossil record, we cannot assume we will encounter an advanced technological species that is more peaceful than we are. Anyone we find out there will most likely be no more moral or less warlike that we are…

That doesn’t mean any ETI we find will try to destroy us, but it does give me pause when contemplating the platitudes of the original The Day the Earth Stood Still movie, for example. It’s so easy to point to our obvious flaws as humans, but the more likely encounter with ETI, if we ever meet them face to face, will probably be deeply enigmatic and perhaps never truly understood. I also argue that there is no reason to assume that individual members of a given species will not have as much variation between them as do individual humans.

It’s a long way from Francis of Assisi to Joseph Goebbels, but both were human. So what happens, Keith, if we do get a SETI signal one day. And then, a few days later, another one that says, “Disregard that first message. The one you want to talk to is me?”

  • Keith Cooper

I’m hesitant to rely too closely on comparisons with ourselves and our own evolution, since ultimately we are just a sample of one, and we could be atypical for all we know. I see what Trefil and Summers are saying, but equally I could imagine a world, perhaps with a hostile environment, where species have to work together to survive. Instead of survival of the fittest, it becomes survival of those who cooperate. And suppose intelligent life evolves to be post-biological. What role do evolutionary hangovers play then?

I think the most we can say is that we don’t know, but that for me is enough of a reason to be cautious both about the assumptions we make in SETI, and about the possible consequences of METI.

But you’re right about our flawed assumption that aliens will exist in a monolithic culture. Unless there’s some kind of hive mind or network, there will likely be variation and dissonance, and different members of their species may have different reactions to us.

If we detected two beacons in the same system, I think that would be great! Why? Because it would give us more information about them than a single signal would. Since we will have no knowledge of their language, their culture, their history or their biology, being able to understand their message in even the most general sense is going to be exceptionally difficult.

So, if we detect a signal, we might not be able to decipher it or learn a great deal. But if we detect two different, competing beacons from the same planet, or planetary system, then we will know something about them that we couldn’t know from just one unintelligible signal, which is that they are not necessarily a monolithic culture, and that their society may contain some dissonance, and this may influence how, and if, we respond to their messages.

For me, the name of the game is information. Learn as much about them as we can before we embark on making contact, because the more we know, then the less likely we are to be surprised, or to make a misunderstanding that could be catastrophic.

  • Paul Gilster

Just so. But there, you see, is the reason why I think we have to be a lot more judicious about METI. It’s just conceivable that, to them as well as us, content matters.

But look, I see you’re headed in a direction I wanted to go. If information is the name of the game, then information theory is going to play a mighty role in our investigations. So it’s no surprise that you dwell on the matter in The Contact Paradox. Here we’re in the domain of Claude Shannon at Bell Laboratories in the 1940s, but of course signal content analysis applies across the whole spectrum of information transmittal. Shannon entropy measures disorder in information, which is a way of saying that it lets us analyze communications quantitatively.

Do you know Stephen Baxter’s story “Turing’s Apple?” Here a brief signal is detected by a station on the far side of the Moon, no more than a second-long pulse that repeats roughly once a year. It comes from a source 6500 light years from Earth, and Baxter delightfully presents it as a ‘Benford beacon,’ after the work Jim and Greg Benford have done on the economics of extraterrestrial signaling and the understanding that instead of a strong, continuous signal, we’re more likely to find something more like a lighthouse that sweeps its beam around the galaxy, in this case on the galactic plane where the bulk of the stars are to be found.

Baxter’s story sees the SETI detection as a confirmation rather than a shock, a point I’m glad to see emerging, since I think the idea of extraterrestrial intelligence is widely understood. No great revolution in thought follows, but rather a deepening acceptance of the fact that we’re not alone.

Anyway, in the story, the signal is investigated, six pulses being gathered over six years, with the discovery that this ETI uses something like wavelength division multiplexing, dividing the signal into sections packed with data. Scientists turn to Zipf graphing to tackle the problem of interpretation – as you present this in your book, Keith, this means breaking the message into components and going to work on the relative frequency of appearance of these components. From this they deduce that the signal is packed with information, but what are its elements?

Shannon entropy analysis looks for the relationships between signal elements, so how likely is it that a particular element will follow another particular element? Entropy levels can be deduced – how likely are not just pairs of elements to appear, but triples of elements? In English, for example, how likely is it that we might find a G following an I and an N? Dolphin languages get as high as fourth-order entropy by this analysis, as you know. Humans get up to eighth or ninth. Baxter’s signal analysts come up with a Shannon entropy in the range of 30 for ETI.

Let me quote this bit, because I love the idea:

“The entropy level breaks our assessment routines… It is information, but much more complex than any human language. It might be like English sentences with a fantastically convoluted structure – triple or quadruple negatives, overlapping clauses, tense changes… Or triple entendres, or quadruples.”

We’re in challenging territory here. In the story, ETI is a lot smarter than us, based on Shannon entropy. The presence of this kind of complexity in a signal, in Baxter’s scenario, is evidence that the detected message could not have been meant for us, because if it were, the broadcasting civilization would have ‘dumbed it down’ to make it accessible. Instead, humanity has found a signal that demonstrates the yawning gap between humanity and a culture that may be millions of years old. If we find something like this, it’s likely we would never be able to figure it out.

Would something like this be a message, or perhaps a program? If we did decode it, what would it mean? An ever better question: What might it do? Baxter’s story is so ingenious that I don’t want to give away its ending, but suffice it to say that impersonal forces may fall well outside our conventional ideas of ‘friendly’ vs. ‘hostile’ when it comes to bringing meaning to the cosmos.

But let’s wrap back around to Shannon and Zipf, and the SETI Institute’s Laurance Doyle, to whom you talked as you worked on The Contact Paradox. Doyle told you that communication complexity invariably tells us something about the cultural complexity of the beings that sent the message. And I think the great point that he makes is that the best way to approach a possible signal is by studying how communications systems work right here on Earth. Thus Claude Shannon, who started working out his theories during World War II, gets applied to the question of species intelligence (dolphins vs. humans) and now to hypothetical alien signals.

In a broader sense, we’re exploring what intelligence is. Does intelligence mean technology, or are technological societies a subset of all the intelligent but non-tool making cultures out there? SETI specifically targets technology, which may itself be a rarity even in a universe awash with forms of life with high Shannon entropy in communications they make only among themselves.

A great benefit of SETI is that it is teaching us just how much we don’t know. Thus the recent Breakthrough Listen breakdown of their findings, which extends the data analysis to a much wider catalog of stars by a factor of 220, all at various distances and all within the ‘field of view,’ so to speak, of the antennae at Green Bank and Parkes. Still more recent work at the Murchison Widefield Array tackles an even vaster starfield. Still no detections, but we’re getting a sense of what is not there in terms of Arecibo-like signals aimed intentionally at us.

So how do you react to the idea that, in the absence of information to analyze from an actual technological signal, we will always be doing no more than collecting data about a continually frustrating ‘great silence?’ Because SETI can’t ever claim to have proven there is no one there.

  • Keith Cooper

That’s one of my unspoken worries about SETI; how long do we give it before we start to suspect that we’re alone? People might say, well, we’ve been searching for 60 years now – surely that’s long enough? Of course, modern SETI may be 60 years old, but we’ve certainly not accrued 60 years’ worth of detailed SETI searches. We’ve barely scratched the tip of the iceberg bobbing up above the cosmic waters.

So how long until we can safely say we’ve not only seen the tip of the iceberg, but that we’ve also taken a deep dive to the bottom of it as well? Maybe our limited human attention spans will come into play long before then, and we’ll get bored and give up. I think we can also be too quick to assume that there’s no one out there. Take the recent re-analysis of Breakthrough Listen data, which prompted one of the researchers, Bart Wlodarczyk-Sroka of the University of Manchester, to declare:

“We now know that fewer than one in 1600 stars closer than about 330 light years host transmitters just a few times more powerful than the strongest radar we have here on Earth. Inhabited worlds with much more powerful transmitters than we can currently produce must be rarer still.”

