When it comes to the search for extra-terrestrial life, scientists have a tendency to be a bit geocentric – i.e. they look for planets that resemble our own. This is understandable, seeing as how Earth is the only planet that we know of that supports life. As result, those searching for extra-terrestrial life have been looking for planets that are terrestrial (rocky) in nature, orbit within their stars habitable zones, and have enough water on their surfaces.
In the course of discovering several thousand exoplanets, scientists have found that many may in fact be “water worlds” (planets where up to 50% of their mass is water). This naturally raises some questions, like how much water is too much, and could too much land be a problem as well? To address these, a pair of researchers from the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) conducted a study to determine how the ratio between water and land masses can contribute to life.
Since the 1990s, astrophysicists have known that for the past few billion years, the Universe has been experiencing an accelerated rate of expansion. This gave rise to the theory that the Universe is permeated by a mysterious invisible energy known as “dark energy”, which acts against gravity and is pushing the cosmos apart. In time, this energy will become the dominant force in the Universe, causing all stars and galaxies to spread beyond the cosmic horizon.
At this point, all stars and galaxies in the Universe will no longer be visible or accessible from any other. The question remains, what will intelligent civilizations (such as our own) do for resources and energy at this point? This question was addressed in a recent paper by Dr. Abraham Loeb – the Frank B. Baird, Jr., Professor of Science at Harvard University and the Chair of the Harvard Astronomy Department.
The paper, “Securing Fuel for our Frigid Cosmic Future“, recently appeared online. As he indicates in his study, when the Universe is ten times its current age (roughly 138 billion years old), all stars outside the Local Group of galaxies will no be accessible to us since they will be receding away faster than the speed of light. For this reason, he recommends that humanity follow the lesson from Aesop’s fable, “The Ants and the Grasshopper”.
This classic tale tells the story of ants who spent the summer collecting food for the winter while the grasshopper chose to enjoy himself. While different versions of the story exist that offer different takes on the importance of hard work, charity, and compassion, the lesson is simple: always be prepared. In this respect, Loeb recommends that advanced species migrate to rich clusters of galaxies.
These clusters represent the largest reservoirs of matter bound by gravity and would therefore be better able to resist the accelerated expansion of the Universe. As Dr. Loeb told Universe Today via email:
“In my essay I point out that mother Nature was kind to us as it spontaneously gave birth to the same massive reservoir of fuel that we would have aspired to collect by artificial means. Primordial density perturbations from the early universe led to the gravitational collapse of regions as large as tens of millions of light years, assembling all the matter in them into clusters of galaxies – each containing the equivalent of a thousand Milky Way galaxies.”
Dr. Loeb also indicated where humanity (or other advanced civilizations) should consider relocating to when the expansion of the Universe causes the stars of the Local Group to expand beyond the cosmic horizon. Within 50 million light years, he indicates, likes the Virgo Cluster, which contains about a thousands times more matter than the Milky Way Galaxy. The second closest is the Coma Cluster, a collection of over 1000 galaxies located about 336 million light years away.
In addition to offering a solution to the accelerating expansion of the Universe, Dr. Loeb’s study also presents some interesting possibilities when it comes to the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence (SETI). If, in fact, there are already advanced civilizations migrating to prepare for the inevitable expansion of the Universe, they may be detectable by various means. As Dr. Loeb explained:
“If traveling civilizations transmit powerful signals then we might be able to see evidence for their migration towards clusters of galaxies. Moreover, we would expected a larger concentration of advanced civilization in clusters than would be expected simply by counting the number of galaxies there. Those that settle there could establish more prosperous communities, in analogy to civilizations near rivers or lakes on Earth.”
This paper is similar to a study Dr. Loeb conducted back in 2011, which appeared in the Journal of Cosmology and Astroparticle Physics under the title “Cosmology with Hypervelocity Stars“. At the time, Dr. Loeb was addressing what would happen in the distant future when all extragalactic light sources will cease to be visible or accessible due to the accelerating expansion of the Universe.
This study was a follow-up to a 2001 paper in which Dr. Loeb addressed what would become of the Universe in billions of years – which appeared in the journal Physical Review Letters under the title “The Long–Term Future of Extragalactic Astronomy“. Shortly thereafter, Dr. Loeb and Freeman Dyson himself began to correspond about what could be done to address this problem.
Their correspondence was the subject of an article by Nathan Sanders (a writer for Astrobites) who recounted what Dr. Loeb and Dr. Dyson had to say on the matter. As Dr. Loeb recalls:
“A decade ago I wrote a few papers on the long-term future of the Universe, trillions of years from now. Since the cosmic expansion is accelerating, I showed that once the universe will age by a factor of ten (about a hundred billion years from now), all matter outside our Local Group of galaxies (which includes the Milky Way and the Andromeda galaxy, along with their satellites) will be receding away from us faster than light. After one of my papers was posted in 2011, Freeman Dyson wrote to me and suggested to a vast “cosmic engineering project” in which we will concentrate matter from a large-scale region around us to a small enough volume such that it will stay bound by its own gravity and not expand with the rest of the Universe.”
At the time, Dr. Loeb indicated that data gathered by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) indicated that attempts at “super-engineering” did not appear to be taking place. This was based on the fact that the galaxy clusters observed by the SDSS were not overdense, nor did they exhibit particularly high velocities (as would be expected). To this, Dr. Dyson wrote: “That is disappointing. On the other hand, if our colleagues have been too lazy to do the job, we have plenty of time to start doing it ourselves.”
A similar idea was presented in a recent paper by Dr. Dan Hooper, an astrophysicist from the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (FNAL) and the University of Chicago. In his study, Dr. Hooper suggested that advanced species could survive all stars in the Local Group expanding beyond the cosmic horizon (100 billion years from now), by harvesting stars across tens of millions of light years.
This harvesting would consist of building unconventional Dyson Spheres that would use the energy they collected from stars to propel them towards the center of the species’ civilization. However, only stars that range in mass of 0.2 to 1 Solar Masses would be usable, as high-mass stars would evolve beyond their main sequence before reaching the destination and low-mass stars would not generate enough energy for acceleration to make it in time.
But as Dr. Loeb indicates, there are additional limitations to this approach, which makes migrating more attractive than harvesting.
“First, we do not know of any technology that enables moving stars around, and moreover Sun-like stars only shine for about ten billion years (of order the current age of the Universe) and cannot serve as nuclear furnaces that would keep us warm into the very distant future. Therefore, an advanced civilization does not need to embark on a giant construction project as suggested by Dyson and Hooper, but only needs to propel itself towards the nearest galaxy cluster and take advantage of the cluster resources as fuel for its future prosperity.”
