Daily Archives: September 14th, 2010

Another take on SETI and the Fermi Paradox

SETI and the Fermi Paradox has had it’s share of mainstream media attention lately, usually via the ruminations of Dr. Stephen Hawking.

That can be a good thing, because Hawking has basically taken it upon himself to educate the great unwashed masses that human-kind probably aren’t the only “intelligent” *cough* life in the Universe.

Now David Tow of the Future of Life Research Center contends that SETI should by all means shift their search paradigm to other means than radio telescopes.

And why their search methods are failing.


Over the past 50 years SETI has focused primarily on radio frequency transmissions, while also dabbling briefly with the optical spectrum, searching for laser pulses from outer space. A number of more radical approaches have been canvassed, including infrared transmissions, gravity waves and neutrinos, but these appear to be infeasible at present.
In the meantime the SETI Institute continues to apply its Allen Telescope Array, an array of 42 small dishes, to the search, now introducing a new project– setiQuest, designed to open up its search algorithms to the public, providing a new source of computational power and innovation.

Over time, a number of additional powerful instruments and techniques have been deployed by the astronomical community, to probe the mysteries of other candidate star systems across the galaxy, including searching for signs of life. Discoveries of other solar systems similar to our own, including those that may harbor earth-like rocky planets are becoming increasingly likely, with some predictions of up to 100 million earths in the galaxy.
The glittering prize therefore seems tantalizingly close.

But something’s missing from the project. Under the invisibility cloak of eternal optimism there are growing doubts about SETI’s methodology. After 50 years there should have been something to show- some hint of intelligent life or even a reason for the lack of it – and there was. For a fleeting moment back in the seventies an unusual spike in the spectrum appeared- the Wow signal. But then disappeared just as quickly as it arrived. With hindsight however it might have provided a clue to the mindset of other civilisations.

Conservative estimates of life in the galaxy point to the existence of a spectrum of evolutionary outcomes, based on the large number of probable earth-like planets that almost certainly harbor microbial populations.

A few like our own civilization will have achieved the ability to infer the existence of other life forms by codifying the laws of nature and the physics of the electromagnetic spectrum. A larger number, able to grasp and walk upright, may be on track to harness the early technologies of tool-making and agriculture. And of course many more will be at the beginning of their evolutionary cycle, like salmon swimming upstream against the current; tiny animals with proto-brains and nervous systems desperately trying to reach the calmer waters of survival.  And many more proto-civilisations that went extinct before they could realize their full potential.

And then just perhaps, a handful of super-civilisations- SCs may have evolved; those with technologies well in advance of our own- capable of sending and receiving powerful messages across the galaxy and even universe. These would possess the ability to harness the inexhaustible power of clean fusion energy and overcome the threats of dangerous climate change and global conflict.

Regardless of the probabilities, which currently the best science is unable to credibly quantify, super-civilisations are our best hope of making meaningful contact. But in order for SETI to achieve this objective it must factor in a big chunk of crucial science that’s currently missing from its strategy.
It must incorporate the social dimension.

Super-Civilizations are not only likely to have already discovered our existence, but they will have a much deeper understanding of the universe at large – not only at the technological level but also at the social and ethical level. (Ref SETI and Alien Ethics blog)

Meanwhile on planet Earth, our culture of aggression and killing continues to dominate. We are a civilization that is still largely intent on solving conflicts by force, although a smarter way is on the horizon (Ref Future of War blog). And because of their advanced observational technology, SCs would be fully aware of this risk factor.

No doubt they have the scientific capability to monitor our progress and are doing so already. It is not that hard to sense and analyse chemical emissions spectra in our atmosphere, while also inferring our progress along the  evolutionary path of social development.
They would long ago have mapped the 400 billion star systems in our galaxy and determined their planetary composition- selecting the most likely earthlike planets to monitor for intelligent life. This is likely to be achieved here on earth within the next hundred years or so if we survive our current chaos.

A super-civilization with a mere 500 year head start on us technologically- just a fleeting moment in the history of the universe- would also possess the capability of communicating and travelling over vast distances in the cosmos, possibly at greater than the speed of light. Perhaps this would be achieved through new physics such as short cuts through spacetime or quantum teleportation.
They will also have overcome their aggressive evolutionary legacy and advanced light years beyond this barbaric bottleneck. All life on earthlike planets with environments similar to our own will highly likely have followed similar evolutionary trajectories. Such a conclusion is strongly supported by current biological Convergence Theory.

As for the mythology that suggests SCs are likely to covet our planetary resources- simple logic suggests the opposite.
Any advanced society would have long since had access to unlimited energy supplies by harnessing green power sources or nuclear fusion. On an earth-like planet an SC would also have been able to exploit similar material resources as well as quantum, electronic and chemical processes, synthesizing its own meta-materials as we are beginning to. Plant and animal ecosystems would also be similar to ours (Ref Convergence Theory) and no doubt fully conserved and sustainable because of their mastery over the entire biosphere.

The fact is that at this stage in our society’s development we would have virtually nothing of any substance to offer them.

Any similar or less developed civilizations will almost certainly be as aggressive and acquisitively territorial as us, but in any case would not have the technological capability to reach our planet by any form of space travel, just as we could not reach them. It is unlikely that we will be capable of exploring beyond our own solar system for another 100 years and then mainly by deploying robotic probes.

But above all SCs would have developed an extremely high level of ethical and moral legitimacy, otherwise they wouldn’t have been able to overcome the enormous challenges involved in creating an advanced society. They would have been forced long ago to subsume their naturally basic aggressive tendencies, and cooperate as one species living on one planet, in order to overcome the massively complex issues of poverty, justice, global warming and conflict, that we as a species are just coming to terms with.

SCs, if they exist, are no doubt waiting for us humans to reach the minimum threshold of maturity as a civilization; just as candidate European nations must reach a satisfactory level of democracy, human rights and financial governance before being accepted into the EU family of nations. Our threshold must include requisite non- warring, ethical and human rights solutions, the sustainability of our critical ecosystems as well as technological and computing capability. The emergence of Web 4.0 and 5.0 will help meet those criteria and threshold as early as 2050. (Ref The Future of the Web blog)

Then and only then will they deem it timely to communicate with us and begin to share their knowledge and perhaps acceptance into their federation of other super-civilisations.

Imagine if we knew of the existence of another civilization that had warred for centuries, almost wiped out its civilization by nuclear weapons, which they still retained, and was well on the way to global greenhouse armageddon, in addition to reaching breaking point in its democratic institutions. Would we want to communicate with them? I doubt it.
We should not the ones worried by unfriendly overtures from an advanced alien culture. It is they who would be extremely wary of us. As with a parent and child relationship, they cannot save us from our own mistakes. They will wait and watch.

I am not convinced of the so-called “higher ethics” of potential super-civilizations. Sure, they might’ve out-grown their own species territorial tendencies, but unless they’ve totally re-engineered their genome, they merely transferred  their aggressions to other goals.

In Arthur C. Clarke’s and Stephen Baxter’s ‘Time’s Eye‘, the enigmatic “First Born” (the Universe’s first intelligences) go out of their way to snuff out other primitive civilizations in order to preserve the ‘energy’ of the Universe in order to stave off the Great Entropy at the End of Time.

In my view, the top dogs don’t get to be top dogs by being weak, survival of the fittest goes beyond the top rung.

And if a culture like ours happens to survive its troubles, we just might be paranoid enough to snuff out competitors in their cribs.

So I agree with Dr. Hawking and Greg Bear about not broadcasting our baby bird cheepings.

Future of Life- The Future of SETI