Except that we don’t know that at all. All we can say was that there was no one transmitting a radio signal during the brief time that Breakthrough was listening. We could have easily missed a Benford Beacon, for instance. It’s a problem of expectation versus reality – we expect these powerful, omnipresent beacons, and when we don’t find them we jump to the conclusion that ET must not exist, rather than the possibility that our expectation is flawed.

The Encyclopedia Galactic is a similar kind of expectation that isn’t just a fanciful notion, but is a concept that actively influences SETI – we expect ET to be blasting out this guide to the cosmos, so we tailor SETI to look for that kind of signal, rather than something like a Benford Beacon. It also biases our thinking as to what we might gain from first contact – all this knowledge given to us by peaceful, selflessly altruistic beings. It would be lovely if true, but I think it’s dangerous to expect it.

Case in point: Brian McConnell recently wrote on Centauri Dreams about his concept for an Interstellar Communication Relay – basically a way of disseminating the data detected within a received signal, giving everybody the chance to try and decipher it [see What If SETI Finds Something, Then What?]. He rightly points out that we need to start thinking about what happens after we detect a signal, and the relay is a nifty way of organising that, so that should we detect a signal tomorrow, we will already have procedures in hand.

I won’t comment too much on the technical aspects, other than to say that if a message contains a Shannon entropy of 30, then it probably won’t matter how many people try and make sense of the message, we won’t get close (A.I., on the other hand, may have a bit more luck).

The Interstellar Communication Relay is an effort to democratize SETI. My cynical side worries, however, about safeguards. The relay relies on people acting in good faith, and not concealing or misusing any information gleaned from a signal. McConnell proposes a ‘copyleft license’, a bit like a creative commons license, that will put the data in the public domain while preventing people commercialising it for their own gain. I can see how this makes sense in the Encyclopedia Galactica paradigm – McConnell refers to entrepreneurs being allowed to make “games and educational software” from what we may learn from the alien signal.

I worry about this. In The Contact Paradox, I wrote about how even something as innocent as the tulip, when introduced into seventeenth-century Dutch society, proved disruptive (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tulip_mania). The Internet, motor cars, nuclear power – they’ve all been disruptive, sometimes positively, other times negatively.

How do we manage the disruptive consequences of information from an extraterrestrial signal? Even if ET has the best of intentions for us, they can’t foresee what the effects will be when facets of their culture or technology are introduced into human society, in which case the expectation that ET will be wise and ‘altruistic’ is almost irrelevant. Heaven forbid they send us technology that could be turned into a weapon, and we can’t guarantee that bad actors – after being freely given that information – won’t run off with it and use it for their own nefarious ends. A copyleft license surely isn’t going to put them off.

My feeling is that fully deciphering a signal will take a long, long time, if ever, in which case we shouldn’t worry quite so much. But suppose we are able to decipher it quickly, and it’s more than just a simple ‘greetings’. Yes, we have to think about what happens after we detect a signal, but it’s not just the mechanics of processing that data that we have to think about; we also have to plan how we manage the dissemination of potentially disruptive information into society in a safe way. It’s a dilemma that the whole of SETI should be grappling with I think, and nobody – certainly not me – has yet come up with a solution. But, I think that revising our assumptions, recasting our expectations, and casting aside the idea that ET will be selflessly altruistic and wise, would be a good start.

  • Paul Gilster

Well said. As I look back through our exchanges, I see I didn’t get around to the Deep Time concept I wanted to explore, but maybe we can talk about that in our next dialogue, given your interest in the Cosmic Microwave Background, which is the very boundary of Deep Time. Let’s plan on discussing how ideas of time and space have, in relatively short order, gone from a small, Earth-centered universe defined in mere thousands of years to today’s awareness of a cosmos beyond measure that undergoes continuous accelerated expansion. All Fermi solutions emerge within this sense of the infinite and challenge previous human perspectives.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Anthony Mugan September 18, 2020, 16:04

    A fascinating discussion, thanks.
    The availability of deep time is indeed a critical factor influencing the probability that we are alone (or the most advanced civilisation in the neighbourhood).
    If technological cultures are largely descended from predators there may not be too many around, but if there is one more advanced than us in the galaxy it should be everywhere, and deep time makes that quite likely.
    An aspect that is little discussed is that much of the discussion assumes a scientific world view. In our society decision making and policy decisions are dominated by economic and national security considerations. How would we, a few thousand years from now, handle so emergent technological civilisation. As a potential threat and / or a potential opportunity…some scientific sampling missions but also military and intelligence ferret operations and a few special ops to do the highest risk direct sampling of the dominant species would be probable ( all of which assumes some way around the light speed barrier becomes practical, of course, which is a very big if).
    Very anthropometric I know, but I just wonder….

  • AnthonyM September 18, 2020, 16:19

    Excellent discussion.
    One angle I do wonder about is that much discussion about SETI implicitly takes a scientific world view whilst our own society predominately takes an economic or national security perspective in decision making. If ETCs are descended from predators this may not be unique and I would suggest would lead to very different policy decisions about how to handle some emergent technological society, assuming they can get here from there (if not then, from a policy perspective, at least one driven by those considerations, then it’s irrelevant anyway, although that seems unlikely, on balance, to me).

  • Gareth Wilson September 18, 2020, 17:42

    As I understand it, you get the maximum Shannon entropy from completely random noise, which gives another perspective to the “entropy 30” idea.

    • Ivan Vuletich September 18, 2020, 21:50

      Wouldn’t high message complexity be inversely correlated with resistance to noise degradation, especially over interstellar distances?

      Another way of looking at it, is that maybe 90% of the message is actually various error correction schemes :-)

    • Ron S. September 19, 2020, 10:51

      Exactly right. Per Shannon it’s a measure of predictability and randomness is the least predictable and therefore has the greatest information content. Thermal noise is also unpredictable and therefore has similar information content by the Shannon measure. We need to be careful to use the same definition of “information” as used by Shannon as opposed to its various other meanings in English.

      Without reading the Baxter story I don’t know what that 30 could possibly mean in context. Presumably the signal is distinguishable (separated from background noise). Also, high information content requires a requisite channel width. The brief “pulse” will require a channel width in proportion to the data rate.

      • Robin Datta September 20, 2020, 5:03

        “randomness is the least predictable and therefore has the greatest information content”

        Could approaching that state have enormous information content, while being mistaken for randomness? Would such information affect the behavior of individual particles, causing them to exponontially “infect” other particles in a detector, continuing on to surreptitiously insert code into the memory banks?

        • Alex Tolley September 20, 2020, 10:36

          If the information was coded for maximum compression, then it looks random and has maximum Shannon entropy.

          However if is was encoded, it was not meant for us to recveive it.

    • Keith Cooper September 20, 2020, 2:30

      I think this is also where Zipf’s Law is important – showing that some components are used more than others, that there’s some form of ‘grammar’ to the signal content rather than random noise.

    • Robin Datta September 20, 2020, 4:28

      A little explanation about information entropy from Khan Academy.

  • Alex Tolley September 18, 2020, 19:07

    Great discussion! I look forward to the next part.

    I do have some comments on the content:

    One of the forms that altruism can take in nature is kin selection. We can see how this has evolved: lifeforms want to ensure that their genes are passed on to later generations, so a parent will act to protect and give the greatest possible advantage to their child, or nieces and nephews.

    Kin selection is not altruism. It is about increasing the passing on of common genes, ie “selfish genes” and is expected as a form of natural selection.
    It would be altruistic if the helped individual had no genetic relationship to the altruist.

    Okay, so what about quid pro quo? That’s a form of reciprocal altruism.