While this may seem like a truly far-off concern, it does raise some interesting questions about the long-term evolution of the Universe and how intelligent civilizations may be forced to adapt. In the meantime, if it offers some additional possibilities for searching for extra-terrestrial intelligences (ETIs), then so much the better.
And as Dr. Dyson said, if there are currently no ETIs preparing for the coming “cosmic winter” with cosmic engineering projects, perhaps it is something humanity can plan to tackle someday!
The Fermi Paradox remains a stumbling block when it comes to the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence (SETI). Named in honor of the famed physicist Enrico Fermi who first proposed it, this paradox addresses the apparent disparity between the expected probability that intelligent life is plentiful in the Universe, and the apparent lack of evidence of extra-terrestrial intelligence (ETI).
In the decades since Enrico Fermi first posed the question that encapsulates this paradox (“Where is everybody?”), scientists have attempted to explain this disparity one way or another. But in a new study conducted by three famed scholars from the Future of Humanity Institute (FHI) at Oxford University, the paradox is reevaluated in such a way that it makes it seem likely that humanity is alone in the observable Universe.
The study, titled “Dissolving the Fermi Paradox“, recently appeared online. The study was jointly-conducted by Anders Sandberg, a Research Fellow at the Future of Humanity Institute and a Martin Senior Fellow at Oxford University; Eric Drexler, the famed engineer who popularized the concept of nanotechnology; and Tod Ord, the famous Australian moral philosopher at Oxford University.
For the sake of their study, the team took a fresh look at the Drake Equation, the famous equation proposed by astronomer Dr. Frank Drake in the 1960s. Based on hypothetical values for a number of factors, this equation has traditionally been used to demonstrate that – even if the amount of life developing at any given site is small – the sheer multitude of possible sites should yield a large number of potentially observable civilizations.
This equation states that the number of civilizations (N) in our galaxy that we might able to communicate can be determined by multiplying the average rate of star formation in our galaxy (R*), the fraction of those stars which have planets (fp), the number of planets that can actually support life (ne), the number of planets that will develop life (fl), the number of planets that will develop intelligent life (fi), the number civilizations that would develop transmission technologies (fc), and the length of time that these civilizations would have to transmit their signals into space (L). Mathematically, this is expressed as:
In a study conducted back in 2013, Sandberg and Stuart Armstrong (also a research associate with the FHI and one of the co-authors on this study) extended the Fermi Paradox to look beyond our own galaxy, addressing how more advanced civilizations would feasibly be able to launch colonization projects with relative ease (and even travel between galaxies without difficulty).
As Dr. Sandberg told Universe Today via email:
“One can answer [the Fermi Paradox] by saying intelligence is very rare, but then it needs to be tremendously rare. Another possibility is that intelligence doesn’t last very long, but it is enough that one civilization survives for it to become visible. Attempts at explaining it by having all intelligences acting in the same way (staying quiet, avoiding contact with us, transcending) fail since they require every individual belonging to every society in every civilization to behave in the same way, the strongest sociological claim ever. Claiming long-range settlement or communication are impossible requires assuming a surprisingly low technology ceiling. Whatever the answer is, it more or less has to be strange.”
In this latest study, Sandberg, Drexler and Ord reconsider the parameters of the Drake Equation by incorporating models of chemical and genetic transitions on paths to the origin of life. From this, they show that there is a considerable amount of scientific uncertainties that span multiple orders of magnitude. Or as Dr. Sandberg explained it:
“Many parameters are very uncertain given current knowledge. While we have learned a lot more about the astrophysical ones since Drake and Sagan in the 1960s, we are still very uncertain about the probability of life and intelligence. When people discuss the equation it is not uncommon to hear them say something like: “this parameter is uncertain, but let’s make a guess and remember that it is a guess”, finally reaching a result that they admit is based on guesses. But this result will be stated as single number, and that anchors us to an *apparently* exact estimate – when it should have a proper uncertainty range. This often leads to overconfidence, and worse, the Drake equation is very sensitive to bias: if you are hopeful a small nudge upwards in several uncertain estimates will give a hopeful result, and if you are a pessimist you can easily get a low result.”
As such, Sandberg, Drexler and Ord looked at the equation’s parameters as uncertainty ranges. Instead of focusing on what value they might have, they looked at what the largest and smallest values they could have based on current knowledge. Whereas some values have become well constrained – such as the number of planets in our galaxy based on exoplanet studies and the number that exist within a star’s habitable zone – others remain far more uncertain.
When they combined these uncertainties, rather than the guesswork that often go into the Fermi Paradox, the team got a distribution as a result. Naturally, this resulted in a broad spread due to the number of uncertainties involved. But as Dr. Sandberg explained, it did provide them with an estimate of the likelihood that humanity (given what we know) is alone in the galaxy:
“We found that even using the guesstimates in the literature (we took them and randomly combined the parameter estimates) one can have a situation where the mean number of civilizations in the galaxy might be fairly high – say a hundred – and yet the probability that we are alone in the galaxy is 30%! The reason is that there is a very skew distribution of likelihood.
“If we instead try to review the scientific knowledge, things get even more extreme. This is because the probability of getting life and intelligence on a planet has an *extreme* uncertainty given what we know – we cannot rule out that it happens nearly everywhere there is the right conditions, but we cannot rule out that it is astronomically rare. This leads to an even stronger uncertainty about the number of civilizations, drawing us to conclude that there is a fairly high likelihood that we are alone. However, we *also* conclude that we shouldn’t be too surprised if we find intelligence!”
In the end, the team’s conclusions do not mean that humanity is alone in the Universe, or that the odds of finding evidence of extra-terrestrial civilizations (both past and present) is unlikely. Instead, it simply means that we can say with greater confidence – based on what we know – that humanity is most likely the only intelligent species in the Milky Way Galaxy at present.
And of course, this all comes down to the uncertainties we currently have to contend with when it comes to SETI and the Drake Equation. In that respect, the study conducted by Sandberg, Drexler and Ord is an indication that much more needs to be learned before we can attempt to determine just how likely ETI is out there.
“What we are not showing is that SETI is pointless – quite the opposite!” said Dr. Sandberg. “There is a tremendous level of uncertainty to reduce. The paper shows that astrobiology and SETI can play a big role in reducing the uncertainty about some of the parameters. Even terrestrial biology may give us important information about the probability of life emerging and the conditions leading to intelligence. Finally, one important conclusion we find is that lack of observed intelligence does not strongly make us conclude that intelligence doesn’t last long: the stars are not foretelling our doom!”
So take heart, SETI enthusiasts! While the Drake Equation may not be something we can produce accurate values for anytime soon, the more we learn, the more refined the values will be. And remember, we only need to find intelligent life once in order for the Fermi Paradox to be resolved!
During the 1930s, astronomers came to realize that the Universe is in a state of expansion. By the 1990s, they realized that the rate at which it is expansion is accelerating, giving rise to the theory of “Dark Energy”. Because of this, it is estimated that in the next 100 billion years, all stars within the Local Group – the part of the Universe that includes a total of 54 galaxies, including the Milky Way – will expand beyond the cosmic horizon.
At this point, these stars will no longer be observable, but inaccessible – meaning that no advanced civilization will be able to harness their energy. Addressing this, Dr. Dan Hooper – an astrophysicist from the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (FNAL) and the University of Chicago – recently conducted a study that indicated how a sufficiently advanced civilization might be able to harvest these stars and prevent them from expanding outward.
To put it simply, the theory of Dark Energy is that space is filled with a mysterious invisible force that counteracts gravity and causes the Universe to expand at an accelerating rate. The theory originated with Einstein’s Cosmological Constant, a term he added to his theory of General Relativity to explain how the Universe could remain static, rather than be in a state of expansion or contraction.
While Einstein was proven wrong, thanks to observations that showed that the Universe was expanding, scientists revisited the concept in order to explain how cosmic expansion has sped up in the past few billion years. The only problem with this theory, according to Dr. Hooper’s study, is that the dark energy will eventually become dominant, and the rate of cosmic expansion Universe will increase exponentially.
As a result, the Universe will expand to the point where all stars are so far apart that intelligent species won’t even be able to see them, let alone explore them or harness their energy. As Dr. Hooper told Universe Today via email:
“Cosmologists have learned over the last 20 years that our universe is expanding at an accelerating rate. This means that over the next 100 billion years or so, most of the stars and galaxies that we can now see in the sky will disappear forever, falling beyond any regions of space that we could reach, even in principle. This will limit the ability of a far-future advanced civilization to collect energy, and thus limit any number of things they might want to accomplish.”
In addition to being the Head of the Theoretical Astrophysics Group at the FNAL, Dr. Hooper is also an Associate Professor in the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Chicago. As such, he is well versed when it comes to the big questions of extra-terrestrial intelligence (ETI) and how cosmic evolution will affect intelligent species.
To tackle how advanced civilizations would go about living in such a Universe, Dr. Hooper begins by assuming that the civilizations in question would be a Type III on the Kardashev scale. Named in honor of Russian astrophysicist Nikolai Kardashev, a Type III civilization would have reached galactic proportions and could control energy on a galactic scale. As Hooper indicated:
“In my paper, I suggest that the rational reaction to this problem would be for the civilization to expand outward rapidly, capturing stars and transporting them to the central civilization, where they could be put to use. These stars could be transported using the energy they produce themselves.”
As Dr. Hooper admits, this conclusion relies on two assumptions – first, that a highly advanced civilization will attempt to maximize its access to usable energy; and second, that our current understanding of dark energy and the future expansion of our Universe is approximately correct. With this in mind, Dr. Hooper attempted to calculate which stars could be harvested using Dyson Spheres and other megastructures.
This harvesting, according to Dr. Hooper, would consist of building unconventional Dyson Spheres that would use the energy they collected from stars to propel them towards the center of the species’ civilization. High-mass stars are likely to evolve beyond the main sequence before reaching the destination of the central civilization and low-mass stars would not generate enough energy (and therefore acceleration) to avoid falling beyond the horizon.
For these reasons, Dr. Hooper concludes that stars with masses of between 0.2 and 1 Solar Masses will be the most attractive targets for harvesting. In other words, stars that are like our Sun (G-type, or yellow dwarf), orange dwarfs (K-type), and some M-type (red dwarf) stars would all be suitable for a Type III civilization’s purposes. As Dr. Hooper indicates, there would be limiting factors that have to be considered:
“Very small stars often do not produce enough energy to get them back to the central civilization. On the other hand, very large stars are short lived and will run out of nuclear fuel before they reach their destination. Thus the best targets of this kind of program would be stars similar in size (or a little smaller) than the Sun.”
Based on the assumption that such a civilization could travel at 1 – 10% the speed of light, Dr. Hooper estimates that they would be able to harvest stars out to a co-moving radius of approximately 20 to 50 Megaparsecs (about 65.2 million to 163 million light-years). Depending on their age, 1 to 5 billion years, they would be able to harvest stars within a range of 1 to 4 Megaparsecs (3,260 to 13,046 light-years) or up to several tens of Megaparsecs.
In addition to providing a framework for how a sufficiently-advanced civilization could survive cosmic acceleration, Dr. Hooper’s paper also provides new possibilities in the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence (SETI). While his study primarily addresses the possibility that such a mega-civilization will emerge in the future (perhaps it will even be our own), he also acknowledges the possibility that one could already exist.
In the past, scientists have suggested looking for Dyson Spheres and other megastructures in the Universe by looking for signatures in the infrared or sub-millimeter bands. However, megastructures that have been built to completely harvest the energy of a star, and use it to transport them across space at relativistic speeds, would emit entirely different signatures.
In addition, the presence of such a mega-civilization could be discerned by looking at other galaxies and regions of space to see if a harvesting and transport process has already begun (or is in an advanced stage). Whereas past searchers for Dyson Spheres have focused on detecting the presence of structures around individual stars within the Milky Way, this kind of search would focus on galaxies or groups of galaxies in which most of the stars would be surrounded by Dyson Spheres and removed.
“This provides us with a very different signal to look for,” said Dr. Hooper. “An advanced civilization that is in the process of this program would alter the distribution of stars over regions of space tens of millions of light years in extent, and would likely produce other signals as a result of stellar propulsion.”
In the end, this theory not only provides a possible solution for how advanced species might survive cosmic expansion, it also offers new possibilities in the hunt for extra-terrestrial intelligence. With next-generation instruments looking farther into the Universe and with greater resolution, perhaps we should be on the lookout for hypervelocity stars that are all being transported to the same region of space.
Could be a Type III civilization preparing for the day when dark energy takes over!
When it comes to the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence (SETI) in the Universe, there is the complicated matter of what to be on the lookout for. Beyond the age-old question of whether or not intelligent life exists elsewhere in the Universe (statistically speaking, it is very likely that it does), there’s also the question of whether or not we would be able to recognize it if and when we saw it.