    Again, the expectation is of receiving benefits. It is similar to the obligation involved in gift-giving. It is also bribery. This is not altruistic behavior.

    ETI would be altruistic if it was expending resources to provide value (Encyclopedia galactica) to another ETI without any expection of reciprocation.

    Maybe ET wants to transmit a religious gospel to the stars to convert us all.

    It might be altruistic if ETI believes it has found the “one true way” and wants to freely share that idea. OTOH, it may be hoping to evangelize the galaxy to have a single religion or philosophy that will bolster its inf;lluence and power and ensure competing religions/philosphies fail to gain a foothold. That would not be an example of altruism.

    As David Brin argues, if you pump all your knowledge into space freely, what do you have left to barter with?

    A viewpoint that matches Dr. Brin’s Libertarian politics. Transactional based. The current pandemic is perhaps indicating how this transactional approach to social organization can be detrimental to survival (except for those with knowledge and the power to use it against others).
    If ETI is vastly older and more advanced than us, isn’t this like humans holding back information from ants? Humans can be uncaring (bulldoze the anthill to build a freeway) or altruistic (maintaining a pristine environment that maintains the best conditions for species to survive even if it means losing some extractable value).

    The one whose genes will survive in the above encounter is the faster runner. Trefil and Summers go on:

    A view somewhat similar to that of the ETI in Cixin Liu’s “The 3-Body Problem” trilogy.

    It’s so easy to point to our obvious flaws as humans, but the more likely encounter with ETI, if we ever meet them face to face, will probably be deeply enigmatic and perhaps never truly understood.

    The themes of Stanilaus Lem’s Solaris and His Master’s Voice. Also Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang on which the movie “Arrival” was based upon.

    For me, the name of the game is information. Learn as much about them as we can before we embark on making contact, because the more we know, then the less likely we are to be surprised, or to make a misunderstanding that could be catastrophic.

    That might work in a Star Trek universe, even with the Krell in “Forbidden Planet”. But a truly ancient race? Can ants even possibly know enough about us before “contacting” us? I suspect the ME religions have a better understanding of the issue: Yahweh/God/Allah is unlnowable and his plan cannot be understood. We should regard ETI being in that category.

    Doyle told you that communication complexity invariably tells us something about the cultural complexity of the beings that sent the message.

    Do we communicate with ants with Shakespeare? No, we use appropriate level, ie very low complexity experimental paradigms to try to understand them. Most likely any signal will be as simple as possible. Having just reread Hoyle’s A for Andromeda (and watched the BBC tv versions of this and The Andromeda Breakthrough ) that the ETI send a signal that was just complex enough that we could understand it to build an advanced computer. It then “built” its avatar in human form, a being that could understand the more complex parts of its signal and carry out its plan. A lurker probe is another way to eliminate the velocity limits of c once the message has been received. Of course ETI may assume that 1000s of years between messages is a good way to communicate for a long-lived civilization.

    • Keith Cooper September 20, 2020, 2:40

      Hi Alex,

      It sounds like the definition of altruism that you’re using is a kind of ‘selfless altruism’, the kind that SETI astronomers expect from ET. This kind of altruism is very rare in nature, humans are one of the few species that have it (and even then, we could argue that it’s not even universal among humans). Maybe there is a link between selfless altruism and intelligence and cultural sophistication – Steven Pinker would certainly have you believe so – but this is strongly contested, so there’s no guarantee that ETI will display selfless altruism. Evolutionary biologists instead talk about kin selection, inclusive fitness and reciprocal altruism when studying altruism – look up the work of John Haldane and William Hamilton, for example. We also have to beware of the fact that what we consider altruistic depends on what our culture sees as being altruistic, and different cultures can view altruism differently. In my book, the anthropologist Joan Silk even argues that some cultures may even see war as being altruistic if it benefits their society.

      • Alex Tolley September 20, 2020, 12:48

        Hi Keith,

        Kin selection is assumes the primacy of the individual. I.e. that the individual loses something in favour of helping others with the same genes. However, from the gene (or even better, meme) POV, there is no loss. The gene in a particular individual’s genome is not important, as the population of that gene is what counts. The POV is perhaps better understood with memes. If a meme replicates in a population, it is of no importance to the meme if individuals are lost if the number of individuals housing that meme increases. Wars over beliefs (political system, religion) make it clear there is little for an individual to give up a life in order for the meme to survive.

        Evolution works at the population level, even as natural selection uses individuals. Genes (and now memes) at the population level is perhaps the better POV, and there the idea of altruism at the individual level is not the right level to view altruism. we just assume the individual is important because the individual has “free will” (maybe) but we are also a product of our culture (population meme norms).

        Dawkins made this point about genes in “The Selfish Gene”(1976) which he uses to argue against kin selection as altruism. IOW, altruism depends on a POV is an idea (meme) that is nearly half a century old.

  • Mike Jude September 18, 2020, 20:21

    Interesting back and forth with Keith. Of course, the altruistic question has a few other dimensions. For example, there is the altruism of the sender (ET) and the altruism of the receiver. Engaging in SETI is not a zero cost exercise: it is pretty expensive, actually…in time and labor. If our society can be as socially challenged as we are and still do SETI, then perhaps an ET civilization can also be basically flawed and pursue interstellar communication. Perhaps, altruism isn’t correlated with communication. Maybe there are other motivations? Also, there is a difference in communicating and visiting. A non-altruistic civilization would only be a threat if they visited, while they probably wouldn’t be if they didn’t…if you see what I mean. So, since they would also know this, then if they were trying to communicate, they would probably not be doing it as a threat and therefore we could expect them to act altruistically even if they weren’t. As to why a non-altruistic civilization would communicate in the first place, Ozymandia comes to mind: “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” Maybe communication would simply be a monument to some civilization’s vanity.

  • Dmitry Novoseltsev September 19, 2020, 0:04

    On the relationship between altruism, natural selection, and SETI:
    Similar In English:

  • Dmitry Novoseltsev September 19, 2020, 0:18

    My conclusion (in particular:
    1. Dmitry Novoseltsev. Engineering New Worlds: Creating the Future. Principium, Issue 17, May 2017, pp. 30-35. https://i4is.org/…/05/Principium17%201705170945.opt.pdf
    2. Dmitry Novoseltsev. Engineering New Worlds: Creating the Future – Part 3. Principium, Issue 18, August 2017, pp. 31-41. https://i4is.org/…/08/Principium18%20Aug2017%20opt.pdf
    3. Dmitry Novoseltsev. Engineering New Worlds: Creating the Future – Parts 4 and 5. Principium, Issue 19, November 2017, pp. 27-35. https://i4is.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/Principium19.pdf
    4. Dmitry Novoseltsev. Engineering New Worlds: Goals, Motives and Results. Principium, Issue 23, November 2018, pp. 38-42. https://i4is.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/Principium23.pdf).
    Developed civilizations are forced to be altruistic and at certain stages of development to actively search for each other (SETI and METI), because many of the operations necessary for their preservation and development (from the construction of artificial star clusters to the creation of artificial universes and moving between them) they can only perform joint voluntary self-organized actions.

  • Bert Molloy September 19, 2020, 1:35

    Our best hope is that on Earth NO super-militartistic Civilization has survived more that a few Millenia !
    They slowly weaken through attrition or overindulgence or inbreeding or ???
    We may have tp wait a Century to see if this also applies to te PRC, but I certainly hope it does.
    Since Interstellar Travel is likely to be multi-generational, (unless they are exceptionally advanced scientifically), I believe ‘super-militaristism’ tends to degrade orver multiple-generational-travel, unless constantly ‘honed’ against neqr-equal foes !
    We will have to see about the PRC and Russia, but I suspect a handful of Decades will show at least degradation of their absolute hold on several hundred Billion people who are so geographically, and culturally diverse.
    If China slowly, (~200 years, hopefully way less), becoes more ‘”human” in dealing with its citizens, I think this almost guarantees that stellar visitors will NOT have conquest, domination, and servitude or extinction as thier Primary Goals !
    UNLESS, of course, Habitable Regions in our Galaxy’ are EXTRAORDINARILY RARE !
    Bert Molloy, BC, Canada

    I think the only really optimistic comment we can make is that in our 12 KYr or so of ;civilization, NO spuper-militaristic Society has continued to prosper for > a millenium or two or has continued with a many centuries-long Program progam of scietifically developing miitary prowess.

    We will have to wait and see if the PRC or Russia are excetions, but my gut-feeling is they will falil because their methods subjugate the hunan spirit instead of cherishing and promosing it.

    Do all specie have to be like us in this way ? NO !

    Hoqever, ones thqt were not did nor tend to last for longer than several generations.!
    Our best approach : Assumetio
    reasonable benevolence BUT have RETRIB_

    • Gary Wilson September 20, 2020, 15:56

      With respect, there is another super-militaristic society that you don’t mention by name Bert. One that is definitely showing signs of decline and decay so possibly your thesis is correct. Personally I think our galaxy will be wildly chaotic, including the behaviour of ETI’s. From incredibly aggressive and violent to completely passive. Whether any of them is carrying out any form of SETI or METI is completely unknown to us at least to this point in our timeline. Survival often means using violence (WW II for example) to prevent victory of an evil force, but it is also often used to justify particular political theories (Hitler’s ideas of the need for more living space for the German people or the US idea that communism must be prevented from spreading i.e. the Domino Effect must be prevented). ETI will have their own philosophies, religions, and politics and no amount of argument will determine which will dominate its particular sphere of influence (however big that might turn out to be).

  • DCM September 19, 2020, 4:48

    Alien means alien.
    Any understanding of alien life will have to be totally behaviorist, simply observing and describing its behavior to find regularities we likely won’t understand for some time if ever.
    At least there are persons who realize this.
    It’s why we have to look and listen maybe for centuries whenever we do find them.

  • AlexTru September 19, 2020, 6:47

    Dolphin languages get as high as fourth-order entropy by this analysis, as you know. Humans get up to eighth or ninth. Baxter’s signal analysts come up with a Shannon entropy in the range of 30 for ETI

    This entropy “analysis” and outcomes quiet misleading pop-science…
    1. Anthropomorphic approach (SETI use it) – communication signal entropy can be characteristic related to machine protocol (technology, computer, modem – call it as you want) used for communication between two machines, so detected signal could not have any relation to ETI “native” language property and to ETI intelligence level
    For example homo sapience is using multiple and different communication modulations/protocols with different entropy, totally different from “language entropy” (funny and problematic parameter too)…
    By the way, communication channel (protocol, modulation) with entropy 1, is enough to send “Encyclopedia Galactica” over the Universe (imagine operator sending Morse code messages ) – it is what Shannon’s theory talking about… It is not about intelligence level measurements.
    Signal that has lower entropy – will be easier to decode, in conditions when we cannot send/get any feedback from/to ETI side (i.e. do not have dual side communication).
    2. Sci-Fi approach, ETI radio (optical) signal can be formed by live organism (non machine).
    In this case, according live examples as we only know, the signal will be analog (non digital), the entropy of analog signal can be as high as infinity…
    For example, information carried by human sounds has entropy approaching infinity, but not “language” (English?, what about Chinese?) entropy 8 or 9 as described in Baxrter’s novel…
    Homo sapience usually cannot extract all information carried by human voice (animals many times do it better).
    Can suppose, that “language” entropy numbers 8 or 9 , are result of some researches in the area studying “how to adopt human language to digital computer technology”, this adaptation intentionally sacrificing significant part of information carried by human voice…
    If we are talking about book’s language – thing are going much worst…
    3. If we do not know ETI’s language structure and vocabulary (it is the status that we can expect after ETI detection) – we can expect that, it will be impossible to calculate any “language” entropy.
    Seams that ETI should invent method to send some basic vocabulary to us, homo sapience does not know how to do so… SETI hope that ETI will invent method how to send “vocabulary” and could explain us how to use it…
    4. As anthropomorphic example – it is hard to analyse our (homo sapience) modern digital communication signals, especially those that embeds different Error Correction modes (forward, block etc.) .
    If you do not have access to specific protocol documentation and special machine that will implements this protocol decoder – you have no any chance to decode it, despite it is human made.

    • Ron S. September 19, 2020, 11:03

      “3. If we do not know ETI’s language structure and vocabulary (it is the status that we can expect after ETI detection) – we can expect that, it will be impossible to calculate any “language” entropy.”

      Yes. To put it another way, the semantics are not explicit in a message and must be supplied by a shared semantics “algorithm” known to both the sender and receiver. This is an attribute of all languages.

      “Seams that ETI should invent method to send some basic vocabulary to us”

      Indeed, that’s the solution. However, even the most fundamental dictionary requires a context using semantics known to both sender and receiver. That is why mathematics and physics are seen as a universally shared semantics on which to base initial communications between two entirely distinct civilizations. It is far easier for distinct human groups to establish initial communication since they inherently share a larger common context.

      • AlexTru September 19, 2020, 16:42

        they inherently share a larger common context

        I am sure we do not have any common context with any ETI…
        So problem to build common vocabulary without feedback seam to be impossible task…
        So distance (time) from ETI signal detection to the signal decoding seams to be equivalent to distance from Big Bang to Solar System…

      • AlexTru September 19, 2020, 16:55

        Ron S.
        Homo sapience math and physics – is very anthropomorphic things because it is product of homo sapience brain, when homo sapience try to implement it’s math and physics in computer hardware it is not so easy task, so our math and physic is far from “universal language” – as usual SETI tell to community fairy tells, that have no connection to reality.

        • Ron S. September 20, 2020, 9:22

          None of this is certain and is an open question in the philosophy of mathematics and of mathematical physics (but an electron is an electron). When we meet ETI we’ll have a better idea. Until then it’s little more than human philosophers arguing with each other.

          • AlexTru September 21, 2020, 2:47

            an electron is an electron

            The definition of electron has been changed during the time, and finally , word electron – it is the model that built by human brain, I can suppose that this model can be very different per each individual homo sapience, we cannot know how it can be modeled by non-human brain.
            Even our modern main stream science – quantum mechanic suppose very high degrees of uncertainty for electron, string theory make situation with elementary particles even worst…

            • Ron S. September 21, 2020, 15:01

              Don’t misrepresent what I said. I did not say “definition” or “model” of an electron. I said “electron”.

              • AlexTru September 22, 2020, 3:22

                If you do not pretend to have absolute knowledge, you should agree, that everything homo sapience know about electron – it is theoretical model. Our brain creates models for everything , including electron, when two homo sapience are talking about electron, they are talking about models… it is the way how our brain (intelligence) works.
                Electron will remain the same , but we and ETI most probably will have different models for the same event…

                • Ron S. September 22, 2020, 20:55

                  Yes, that was what I was saying. The models/definitions may differ but the electron pays no attention to our descriptions and simply is what it is.

  • Douglas Loss September 19, 2020, 9:09

    In chatting with Nick Nielsen a few times on similar topics I’ve come to realize that there are many unspoken (and mostly unrealized) assumptions made in the SETI community. First, it’s assumed that intelligence will always develop in any evolutionary context. So far as we can tell, that has only happened once on our planet. Hardly a guarantee that it’s inevitable.

    Second, that intelligent species, should they arise, will develop into something recognizable as a culture or civilization. There are many forms of emergent complexity among terrestrial species, but only humans have happened upon the civilization form.

    Third, that civilizations, should they arise, will develop and maintain technological elements that would make interstellar communication possible. On Earth, only one civilization (the European enlightenment one) developed in this direction. Other civilizations (the Imperial Chinese is an example) started in this direction but intentionally turned away from it.