Given that humanity is only familiar with one form of civilization (our own), we tend to look for indications of technologies we know or which seem feasible. In a recent study, a researcher from the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias (IAC) proposed looking for large bands of satellites in distant star systems – a concept that was proposed by the late and great Arthur C. Clarke (known as a Clarke Belt).
This proposal is based in part on a paper written by Arthur C. Clarke in 1945 (titled “Peacetime Uses for V2“), in which he proposed sending “artificial satellites” into geostationary orbit around Earth to create a global communications network. At present, there are about 400 such satellites in the “Clarke Belt” – a region named in honor of him that is located 36,000 km above the Earth.
This network forms the backbone of modern telecommunications and in the future, many more satellites are expected to be deployed – which will form the backbone of the global internet. Given the practicality of satellites and the fact that humanity has come to rely on them so much, Socas-Navarro considers that a belt of artificial satellites could naturally be considered “technomarkers” (the analogues of “biomarkers”, which indicate the presence of life).
As Socas-Navarro explained to Universe Today via email:
“Essentially, a technomarker is anything that we could potentially observe which would reveal the presence of technology elsewhere in the Universe. It’s the ultimate clue to find intelligent life out there. Unfortunately, interstellar distances are so great that, with our current technology, we can only hope to detect very large objects or structures, something comparable to the size of a planet.”
In this respect, a Clarke Exobelt is not dissimilar from a Dyson Sphere or other forms of megastructures that have been proposed by scientists in the past. But unlike these theoretical structures, a Clarke Exobelt is entirely feasible using present-day technology.
“Other existing technomarkers are based on science fiction technology of which we know very little,” said Socas-Navarro. “We don’t know if such technologies are possible or if other alien species might be using them. The Clarke Exobelt, on the other hand, is a technomarker based on real, currently existing technology. We know we can make satellites and, if we make them, it’s reasonable to assume that other civilizations will make them too.”
According to Socas-Navarro, there is some “science fiction” when it comes to Clarke Exobelts that would actually be detectable using these instruments. As noted, humanity has about 400 operational satellites occupying Earth’s “Clarke Belt”. This is about one-third of the Earth’s existing satellites, whereas the rest are at an altitude of 2000 km (1200 mi) or less from the surface – the region known as Low Earth Orbit (LEO).
This essentially means that aliens would need to have billions more satellites within their Clarke Belt – accounting for roughly 0.01% of the belt area – in order for it to be detectable. As for humanity, we are not yet to the point where our own Belt would be detectable by an extra-terrestrial intelligence (ETI). However, this should not take long given that the number of satellites in orbit has been growing exponentially over the past 15 years.
Based on simulations conducted by Socas-Navarro, humanity will reach the threshold where its satellite band will be detectable by ETIs by 2200. Knowing that humanity will reach this threshold in the not-too-distant future makes the Clarke Belt a viable option for SETI. As Socas-Navarro explained:
“In this sense, the Clarke Exobelt is interesting because it’s the first technomarker that looks for currently existing technology. And it goes both ways too. Humanity’s Clarke Belt is probably too sparsely populated to be detectable from other stars right now (at least with technology like ours). But in the last decades we have been populating it at an exponential rate. If this trend were to continue, our Clarke Belt would be detectable from other stars by the year 2200. Do we want to be detectable? This is an interesting debate that humanity will have to resolve soon.
As for how these belts would be detected, that would come down to the most popular and effective means for finding exoplanets to date – the Transit Method (aka. Transit Photometry). For this method, astronomers monitor distant stars for periodic dips in brightness, which are indications of an exoplanet passing in front of the star. Using next-generation telescopes, astronomers may also be able to detect reflected light from a dense band of satellites in orbit.
“However, before we point our supertelescopes to a planet we need to identify good candidates,” said Socas-Navarro. “There are too many stars to check and we can’t go one by one. We need to rely on exoplanet search projects, such as the recently launched satellite TESS, to spot interesting candidates. Then we can do follow-up observations with supertelescopes to confirm or refute those candidates.”
While these space-telescopes would search for rocky planets that are located within the habitable zones of thousands of stars, next-generation telescopes could search for signs of Clarke Exobelts and other technomarkers that would be otherwise hard to spot. However, as Socas-Navarro indicated, astronomers could also find evidence of Exobands by sifting through existing data as well.
“In doing SETI, we have no idea what we are looking for because we don’t know what the aliens are doing,” he said. “So we have to investigate all the possibilities that we can think of. Looking for Clarke Exobelts is a new way of searching, it seems at least reasonably plausible and, most importantly, it’s free. We can look for signatures of Clarke Exobelts in currently existing missions that search for exoplanets, exorings or exomoons. We don’t need to build costly new telescopes or satellites. We simply need to keep our eyes open to see if we can spot the signatures presented in the simulation in the flow of data from all of those projects.”
Humanity has been actively searching for signs of extra-terrestrial intelligence for decades. To know that our technology and methods are becoming more refined, and that more sophisticated searches could begin within a decade, is certainly encouraging. Knowing that we won’t be visible to any ETIs that are out there for another two centuries, that’s also encouraging!
And be sure to check out this cool video by our friend, Jean Michael Godier, where he explains the concept of a Clarke Exobelt:
In the 1950s, famed physicist Enrico Fermi posed the question that encapsulated one of the toughest questions in the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI): “Where the heck is everybody?” What he meant was, given the age of the Universe (13.8 billion years), the sheer number of galaxies (between 1 and 2 trillion), and the overall number of planets, why has humanity still not found evidence of extra-terrestrial intelligence?
This question, which has come to be known as the “Fermi Paradox”, is something scientists continue to ponder. In a new study, a team from the University of Rochester considered that perhaps Climate Change is the reason. Using a mathematical model based on the Anthropocene, they considered how civilizations and planet systems co-evolve and whether or not intelligent species are capable of living sustainability with their environment.
Today, Climate Change is one of the most pressing issues facing humanity. Thanks to changes that have taken place in the past few centuries – i.e. the industrial revolution, population growth, the growth of urban centers and reliance on fossil fuels – humans have had a significant impact on the planet. In fact, many geologists refer to the current era as the “Anthropocene” because humanity has become the single greatest factor affecting planetary evolution.
In the future, populations are expected to grow even further, reaching about 10 billion by mid-century and over 11 billion by 2100. In that time, the number of people who live within urban centers will also increase dramatically, increasing from 54% to 66% by mid-century. As such, the quesiton of how billions of people can live sustainably has become an increasingly important one.
“Astrobiology is the study of life and its possibilities in a planetary context. That includes ‘exo-civilizations’ or what we usually call aliens. If we’re not the universe’s first civilization, that means there are likely to be rules for how the fate of a young civilization like our own progresses.”
Using the Anthropocene as an example, one can see how civilization-planet systems co-evolve, and how a civilization can endanger itself through growth and expansion – in what is known as a “progress trap“. Basically, as civilizations grow, they consume more of the planet’s resources, which causes changes in the planet’s conditions. In this sense, the fate of a civilization comes down to how they use their planet’s resources.
In order to illustrate this process Frank and his collaborators developed a mathematical model that considers civilizations and planets as a whole. As Prof. Frank explained:
“The point is to recognize that driving climate change may be something generic. The laws of physics demand that any young population, building an energy-intensive civilization like ours, is going to have feedback on its planet. Seeing climate change in this cosmic context may give us better insight into what’s happening to us now and how to deal with it.”
The model was also based on case studies of extinct civilizations, which included the famous example of what became of the inhabitants of Rapa Nui (aka. Easter Island). According to archaeological studies, the people of the South Pacific began colonizing this island between 400 and 700 CE and its population peaked at 10,000 sometime between 1200 and 1500 CE.
By the 18th century, however, the inhabitants had depleted their resources and the population declined to just 2000. This example raises the important concept known as “carrying capacity”, which is the maximum number of species an environment can support. As Frank explained, Climate Change is essentially how the Earth responds to the expansion of our civilization:
“If you go through really strong climate change, then your carrying capacity may drop, because, for example, large-scale agriculture might be strongly disrupted. Imagine if climate change caused rain to stop falling in the Midwest. We wouldn’t be able to grow food, and our population would diminish.”
Using their mathematical model, the team identified four potential scenarios that might occur on a planet. These include the Die-Off scenario, the Sustainability scenario, the Collapse Without Resource Change scenario, and the Collapse With Resource Change scenario. In the Die-Off scenario, the population and the planet’s state (for example, average temperatures) rise very quickly.
This would eventually lead to a population peak and then a rapid decline as changing planetary conditions make it harder for the majority of the population to survive. Eventually, a steady population level would be achieved, but it would only be a fraction of what the peak population was. This scenario occurs when civilizations are unwilling or unable to change from high-impact resources (i.e. oil, coal, clear-cutting) to sustainable ones (renewable energy).
In the Sustainability scenario, the population and planetary conditions both rise, but eventually come to together with steady values, thus avoiding any catastrophic effects. This scenario occurs when civilizations recognize that environmental changes threaten their existence and successfully make the transition from high-impact resources to sustainable ones.
The final two scenarios – Collapse Without Resource Change and Collapse With Resource Change – differ in one key respect. In the former, the population and temperature both rise rapidly until the population reaches a peak and begins to drop rapidly – though it is not clear if the species itself survives. In the latter, the population and temperature rise rapidly, but the populations recognizes the danger and makes the transition. Unfortunately, the change comes too late and the population collapses anyway.
At present, scientists cannot say with any confidence which of these fates will be the one humanity faces. Perhaps we will make the transition before it is too late, perhaps not. But in the meantime, Frank and his colleagues hope to use more detailed models to predict how planets will respond to civilizations and the different ways they consume energy and resources in order to grow.
From this, scientists may be able to refine their predictions of what awaits us in this century and the next. It is during this time that crucial changes will be taking place, which include the aforementioned population growth, and the steady rise in temperatures. For instance, based on two scenarios that measured CO2 increases by the year 2100, NASA indicated that global temperatures could rise by either 2.5 °C (4.5 °F) or 4.4 °C (8 °F).
In the former scenario, where CO2 levels reached 550 ppm by 2100, the changes would be sustainable. But in the latter scenario, where CO2 levels reached 800 ppm, the changes would cause widespread disruption to systems that billions of humans depends upon for their livelihood and survival. Worse than that, life would become untenable in certain areas of the world, leading to massive displacement and humanitarian crises.
In addition to offering a possible resolution for the Fermi Paradox, this study offers some helpful advice for human beings. By thinking of civilizations and planets as a whole – be they Earth or exoplanets – researchers will be able to better predict what changes will be necessary for human civilization to survive. As Frank warned, it is absolutely essential that humanity mobilize now to ensure that the worst-case scenario does not occur here on Earth:
“If you change the earth’s climate enough, you might not be able to change it back. Even if you backed off and started to use solar or other less impactful resources, it could be too late, because the planet has already been changing. These models show we can’t just think about a population evolving on its own. We have to think about our planets and civilizations co-evolving.”
And be sure to enjoy this video that addresses Prof. Frank and his team’s research, courtesy of the University of Rochester:
As a species, we humans tend to take it for granted that we are the only ones that live in sedentary communities, use tools, and alter our landscape to meet our needs. It is also a foregone conclusion that in the history of planet Earth, humans are the only species to develop machinery, automation, electricity, and mass communications – the hallmarks of industrial civilization.
But what if another industrial civilization existed on Earth millions of years ago? Would we be able to find evidence of it within the geological record today? By examining the impact human industrial civilization has had on Earth, a pair of researchers conducted a study that considers how such a civilization could be found and how this could have implications in the search for extra-terrestrial life.
As they indicate in their study, the search for life on other planets has often involved looking to Earth-analogues to see what kind conditions life could exist under. However, this pursuit also entails the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence (SETI) that would be capable of communicating with us. Naturally, it is assumed that any such civilization would need to develop and industrial base first.
This, in turn, raises the question of how often an industrial civilization might develop – what Schmidt and Frank refer to as the “Silurian Hypothesis”. Naturally, this raises some complications since humanity is the only example of an industrialized species that we know of. In addition, humanity has only been an industrial civilization for the past few centuries – a mere fraction of its existence as a species and a tiny fraction of the time that complex life has existed on Earth.
For the sake of their study, the team first noted the importance of this question to the Drake Equation. To recap, this theory states that the number of civilizations (N) in our galaxy that we might be able to communicate is equal to the average rate of star formation (R*), the fraction of those stars that have planets (fp), the number of planets that can support life (ne), the number of planets that will develop life ( fl), the number of planets that will develop intelligent life (fi), the number civilizations that would develop transmission technologies (fc), and the length of time these civilizations will have to transmit signals into space (L).
This can be expressed mathematically as: N = R* x fp x ne x fl x fi x fc x L
As they indicate in their study, the parameters of this equation may change thanks to the addition of the Silurian Hypothesis, as well as recent exoplanets surveys:
“If over the course of a planet’s existence, multiple industrial civilizations can arise over the span of time that life exists at all, the value of fc may in fact be greater than one. This is a particularly cogent issue in light of recent developments in astrobiology in which the first three terms, which all involve purely astronomical observations, have now been fully determined. It is now apparent that most stars harbor families of planets. Indeed, many of those planets will be in the star’s habitable zones.”