    There are probably other unacknowledged assumptions that act as filters on the realm of possibility available to potential non-terrestrial lifeforms that SETI is trying to detect. But just these three serve to demonstrate just how anthropomorphic and technological/civilizational the assumptions made by the SETI community are.

    • DCM September 19, 2020, 12:32

      Yes. Assuming intelligence will nearly always arise and will bring about civilization — artificial environments — if it does is simply guesswork at best. It’s no different from assuming hard shells or eyes with different colors will usually develop. What develops is partly due to chance and so is its selective survival.
      We won’t know till we get there….

    • Alex Tolley September 19, 2020, 16:31

      What is interesting is that hierarchical control seems to develop in any number of systems and social organization of species. Whilst we usually consider social insects as a poor system, hierarchical social organism has been the most common stable state for humans too. Heads of state often revert to some continuity of control through offspring that is hardly any different from the queen being the only possible top of the social insect colony.

      Is it possible that such control will arise in aliens but associated with intelligence and technology? Or is this a certain dead end, evolutionary stable, but unable to be stable over very long terms with intelligent species?

    • AlexTru September 19, 2020, 17:10

      To make fair business SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) should rebrand it self to SETHS i.e. Search for Extraterrestrial Homo Sapience , it is exactly what they do in reality , despite they are denying this fact… :-)

  • Dmitry Novoseltsev September 19, 2020, 11:46

    There is another feature. I paid attention to this, for example, when describing the project “Catalysis” here https://i4is.org/…/05/Principium17%201705170945.opt.pdf, pp. 30-35, and here https://cloud.mail.ru/public/6a7B/fsY4aRt2D.
    Within the limits of extrapolation from the current level, the level of the receiving civilization (SETI subject) to receive a message must be significantly higher than the level of the transmitting civilization (METI subject), since all actions to search for and isolate any signal, confirm its purposeful nature, and especially decoding and interpretation are the problem of the receiving party. In the opposite case (the level of the transmitting side is significantly higher than the level of the receiving side), the METI information will simply not be recognized and accepted.
    For this reason, METI/SETI can not pose a threat to any of the parties.
    By analogy, the culture of the Papuans or aborigines of Australia can be (and was!) destabilized by the influence of the rising “Western” civilization. But no elements of Papuan culture pose a threat to the “Western” culture – it is much more stable.

  • Henry Cordova September 19, 2020, 12:44

    Fascinating–but premature.

    If there are aliens, and if they are capable of communicating, will they want to? They may be convinced they are the only worthwhile life in the cosmos, or conversely, that the universe is filled with intelligent life forms so they are not particularly interested in wasting any resources to contact just a few more. Maybe they just don’t care, one way or the other. Just because we are fascinated by SETI doesn’t automatically mean they are. Or if they do care, perhaps its just a silly academic game to them, like our speculating on the mating displays of dinosaurs.

    Hey, I enjoy this kind of speculation as much as the next guy, but it may lead to our squandering our physical and philosophical resources on pointless arguments on what we’ll do if we find them, rather than, how can we maximize our chances of finding them. Its like trying to predict the plots of Shakespearean plays the Bard didn’t write because he died too soon. Yes, its fun to dabble in alternative history, too, but what does it teach us we don’t already know?

    We need more data, not more enlightened analyses of non-existent data. Now if our philosophizing on alien psychology helps us devise better strategies to help locate them, then I’m all for it. But let’s keep it real.

    • Alex Tolley September 19, 2020, 16:41

      Like theological arguments of “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin”…?

  • david lewis September 19, 2020, 23:41

    A Benford beacon whose message we couldn’t decipher would still be of interest. For one, we could take a closer look and try to see if they’re expanding to colonize nearby (to them) stars, or planets in their own solar systems, or if there’s a Dyson swarm developing in their solar system.

    If they are expanding in any way then that would suggest they are vastly different from us:

    For one, their society would either be able to operate stably on timelines where the investment in a colony would be paid back without declaring independence, or they don’t expect to be paid back. No country, or corporation, on earth is going to invest the trillions needed to colonize without expecting some form of payback. Especially over interstellar distances.

    Second, spacecraft are WMD. Even a nuclear-pulse Orion weighting in at 10 million tons, going at a measly one-percent the speed of light is a planet killer. That’s the sort of spacecraft you would expect such a civilization, except maybe using a more advanced drive system, to be using to transfer resources around. If they can tolerate such “threats” then, once again, their politics are nothing like ours. The US would nuke any country that launched such a vessel (nuclear-pulse Orion), and then go berserk trying to destroy the vessel.

    Thirdly, on an individual level, they would have to be less violent than us humans. Even gifted an O’Neill type space colony by some benevolent aliens, would humans be able to keep it going without eventually tearing it apart? Without a planet-sized biosphere to absorb the destruction, I can’t image it would last long. Or something like the Halifax explosion would occur due to the complexity of running such a system. Or a reaction meltdown, ….

    Fourthly, it just might tell us where to look for an inhabited planet, and and let us find out if life can develop in an environment vastly different from that of earth. For example, if their planet is Venus like, then that will have a lot of people scratching their heads wondering how biology could develop on such a planet.

    Fifthly, if the beacon is within a 100ly distance, or some such short distance, then that would suggest there’s something vastly wrong with the way we’re looking at the universe – two civilizations so close to each other, yet the rest of the universe seems empty?

    It would certainly be an understatement to say that finding such a beacon would be both exciting and interesting, and that it might even give humans a boost to try to clean up our own act, maybe.

    My biggest question though would be, are they capable of love and kindness and such emotions? Knowing they are would make me feel a lot better when we destroy ourselves here.

  • DCM September 20, 2020, 5:15


  • Robin Datta September 20, 2020, 6:14

    Infants and little children often mistakenly attribute sentience to toys and other entities. The unwitting use of an array of cues as Turing tests helps to identify identify sentience as we recognize it. Some would say that the manifestations of sentience may be found without journeying that far afield.

  • Dmitry Novoseltsev September 20, 2020, 10:37

    Here, the comments mention “A for Andromeda” by Hoyle. It is debatable whether representatives of a very old and stable civilization (mentioned in the next book in this series) could have sent a deliberately hostile artificial intelligence as a message. This is still a speculative question. But it seems absolutely improbable that the people of the early 60s of the XX century described in the book, within a very limited budget and using almost radio-lampe technologies with punched tapes, could create an environment in which this artificial intelligence could operate and develop.

    • Alex Tolley September 20, 2020, 14:54

      It is fiction. One can poke all sorts of holes in the story. But what if it was set some time in the future? Science fiction is useful to explore “what if” scenarios, whether possible to do or not when they were written and the time they were set. Hoyle was an astronomer and it makes sense that he would write about a method of information transfer and the facility and people he was familiar with to write an engaging story. The civil servants and military characters are clearly more cardboard figures. The poor depiction of the people of Azaran in the sequel shows that even further.

      If a story is good, one can suspend disbelief and enjoy it. I still love Clarke’s Odyssey series, even though the technology was never created by 2001 – AIs of HAL’s capability, gas core reactors powering crewed ships to Jupiter/Saturn, large Moon bases, atomic powered spaceplanes, and Moon shuttles. It is 2020 and we barely have an operational space station with ballistic rockets with capsules to fly crews to it. We won’t even have returned to the Moon after 50 years by 2022.
      2001: A Space Odyssey is now alt-hist, like much of SciFi written with the setting of the end of the 20th century.

  • Thomas W Hair September 20, 2020, 12:20

    Paul, the notion that we are getting more peaceable on the whole is fact not facile. That is a nasty word that dilettantes use to smite us heathen and it does not belong on your forum per your own words. Don’t let your immediate access to information jaundice you into becoming a Cassandra.

    • Paul Gilster September 20, 2020, 14:16

      Not sure why you think ‘facile’ is a nasty word, Tom. I don’t use it to ‘smite heathens’ — I meant it to say that I thought the notion that we are getting more peaceful is naive. That doesn’t strike me as out of line, and I think it’s backed by the history of the last 100 years, where peace has been hard to come by. But as far as I am concerned, people who disagree with me are not ‘heathens’! We’re simply taking different approaches to an issue that’s broadly debatable.

  • Henry Cordova September 20, 2020, 15:51

    Carl Sagan once described the Drake Equation (I paraphrase) as a “detailed summation of our ignorance”. There is good circumstantial evidence that life is common in our galaxy. There is reasonable, but not conclusive, reason to believe that microbial life exists other than on earth. But even that is not a sure thing.

    But if there is complex, multicellular life we simply do not know. If that metazoa has evolved intelligence, we do not know. If that intelligence has a evolved a civilization, or any technical capability (like the ability to build radio telescopes or space ships) we do not know. In fact, we don’t even have sufficient information to speculate about the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence, much less postulate on what is like, what it wants or how it will act. If it does exist, we do not know and have no way of knowing how common it is or how it is distributed in space and time.

    Now there is nothing wrong with speculating about ETI, especicially if it helps us to devise means of detecting its existence. It is reasonable to assume that their alleged technical artifacts will leave traces that can be detected with astronomical measurements, or that they may even choose to place messages in the electromagnetic background which we will recognize as artificial, whether deliberate or accidental. If they have some other way of communicating that we know nothing about, like telepathy or tachyons, well, that’s just too bad. Until we learn about it, there is absolutely nothing we can do about it.

    Basically, we are limited to what we know how to do (detect electromagnetic radiation) and we must hope they are able and interested in emitting such radiation that we can recognize as artificial, whether it be deliberate or accidental. My own naive suspicion is that they can do this, and that they will want to do it, but I cannot quantify our chances of success or their intentions of assisting us to achieve it. The universe is just too big and too old and we do not know enough about it.

    SETI is important, we need to do this, it addresses key scientific and philosophical issues which deserve our attention, in fact they demand it! Intellectually, it is akin to archaeology in that we will benefit by how other civilizations interact with nature, just as our study of ancient cultures here on earth tells us how our ancestors interacted with their environment and each other. This knowledge is vital for our own self-understanding, and it might even be of some practical use. But there are no guarantees we will ever uncover this knowledge, or even understand it if we do.

    So what should we do about SETI? How do we proceed in this vague, undefined, but potentially vital enterprise? I say we look. It can’t hurt, especially if our observations also provide us with the opportunity to do routine astronomical research. We can piggyback our SETI on our surveys of the cosmos, and we can postulate artificial or biological sources to anomalous observations and signals. Maybe we’ll get lucky. If not, nothing is lost, we need to look anyway. Certain techniques are so promising that its worth trying them even if we have no direct reason to believe they will succeed. For example, even back in the 1960s we knew there were good astronomical reasons to map natural radio emissions from the Galaxy. It was reasonable to assume other civilizations might do the same thing, and that they would suspect their neighbors might be doing the same as well. Broadcasting on those frequencies had no guarantees of success, but it was cheap and reasonable to do so. Likewise, it was cheap and reasonable for us to listen in the Waterhole as well. There is nothing wrong with that. And as our skill and knowledge accumulates, new techniques will arise.

    After 60 years of doing this, we have found nothing. So now we talk about the Fermi Paradox and try to come up with reasons why we haven’t plugged into the Encyclopedia Galactica yet. But SIXTY YEARS IS NOTHING. We have just scratched the surface, lack of success after a half-century of haphazard, intermittent, shallow searches tells us nothing. The haystack could be full of needles and it is totally unreasonable to think we should have found one by now. It may take centuries of astronomical surveys to stumble on our first evidence of civilization even if the evidence is plentiful.

    And THAT is the danger of speculating too much about something we know nothing about. That is why thinking too hard or too much about ETI soon may distract us from what we should be doing: Listening and looking. As Edwin Hubble once pointed out (again, I paraphrase);

    “By definition, we live at the very center of the observable region. We see our immediate surroundings distinctly, but further away we see less and less, until we search amongst ghostly errors of measurement for wisps and traces of data. Only until that is fully exhausted need we pass onto the dreamy realm of speculation.”

    We delude ourselves into thinking we know more about the problem than we actually do, and we tire too quickly in our searches, leaving them prematurely in search of other, shinier objects. . We are clever monkeys, but we are lazy, too. And we have a very short attention span.

  • Martin Alfredsson September 20, 2020, 17:32

    Some 150 years ago we were able to use radio waves for the first time. Already the amount of radio that leaks out from our planet is much smaller that it was some 50 years ago. Now we have started to wonder if ETI may use laser instead. What kind of transmission will we use in 150 years? Gravity waves, neutrinos?
    If, and its a big if ETI would want to communicate with us they have to be in that extremly small window of time when we and they share technology. Miss it by a few 100 years and we will have no clue that they are blasting signals strait at us.
    “Why dont these stupid earthlings answer our phaseshifted neutrino beams?”

    • Henry Cordova September 20, 2020, 20:22

      Dear Mr Alfredsson–

      Thee is much merit to your argument, but it is also a fact that any civilization with advanced communications technology will also probably have a deep interest in mapping the interstellar medium, and will be actively observing the gas clouds of the galaxy at microwave wavelengths.

      They will also infer that other civilizations with astronomical or SETI ambitions will be doing the same thing for the same reason. So transmitting in the microwave region of the spectrum will certainly be a place where others will be listening. In addition, these frequencies are located in a part of the radio spectrum where there is very little natural noise, and quantum noise in radio receivers will be much reduced. So there are very good reasons to broadcast (and listen for) hailing beacons in the microwave region of the spectrum even if the active partner has numerous exotic communications technologies at his disposal.

      There is also the classic argument that the “Waterhole” bounded by the H+ and OH- radio emissions not only is in a radio quiet region of the natural spectrum, it also has the metaphoric cachet of being that part of the savannah where numerous species are forced to meet and share water. I doubt whether this distinction is common to all species capable of radio astronomy, but it still has a romantic association for us!

      My suggestion would be some harmonic of the 21cm line of neutral hydrogen. Right at 21 cm there is already too much noise from monatomic hydrogen in the interstellar medium.

      This reasoning was proposed by the first generation of SETI researchers, and I believe it is still valid today. The idea is that a hailing beacon should not be mistaken for natural emission, but still be similar enough to it that someone will still be likely to synergistically intercept it.

    • Alex Tolley September 21, 2020, 11:54

      Older technologies do not just go away. Semaphores and other light signaling is still used in the age of radio and digital laser communication. Even smoke signals are not entirely obsolete. People still ride horses even as we have moved to cars, trains, and aeroplanes.

      It would therefore be reasonable that ETI uses an array of the simpler technologies even if they use some form of exotic communication medium for their main business, to have a higher probability of reaching early technological species.

      • Martin Alfredsson September 21, 2020, 18:23

        True, but then you assume that the ETI has followed the same development path as us. Their atmosphere might be different, allowing radiation at different levels than ours, their gravity might be stronger of weaker. They might not have developed fission since they got fusion first. They may have problems we dont have with radio but free sight line for IR.

        Lets say laser was invented in their early 1900 and with a lower gravity they populated their sky with laserreflecting satellites for communications.

        • Alex Tolley September 21, 2020, 21:26

          Or they commicate with smell, or oscillating magnetic fields, or electric currents, or sound only.

          You are correct that we cannot know which technologies, if any, were developed first. We don’t even know what senses they have or how they communicated before technology. However, what is likely is that they developed communication technologies that were simpler first. IOW, neutrino beams, or some sort of FTL communication medium came after the simpler technologies were developed. We can arge the order, but not what is simple and easy compared to complex and difficult. Making lasers is clearly more difficult than interrupting a light to send photon bursts.