In short, thanks to improvements in instrumentation and methodology, scientists have been able to determine the rate at which stars form in our galaxy. Furthermore, recent surveys for extra-solar planets have led some astronomers to estimate that our galaxy could contains as many as 100 billion potentially-habitable planets. If evidence could be found of another civilization in Earth’s history, it would further constrain the Drake Equation.
They then address the likely geologic consequences of human industrial civilization and then compare that fingerprint to potentially similar events in the geologic record. These include the release of isotope anomalies of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen and nitrogen, which are a result of greenhouse gas emissions and nitrogen fertilizers. As they indicate in their study:
“Since the mid-18th Century, humans have released over 0.5 trillion tons of fossil carbon via the burning of coal, oil and natural gas, at a rate orders of magnitude faster than natural long-term sources or sinks. In addition, there has been widespread deforestation and addition of carbon dioxide into the air via biomass burning.”
They also consider increased rates of sediment flow in rivers and its deposition in coastal environments, as a result of agricultural processes, deforestation, and the digging of canals. The spread of domesticated animals, rodents and other small animals are also considered – as are the extinction of certain species of animals – as a direct result of industrialization and the growth of cities.
The presence of synthetic materials, plastics, and radioactive elements (caused by nuclear power or nuclear testing) will also leave a mark on the geological record – in the case of radioactive isotopes, sometimes for millions of years. Finally, they compare past extinction level events to determine how they would compare to a hypothetical event where human civilization collapsed. As they state:
“The clearest class of event with such similarities are the hyperthermals, most notably the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (56 Ma), but this also includes smaller hyperthermal events, ocean anoxic events in the Cretaceous and Jurassic, and significant (if less well characterized) events of the Paleozoic.”
These events were specifically considered because they coincided with rises in temperatures, increases in carbon and oxygen isotopes, increased sediment, and depletions of oceanic oxygen. Events that had a very clear and distinct cause, such as the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event (caused by an asteroid impact and massive volcanism) or the Eocene-Oligocene boundary (the onset of Antarctic glaciation) were not considered.
According to the team, the events they did consider (known as “hyperthermals”) show similarities to the Anthropocene fingerprint that they identified. In particular, according to research cited by the authors, the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) shows signs that could be consistent with anthorpogenic climate change. These include:
“[A] fascinating sequence of events lasting 100–200 kyr and involving a rapid input (in perhaps less than 5 kyr) of exogenous carbon into the system, possibly related to the intrusion of the North American Igneous Province into organic sediments. Temperatures rose 5–7?C (derived from multiple proxies), and there was a negative spike in carbon isotopes (>3%), and decreased ocean carbonate preservation in the upper ocean.”
Finally, the team addressed some possible research directions that might improve the constraints on this question. This, they claim, could consist of a “deeper exploration of elemental and compositional anomalies in extant sediments spanning previous events be performed”. In other words, the geological record for these extinction events should be examined more closely for anomalies that could be associated with industrial civilization.
If any anomalies are found, they further recommend that the fossil record could be examined for candidate species, which would raise questions about their ultimate fate. Of course, they also acknowledge that more evidence is necessary before the Silurian Hypothesis can be considered viable. For instance, many past events where abrupt Climate Change took place have been linked to changes in volcanic/tectonic activity.
Second, there is the fact that current changes in our climate are happening faster than in any other geological period. However, this is difficult to say for certain since there are limits when it comes to the chronology of the geological record. In the end, more research will be necessary to determine how long previous extinction events (those that were not due to impacts) took as well.
Beyond Earth, this study may also have implications for the study of past life on planets like Mars and Venus. Here too, the authors suggest how explorations of both could reveal the existence of past civilizations, and maybe even bolster the possibility of finding evidence of past civilizations on Earth.
“We note here that abundant evidence exists of surface water in ancient Martian climates (3.8 Ga), and speculation that early Venus (2 Ga to 0.7 Ga) was habitable (due to a dimmer sun and lower CO2 atmosphere) has been supported by recent modeling studies,” they state. “Conceivably, deep drilling operations could be carried out on either planet in future to assess their geological history. This would constrain consideration of what the fingerprint might be of life, and even organized civilization.”
Two key aspects of the Drake Equation, which addresses the probability of finding life elsewhere in the galaxy, are the sheer number of stars and planets out there and the amount of time life has had to evolve. Until now, it has been assumed that one planet would give rise to one intelligent species capable of advanced technology and communications.
But if this number should prove to be more, we may a find a galaxy filled with civilizations, both past and present. And who knows? The remains of a once advanced and great non-human civilization may very well be right beneath us!
In 1961, famed astrophysics Frank Drake proposed a formula that came to be known as the Drake Equation. Based a series of factors, this equation sought to estimate the number of extra-terrestrial intelligences (ETIs) that would exist within our galaxy at any given time. Since that time, multiple efforts have been launched to find evidence of alien civilizations, which are collectively known as the search for extra-terrestial intelligence (SETI).
The most well-known of these is the SETI Institute, which has spent the past few decades searching the cosmos for signs of extra-terrestrial radio communications. But according to a new study that seeks to update the Drake Equation, a team of international astronomers indicate that even if we did find signals of alien origin, those who sent them would be long dead.
To recap, the Drake Equation states that the number of civilizations in our galaxy can be calculated by multiplying the average rate of star formation in our galaxy (R*), the fraction of stars that have planets ( fp), the number of planets that can support life (ne), the number of planets that will develop life (fl), the number of planets that will develop intelligent life (fl), the number that will develop transmissions technologies (fc), and the length of time that these civilizations will have to transmit signals into space (L).
This can be expressed mathematically as: N = R* x fp x ne x fl x fi x fc x L. For the sake of their study, the team began by making assumptions about two key parameters of the Drake Equation. In short, they assume that civilizations emerge in our galaxy (N) at a constant rate, and that they will not emit electromagnetic radiation (i.e. radio transmissions) indefinitely, but will experience some type of limiting event over time (L).
As Dr. Grimaldi explained to Universe Today via email:
“We assume that hypothetical communicating civilizations (the emitters) send isotropic electromagnetic signals for a certain duration of time L, and that the birthrate of the emissions is constant. Each emission process gives rise to a spherical shell of thickness cL (where c is the speed of light) filled by electromagnetic waves. The outer radii of the spherical shells grow at the speed of light.”
In short, they assumed that technologically-advanced civilizations are born and die in our galaxy at a constant rate. However, these civilizations do not produce communications at an indefinite rate, but their communications will still be traveling outwards at the speed of light, where they will be detectable within a certain volume of space. The team then developed a model of our galaxy to determine whether humanity would have any change at detecting these signals.