          • Martin Alfredsson September 22, 2020, 17:59

            You are correct in that we should expect simple inventions before more complex ones. What Im more affraid of is that our current level is step one on a ladder with a million steps. Something like, “what, they use radio, seriously, how backwards can they be. Dont bother with anyone with less than FTL mark 4!”
            If there is someone out there, statisticly some of them will be so much more advanced than us that they dont care. Lets just hope they dont hinder their less advanced neighburs from find us curious. Or maybe its better if they do…

  • AlexTru September 21, 2020, 1:59

    “Why dont these stupid earthlings answer our phaseshifted neutrino beams?”

    If “Stupid earthlings do not answer neutrino” messages, may be , because neutrino does not have absolutely any advantage when used for interstellar EM wave communication, even worst neutrino has only disadvantages if applied to interstellar communication.
    By the way radio and laser beam – both are EM waves, so laser – it is not new communication method, homo sapience used optical communication much before invention of radio transmission technology.

    • Martin Alfredsson September 21, 2020, 18:29

      The way we do it, yes. They might know of ways to massproduce neutrino beams and ways to read the beam with very little loss.
      The density of data may be so much better that they prefere neutrino beams.
      “Why dont the stupid ETIs contact us using the 21 cm”

      • AlexTru September 22, 2020, 3:36

        1. Neutrino is propagating with speed lower than speed of light.
        2. Every type of beamed energy stream (neutrino or EM waves) has the same problem:
        receiver and transmitter should be aligned.
        In application to SETI, if both side are not aligned – there is no chance for communication, it is the main problem in all project, that in reality make SETI search efforts fruitless.

        • Martin Alfredsson September 22, 2020, 17:42

          So true, we might get lucky and intercept something not directed at us, probably not directed communication at all. Anomal heat signaturer, remenents from dead civilisations. But I doubt some ETI would spend the effort to send us a fresh copy of Encyclopedia Galactica.

          Either technological civilisations are a) common and we would be concidered quite uninteresting or b) scarce and then it would take a long time, even deep time until we get contact.
          Of just in the middle? Sure it would solve the Drake equation.

          • AlexTru September 23, 2020, 2:49

            1. I am sure none is sending Encyclopedia Galactica, so no chance to detect non existing event.
            2. Due to limited speed and huge cosmic distances EM waves and neutrino – are very bad media for interstellar communication, so with our present technology state (till we invent warm hole tech.) it is impossible use EM waves or neutrino for interstellar communication, so there is no chance that we can intercept alien communication beam (it cannot exists theoretically).
            3. Now, Sci-Fi, even If FTL communication between two distant civilizations using EM or neutrino is possible through let say “warm hole“ – there is no chance that we are located inside this warm hole (to get chance intercept this communication).
            4. We do not know any faster method to exchange information than EM waves (neutrino is slower).
            5. As sequence SETI had some small chance to detect artificial EM radiation leakage from relatively close stars ( something around distance tenth light Years), but nothing detected…
            For longer distances EM and neutrino is useless .

  • AlexTru September 21, 2020, 2:15

    By the way, if we are talking about Altruism.
    I suppose that there is actual philosophic question, what will be more altruistic deeds:
    Spend resources (money, energy, materials, time) for fruitless SETI efforts or spend same amount of resources to save intelligent beings lives? For example save African kids from hunger? Invest money to the new vaccine development?
    I understand that my question are very anthropomorphic and speculative, but if we take seriously “altruism” approach, may be it can be best explanation why altruistic ETI will never invest any efforts to the programs similar to our SETI/METI programs.
    Probably even One (single) saved life more important than possible consequences of ETI signal detection…

    • ljk September 21, 2020, 12:14

      Until recently very little was spent on SETI. The majority of it was private as it is. Even Yuri’s infusion of cash is a drop in the bucket compared to the money and resources put into saving the needy on Earth. So stopping SETI isn’t going to save humanity in the financial sense.

      If anything, a lack of desire to search the heavens to better our knowledge and ourselves will only increase our collective brain rot.

      You are attacking a small fish in a very large pond. I know they make much easier and safer targets, but there are plenty of real evils made by humans right on Earth that need to be taken care of. SETI should not be on anyone’s list, but as I said, it’s a soft and easy target which prey animals always go for first.

      • Alex Tolley September 21, 2020, 14:29

        I would add that “blue sky” research can end up being very useful even if apparently not so at the time, with a strongly positive ROI. But like advertising, it is next to impossible to predict which will be groundbreaking and which dead ends. SETI may be a waste, although it really is a pittance in spending, or it may just being extraordinarily important, even if the results are negative. We cannot know. Conversely, most military spending on advanced weapons is a massive waste of resources, valuable mostly for the wars they prevent from starting, rather than contributing to a win.

      • AlexTru September 22, 2020, 3:51

        You understand me wrongly, I am not attacking here none, only illustrating the fact, that SETI efforts (as most of scientific researches in most scientific area) are far from altruistic, so hope for ETI Altruism – it is false hope.
        P.S. on the SETI institute web page everyone can find interesting information, on the date when SETI program was banned by Congress, SETI budget was 0.1% of NASA budget, do not think it was “small” pie…
        Yes, I know homo sapience nature dictates “money is never enough” – it is our (human) normal anti-altruistic state.

  • ljk September 21, 2020, 12:26

    I want to post two very relevant quotes here for context as food for thought…

    “In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

    Harry Lime, played by Orson Welles, in The Third Man, 1949.


    “For instance, on the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much—the wheel, New York, wars and so on—whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man—for precisely the same reasons.”


    • Alex Tolley September 21, 2020, 14:23

      And of course, the dolphins left Earth before the Vogons destroyed it. Definitely more intelligent and capable than humans.

      [The Third Man, IMO one of the best movies ever made, yet somehow doesn’t make the AFI’s top 100 list. Harry Lime would fit right in with the modern world.]

    • Ron S. September 21, 2020, 15:06

      “In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

      That’s an excellent example of correlation not equaling causation.

  • ljk September 21, 2020, 12:44

    A great resource about alien life forms, with lots of examples from science fiction:


  • DCM September 21, 2020, 13:04

    Theorize as much as you want but label it such. At some point we’ll be able to organize and classify alien life theories, noting each one’s likely sign or signal.
    Keep searching but not signaling. Inevitably we’ll leave traces, including some we’re not aware of.
    Meantime keep expanding and building outward…

  • ljk September 21, 2020, 14:04

    Astronomers plan huge neutrino observatory in the Pacific Ocean

    18 Sep 2020


  • ljk September 30, 2020, 11:15

    Trevor Paglen’s Last Pictures

    The artist’s selection of black-and-white photos aims to show future civilisations what life on earth was like…


    Journal #37 – September 2012

    Nato Thompson

    The Last Pictures: Interview with Trevor Paglen


    My take on The Last Pictures from 2013:


    • ljk September 30, 2020, 12:01

      Orbital Geography: Trevor Paglen’s Cave Painting for Space


      To quote:

      Paglen: If I had to distill the whole project into one image, it would be the famous “shaft” painting at Lascaux, which shows a stick-figure man with an erection, a bison, and a rhinoceros. It’s a bizarre image. Of the thousands of images in Lascaux, it’s the only one that has a human figure in it, and it seems to depict a scene of great violence. Historians have all kinds of theories about what the painting means, but when I look at it I see a painting of a humanoid who has just inaugurated the greatest mass extinction that the world has ever seen and is sexually excited by that. I sometimes think that the artist who painted that scene meant it as a confession to the future.

      In a similar way, I imagine The Last Pictures as a cave painting for the distant future. On one hand, the conceit of The Last Pictures is that it tells a story about what happened to the humans. But at the same time, I think images detached from their historical and cultural contexts are literally meaningless.