This model treated alien communications as a donut-shaped (annulus) shell that gradually passes through our galaxy. As Dr. Grimaldi explained:
“We model the Galaxy as a disk. The emitters occupy random positions in the disk. Each spherical shell intersects the disk in annuli. The probability that an annulus crosses any given point of the disk (e.g. the Earth) is just the ratio between the area of the annuli and the area of the galactic disk. The total area of the annuli over the area of the galactic disk gives the mean number (N) of electromagnetic signals that intersect any given point (e.g. the Earth). This mean number is a key quantity, because SETI can detect signals only if these cross the Earth at the time of measurement.”
As they determined from their calculations, two cases emerge from this model based on whether the radiation shells are (1) thinner than the size of the Milky Way or (2) thicker. These correspond to the lifetimes of technologically-advanced civilizations (L), which could be less than or greater than the time it takes for light to cross our Milky Way (i.e. ~100,000 years). As Dr. Grimaldi explained:
“The mean number (N) of signals crossing Earth depends on the signal longevity (L) and their birthrate. We find that N is just L times the birthrate, which coincides with Drake’s N (that is, the mean number of currently emitting civilizations). This result (mean number of signals crossing Earth = Drake’s N) arises naturally from our assumption that the birthrate of signals is constant.”
In the first case, each shell wall would have a thickness smaller than the size of our galaxy and would fill only a fraction of the galaxy’s volume (thus inhibiting SETI detection). However, if there is a high enough birthrate of detectable civilizations, these shell walls may fill our galaxy and even overlap. In the second case, each radiation shell would be thicker than the size of our galaxy, making SETI detection more likely.
From all this, the team also calculated that the average number of E.T. signals crossing Earth at any given time would equal the number of civilizations currently transmitting. Unfortunately, they also determined that the civilizations we would be hearing from would have long since gone extinct. So basically, the civilizations we would be hearing from would not be the same ones that were presently broadcasting.
As Dr. Grimaldi explained, this raises a rather interesting implication when it comes to SETI research:
“Instead of viewing the Drake’s N as a product of probability factors for the development of communicating civilizations, our results imply that Drake’s N is a directly measurable quantity (at least in principle) because it coincides with the mean number of signals crossing Earth.”
For those hoping to find evidence of extra-terrestrial intelligence in our lifetime, this is likely to be a bit discouraging. On the one hand (and depending on the number of alien civilizations that exist in our galaxy), we may have a hard time picking up extra-terrestrial transmissions. On the other, those that we do find may be coming from a civilization that has long since gone extinct.
It also means that if any civilization should pick up our radio wave transmissions someday, we won’t be around to meet them. However, it does not rule out the possibility that we will find evidence that intelligent life has existed within our galaxy in the past. In fact, over the course of own our civilization’s lifetime, humanity may find evidence of multiple ETIs that existed at one time.
In addition, none of this negates the possibility of finding evidence of an existing civilization. It’s just not likely we’ll be able to sample their music, entertainment or messages first!
The discovery of alien life is one of those things that everyone thinks about at some point. Hollywood has made their version of first contact very clear: huge alien vessels appear over Earth’s cities, panic ensues, and Will Smith saves the day with a Windows 3.1 virus. It’s lots of fun—and who knows?—it may end up being accurate. (Not the Windows 3.1 part.) But sci-fi books and movies aside, what do we really know about our attitude to the discovery of alien life?
We have an organization (SETI) dedicated to detecting the presence of alien civilizations, and we have a prominent scientist (Stephen Hawking) warning against advertising our own presence. Those represent the extremes—actively seeking out alien life vs. hiding from it—but what is the collective attitude towards the discovery of alien life? Scientists at Arizona State University (ASU) have studied that issue and detailed their results in a new study published in the journal Frontiers of Psychology.
The team of scientists tried to gauge people’s reactions to the discovery of alien life in three separate parts of their study. In the first case, they examined media reports of past announcements about the discovery of alien life, for example the announcement in 1996 that evidence of microbial life had been found in a Martian metorite.
Secondly, they asked a sample of over 500 people what their own reactions, and the reactions of the rest of humanity, would be to the hypothetical announcement of alien life.
Thirdly, the 500 people were split into two groups. Half were asked to read and respond to a real newspaper story announcing the discovery of fossilized Martian microbial life. The other half were asked to read and respond to a newspaper article announcing the creation of synthetic life by Craig Venter.
In all three cases the life was microbial in nature. Microbial life is the simplest life form, so it should be what we expect to find. This is certainly true in our own Solar System, since the existence of any other intelligent life has been ruled out here, while microbial life has not.
Also, in all three cases, the language of the respondents and the language in the media reports was analyzed for positive and negative words. A specialized piece of software called Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC) was used. It’s text-analysis software that scans written language and identifies instances of words that reflect positive affect, negative affect, reward, or risk. (You can try LIWC here for fun, if you like.)
Analyzing Media Reports
The media reports used in the study were all from what the team considers reputable journalism outlets like The New York Times and Science Magazine. The reports were about things like unidentified signals from space that could have been alien in nature, fossilized microbial remains in meteorites, and the discovery of exoplanets in the habitable zones of other solar systems. There were 15 articles in total.
Overall, the study showed that language in media reports about alien life was more positive than negative, and emphasized reward rather than risk. So people generally find the potential of alien life to be a positive thing and something to be looked forward to. However, this part of the study showed something else: People were more positively disposed towards news of alien life that was microbial than they were towards alien life that could be present on exoplanets, where, presumably, it might be more than merely microbial. So, microbes we can handle, but something more advanced and a little doubt starts to creep in.
Reactions to Hypothetical Announcements of Alien Life
This part of the study aimed to assess people’s beliefs regarding how both they as individuals—and humanity as a whole—might react to the discovery of alien microbial life. The same LIWC software was used to analyze the written responses of the 500 people in the sample group.
The results were similar to the first part of the study, at least for the individuals themselves. Positive affect was more predominant than negative aspect, and words reflecting reward were more predominant than words reflecting risk. This probably isn’t surprising, but the study did show something more interesting.
When participants were asked about how the rest of humanity would respond to the announcement of alien life, the response was different. While positive language still outweighed negative language, and reward still outweighed risk, the differences weren’t as pronounced as they were for individuals. So people seem to think that others won’t be looking forward to the discovery of alien life as much as they themselves do.
Actual Reactions to the Discovery of Extraterrestrial Life
This is hard to measure since we haven’t actually discovered any yet. But there have been times when we thought we might have.