      Schmelzer: Are there political implications in selecting images to communicate about our civilization? I mean, we have 196 different countries and thousands of ethnicities. How do you narrow it down to 100 images to represent it all?

      Paglen: The Last Pictures was never meant to be a representation of humanity or an archive of civilization or anything like that. I’m not interested in playing the game of “here’s a farmer, here’s a truck driver, here’s an Inuit person, here’s an acrobat,” and so on. I worked on this project with a group of five research assistants. We ran a seminar for about six months, looked at thousands and thousands of images, researched a whole array of different subjects, and raided dozens of archives. In addition to that research group, the images were in part selected after a number of interviews that I conducted with prominent anthropologists, sociologists, philosophers, artists, physicists, astronomers, and others.

      For years, one of the rules we had in the research group was that there would be no representations of humans at all. The Last Pictures is not a story about what civilization and human life was all about. If there’s any story at all, it’s a story about what the humans did to themselves.

      But as the project developed, it definitely became more and more of a poem. Over the course of researching the images, we became quite aware of the limitations of pictures. Images don’t make arguments. Truthfully, I don’t think images represent anything at all.

  • ljk October 5, 2020, 9:41

    John Hickman

    Spoiler Alert: Existential Extraterrestrial Threat Tamed

    October 4, 2020


    Constructing genuinely interesting extraterrestrials and developing entertaining twists on science fiction tropes are difficult but Lindsay Ellis manages to deliver both in her debut novel Axiom’s End.

    The problem with writing extraterrestrials is that the more plausibly alien they are the less interesting they become as individual characters. They occupy locations on a spectrum from Star Trek’s innumerable hominids with minor deviations in physiognomy from modern humans to machine intelligence completely indifferent to humanity like that in Stanislaw Lem’s 1964 novel Niewwyciężony or The Invincible.

    Full article here:


  • ljk October 12, 2020, 10:36


    [Submitted on 8 Oct 2020]

    Mutual detectability: a targeted SETI strategy that avoids the SETI Paradox

    Eamonn Kerins (Univ. Manchester)

    As our ability to undertake more powerful Searches for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) grows, so does interest in the more controversial endeavour of Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI). METI proponents point to the SETI Paradox – if all civilisations refrain from METI then SETI is futile.

    I introduce Mutual Detectability as a game-theoretic strategy aimed at increasing the success potential of targeted SETI. Mutual detectability is embodied by four laws: mutuality, symmetry, opportunity and superiority. These laws establish how SETI participants can engage each other using game theory principles applied to mutual evidence of mutual existence. The law of superiority establishes an “onus to transmit” on the party whom both SETI participants can judge to have better quality evidence, or common denominator information (CDI), thus avoiding the SETI Paradox.

    I argue that transiting exoplanets within the Earth Transit Zone form a target subset that satisfies mutual detectability requirements. I identify the intrinsic time-integrated transit signal strength as suitable CDI. Civilisations on habitable-zone planets of radius Rp/R⊕≲(L∗/L⊙)−1/7 have superior CDI on us, so have game-theory incentive (onus) to transmit.

    Whilst this implies that the onus to transmit falls on us for habitable planets around L∗>L⊙ stars, considerations of relative stellar frequency, main-sequence lifetime and planet occurrence mean such systems are likely a small minority.

    Surveys of the Earth Transit Zone for Earth-analogue transits around sub-solar luminosity hosts, followed up by targeted SETI monitoring of them, represent an efficient strategy compliant with mutual detectability.

    A choice to remain silent, by not engaging in METI towards such systems, does not in this case fuel concerns of a SETI Paradox.

    Comments: 8 pages, 1 figure. Submitted to AJ

    Subjects: Earth and Planetary Astrophysics (astro-ph.EP); Instrumentation and Methods for Astrophysics (astro-ph.IM)

    Cite as: arXiv:2010.04089 [astro-ph.EP]
    (or arXiv:2010.04089v1 [astro-ph.EP] for this version)

    Submission history

    From: Eamonn Kerins [view email]

    [v1] Thu, 8 Oct 2020 16:13:12 UTC (159 KB)


  • ljk October 14, 2020, 11:33

    How to Write Scientific Fiction: Analyzing Carl Sagan’s “Contact”

    Dustin Grinnell explains how to—and how not to—write more scientific fiction by analyzing Carl Sagan’s “Contact” and the ways it incorporates believable elements that are understandable to laypeople.


    OCT 12, 2020


  • ljk October 16, 2020, 13:00


    [Submitted on 26 Sep 2020]

    Lunar Opportunities for SETI

    Eric J. Michaud, Andrew P. V. Siemion, Jamie Drew, S. Pete Worden

    A radio telescope placed in lunar orbit, or on the surface of the Moon’s farside, could be of great value to the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). The advantage of such a telescope is that it would be shielded by the body of the Moon from terrestrial sources of radio frequency interference (RFI).

    While RFI can be identified and ignored by other fields of radio astronomy, the possible spectral similarity between human and alien-generated radio emission makes the abundance of artificial radio emission on and around the Earth a significant complicating factor for SETI. A Moon-based telescope would avoid this challenge.

    In this paper, we review existing literature on Moon-based radio astronomy, discuss the benefits of lunar SETI, contrast possible surface- and orbit-based telescope designs, and argue that such initiatives are scientifically feasible, both technically and financially, within the next decade.

    Comments: 7 pages, submitted as a white paper for the National Academy of Sciences Planetary Science and Astrobiology Decadal Survey 2023-2032

    Subjects: Instrumentation and Methods for Astrophysics (astro-ph.IM)

    Cite as: arXiv:2009.12689 [astro-ph.IM]
    (or arXiv:2009.12689v1 [astro-ph.IM] for this version)

    Submission history

    From: Eric J. Michaud [view email]

    [v1] Sat, 26 Sep 2020 21:07:00 UTC (12,013 KB)


    A collection of lunar farside observatories studying the Universe in multiple frequencies for multiple reasons makes a lot of sense. I also recognize the resources and expense it would entail for all those beancounters out there, made even less palatable to those who cannot see the benefits beyond immediate material gratification – which is my polite way of saying those who lack the proper education and focus of life ambitions.

  • ljk January 29, 2021, 16:31

    28 Jan 2021 | 16:00 GMT

    Breakthrough Listen Is Searching a Million Stars for One Sign of Intelligent Life

    The world’s largest SETI effort is scanning the skies with AI

    By Danny Price


    To quote:

    Listen was started with three telescopes. Two are radio telescopes: the 100-meter Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope, in Green Bank, W.Va., and the 64-meter Parkes Observatory telescope, in New South Wales, Australia, for which I’m the project scientist. The third is an optical telescope: the Automated Planet Finder at Lick Observatory, in California. We’re using these telescopes to survey millions of stars and galaxies for unexpected signals, and powerful data processors to comb through the collected data at a very fine resolution.

    In 2021, Listen will also begin using the MeerKAT array in South Africa. MeerKAT, inaugurated in July 2018, is an array of 64 parabolic dish antennas, each 13.5 meters in diameter. MeerKAT is located deep in the Karoo Desert, in a federally protected radio-quiet zone where other transmissions are restricted. Even better, while at the other three telescopes we have to share time with other research efforts, at MeerKAT our Listen data recorders can “eavesdrop” on antenna data 24/7. Listen has also partnered over the last couple of years with several other observatories around the globe.

  • ljk January 29, 2021, 16:36

    How “fast radio bursts” are used in the search for alien life

    Detecting fast radio bursts is difficult because the data is “noisy” so ruling out false positives is a current topic of study. A group of researchers improved detection using a computer method called a “convoluted neural network” that improved accuracy.

    Posted on January 28, 2021 by Rongrong Liu


  • ljk January 29, 2021, 16:45

    A plan to beam a musical message to other planets

    And back to this one

    January 30, 2021 edition