In this part of the study, the group of 500 respondents was split into two groups of 250. The first was asked to read an actual 1996 New York Times article announcing the discovery of fossilized microbes in the Martian meteorite. The second group was asked to read a New York Times article from 2010 announcing the creation of life by Craig Venter. The goal was to find out if the positive bias towards the discovery of microbial life was specific to microbial life, or to scientific advancements overall.
This part of the study found the same emphasis on positive affect over negative affect, and reward over risk. This held true in both cases: the Martian microbial life article, and the artificially created life article. The type of article played a minor role in people’s responses. Results were slightly more positive towards the Martian life story than the artificial life story.
Overall, this study shows that people seem positively disposed towards the discovery of alien life. This is reflected in media coverage, people’s personal responses, and people’s expectations of how others would react.
This is really just the tip of the iceberg, though. As the authors say in their study, this is the first empirical attempt to understand any of this. And the study was only 500 people, all Americans.
How different the results might be in other countries and cultures is still an open question. Would populations whose attitudes are more strongly shaped by religion respond differently? Would the populations of countries that have been invaded and dominated by other countries be more nervous about alien life or habitable exoplanets? There’s only conjecture at this point.
Maybe we’re novelty-seekers and we thrive on new discoveries. Or maybe we’re truth-seekers, and that’s reflected in the study. Maybe some of the positivity reflects our fear of being alone. If Earth is the only life-supporting world, that’s a very lonely proposition. Not only that, but it’s an awesome responsibility: we better not screw it up!
Still, the results are encouraging for humanity. We seem, at least according to this first study, open to the discovery of alien life.
But that might change when the first alien ship casts its shadow over Los Angeles.
Roughly half a century ago, Cornell astronomer Frank Drake conducted Project Ozma, the first systematic SETI survey at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia. Since that time, scientists have conducted multiple surveys in the hopes of find indications of “technosignatures” – i.e. evidence of technologically-advanced life (such as radio communications).
To put it plainly, if humanity were to receive a message from an extra-terrestrial civilization right now, it would be the single-greatest event in the history of civilization. But according to a new study, such a message could also pose a serious risk to humanity. Drawing on multiple possibilities that have been explored in detail, they consider how humanity could shield itself from malicious spam and viruses.
To be fair, the notion that an extra-terrestrial civilization could pose a threat to humanity is not just a well-worn science fiction trope. For decades, scientists have treated it as a distinct possibility and considered whether or not the risks outweigh the possible benefits. As a result, some theorists have suggested that humans should not engage in SETI at all, or that we should take measures to hide our planet.
As Professor Learned told Universe Today via email, there has never been a consensus among SETI researchers about whether or not ETI would be benevolent:
“There is no compelling reason at all to assume benevolence (for example that ETI are wise and kind due to their ancient civilization’s experience). I find much more compelling the analogy to what we know from our history… Is there any society anywhere which has had a good experience after meeting up with a technologically advanced invader? Of course it would go either way, but I think often of the movie Alien… a credible notion it seems to me.”
In addition, assuming that an alien message could pose a threat to humanity makes practical sense. Given the sheer size of the Universe and the limitations imposed by Special Relativity (i.e. no known means of FTL), it would always be cheaper and easier to send a malicious message to eradicate a civilization compared to an invasion fleet. As a result, Hippke and Learned advise that SETI signals be vetted and/or “decontaminated” beforehand.
In terms of how a SETI signal could constitute a threat, the researchers outline a number of possibilities. Beyond the likelihood that a message could convey misinformation designed to cause a panic or self-destructive behavior, there is also the possibility that it could contain viruses or other embedded technical issues (i.e. the format could cause our computers to crash).
Article 6 of this declaration states the following:
“The discovery should be confirmed and monitored and any data bearing on the evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence should be recorded and stored permanently to the greatest extent feasible and practicable, in a form that will make it available for further analysis and interpretation. These recordings should be made available to the international institutions listed above and to members of the scientific community for further objective analysis and interpretation.”
As such, a message that is confirmed to have originated from an ETI would most likely be made available to the entire scientific community before it could be deemed to be threatening in nature. Even if there was only one recipient, and they attempted to keep the message under strict lock and key, it’s a safe bet that other parties would find a way to access it before long.
The question naturally arises then, what can be done? One possibility that Hippke and Learned suggest is to take a analog approach to interpreting these messages, which they illustrate using the 2017 SETI Decrypt Challenge as an example. This challenge, which was issued by René Heller of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, consisted of a sequence of about two million binary digits and related information being posted to social media.
In addition to being a fascinating exercise that gave the public a taste of what SETI research means, the challenge also sough to address some central questions when it came to communicating with an ETI. Foremost among these was whether or not humanity would be bale to understand a message from an alien civilization, and how we might be able to make a message comprehensible (if we sent one first). As they state:
“As an example, the message from the “SETI Decrypt Challenge” (Heller 2017) was a stream of 1,902,341 bits, which is the product of prime numbers. Like the Arecibo message (Staff At The National Astronomy Ionosphere Center 1975) and Evpatoria’s “Cosmic Calls” (Shuch 2011), the bits represent the X/Y black/white pixel map of an image. When this is understood, further analysis could be done off-line by printing on paper. Any harm would then come from the meaning of the message, and not from embedded viruses or other technical issues.”
However, where messages are made up of complex codes or even a self-contained AI, the need for sophisticated computers may be unavoidable. In this case, the authors explore another popular recommendation, which is the use on quarantined machines to conduct the analysis – i.e. a message prison. Unfortunately, they also acknowledge that no prison would be 100% effective and containment could eventually fail.
“This scenario resembles the Oracle-AI, or AI box, of an isolated computer system where a possibly dangerous AI is ‘imprisoned’ with only minimalist communication channels,” they write. “Current research indicates that even well-designed boxes are useless, and a sufficiently intelligent AI will be able to persuade or trick its human keepers into releasing it.”
In the end, it appears that the only real solution is to maintain a vigilant attitude and ensure that any messages we send are as benign as possible. As Hippke summarized: “I think it’s overwhelmingly likely that a message will be positive, but you can not be sure. Would you take a 1% chance of death for a 99% chance of a cure for all diseases? One learning from our paper is how to design own message, in case we decide to send any: Keep it simple, don’t send computer code.”
Basically, when it comes to the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence, the rules of internet safety may apply. If we begin to receive messages, we shouldn’t trust those that come with big attachments and send any suspicious looking ones to our spam folder. Oh, and if a sender is promising the cure for all known diseases, or claims to be the deposed monarch of Andromeda in need of some cash, we should just hit delete!