Alien contact

OK. This is extreme geek-out.

I came across this the other day (HT Instapundit)  which cheerily discusses the problems inherent in plausibly anticipating what contact with an extra-terrestrial intelligence might be like.

The genesis of the article was a meeting of the Royal Society in London on the consequences of alien contact. Essentially, the question raised was, “Should we broadcast our presence to the universe?” We’ve been (sort of) sacanning and listening for signs of extra-terrestrial intelligence for a few years abut aside from some LP records (analog records!!!) stapled to the side of a space probe (Veeger!), we haven’t done much to advertise our existence to the cosmos.  David Brin responded with a cautionary note intended to squelch at least a little of the geek squee.

Robin hanson summed it up,

As Brin notes, many would-be broadcasters come from an academic area where for decades the standard assumption has been that aliens are peaceful zero-population-growth no-nuke greens, since we all know that any other sort quickly destroy themselves.  This seems to me an instructive example of how badly a supposed “deep theory” inside-view of the future can fail, relative to closest-related-track-record outside-view.  As Brin says, the track record of contact between cultures, species, and biomes is not especially encouraging, and it is far too easy for far-view minds to overestimate the reliability of theoretical arguments to the contrary.

J. Storrs hall goes further,

In fact, it’s a lot worse than that.  As far as I can tell, nobody talking about interstellar contact has a model even vaguely close to a reasonable analysis of the situation.  Short form: these discussions are the equivalent of the natives of a Polynesian island deciding who shall be allowed to wave as the galleons heave into view.  Our own technology, today, is getting close to detecting Earth-like planets around other stars, for heaven’s sake.  The galleons see the island, not the waving. …

Reality is that any alien race out there with whom we have any kind of physical contact at all is virtually certain to have (a) full-fledged nanotech, and (b) hyperhuman AI.  Given these capabilities, if they want to find Earth-like planets anywhere in the area of space they would have the physical capability of travelling to, they will find them. Period. Doesn’t matter whether we are standing on the shore waving or not.

Undoubtedly true. But Hall then goes on to make the same kind of errors he disdains,

Any sentient creatures that actually get here will be nanotech-based robots, not water-based organisms.  They won’t have spacecraft, they’ll be spacecraft.  They will be unlikely interested in the carbon-poor mudballs of the inner solar system, but reap abundant carbon from the outer planets and carbonaceous asteroids to build Dyson-sphere-like structures around the orbit of Mercury. …

We aren’t going to see any less ambitious visitors due to simple evolution: in a universe where the ultimate meaning of “carbon footprint” is the total mass of the superintelligent diamondoid robots you’ve built, spaceships burning cellulosic ethanol simply aren’t going to be anywhere near the fittest.  Indeed, cultures that aren’t inherently aggressive and ambitious aren’t going to put the effort into sending out starships at all.

Well… maybe. But probably not.

Any alien intelligence capable of traveling interstellar distances would have routine access to technology that is simply unimaginable to us.  Let me be clear about this, we can’t imagine what it would be like. Whatever we do imagine is almost surely wrong. The analogy isn’t Polynesian islanders waving to European Galleons, it’s Iron age Celts meeting 21st century archaeologists face to face. Alien technology would be as impossible for us to imagine as a nuclear reactor would have been for the druids who danced around Stonehenge. Saying that Aliens would have “full-fledged” nanotech is like an ancient Celt imagining that 21st century technology would have really, really big anvils and lots of iron tools.  Hyperhuman AI? Maybe… but that’s sort of like Columbus imagining that 21st century navigators would have really precise sextants. Sure, we still have anvils… but we also have titanium alloy golf clubs. We don’t use sextants because we have GPS systems.

What we can say for sure is that Alien tech would be fantastically advanced. Nanotech? Sure, why not? But nanotech might be as meaningful to the Aliens as blacksmithing is to us. Dyson spheres? Well, maybe. But again, that’s us imagining future technology in reference to our own context. We’re obsessed with power production, so we imagine really honkin big power plants. Like the Sun! Our Iron age forebears were really worried about food production. Imagine the farmland and grazing pasture needed to support 5 billion people using Iron age farming technology! Yeah, we have big farms, but our farms are many, many orders of magnitude more efficient than the druids would ever have imagined. Capture the power of a star by building a sphere to surround it? Why do that when you have a Magwumpzillwapper that generates a hundred times the power, fits in your pocket, and smells like daffodils? Or more likely, something else entirely?

As for motivations…. I don’t see why we should even try to guess the motivation of our supposed visitors. Do they want to conquer us? Maybe, but I can’t see what we could offer them. Resources? Whatever they’d want we’re very unlikely to value.  Imagine meeting a group of Druids and telling them you really want the rights to dig up that nasty black stuff in the bog. Think they’d argue much?  I think it’s more likely our first encounter would be with alien anthropologists and research scientists. But again, maybe they’d be zookeepers. Or teenagers on a joyride. Maybe instead of Cattle Tipping, rural alien punks go Human Probing. Or maybe we’re already in the zoo.

Whatever, we can broadcast or not broadcast. Whatever the aliens want to do, they’ll do. If they can get here, we won’t be able to stop them. And if they can get here, they can see us whether we wave or not.

But there’s another option too… that they’re really NOT out there, or if they are, it’s just as freakin’ hard for them to get here as it for us to get to them. It’s at least as plausible as any other theory.  Brin says that it’s likely we’d be the newcomers to interstellar society, but it’s also possible that we’ll be the first. Why not? Someone’s got to be first.

But just in case we’re not the first to the party, let me start the ball rolling by saying howdy to all the aliens reading this blog.

3 thoughts on “Alien contact

  1. So true that we can’t imagine it, but it is mighty fun trying!

    No doubt any “first contact” would be fraught with misunderstandings and mistakes, even if the intent was benevolent and not a mission to repopulate/enslave/consume resources/gobble us up for a snack.

    What would you send into space today as the new “Veeger” to be representative of life on earth?

  2. What would I send into space? I’d send Congress into space.

    Ha. Ha. I kid.

    We don’t want to pollute space with our trash.

    But seriously, I think the kind of stuff we send up is more important than the specific content. I suppose I’m mostly stuck in imagining Alien anthropologists. Scientists would be interested in seeing snapshots of what we’re like: what drives our culture, how we interact with each other, what our biological processes are, etc….

    I think the manner we encode the data is probably largely irrelevant. Put it all on DVD’s. (Of course, they’ll need to download access rights to bypass the DRM…) Include a little “Rosetta Key” to help them download and decode our little digital glyphs. If we went digital we could include massive amounts of literature and art.

    I’m not really concerned about bundling a “representative” sample of all Earth’s glory, though. We might think the differences between _The Office_ and the _Bhagavad Gita_ are really super important, but I’m guessing that to an alien consciousness, they’d be pretty darn similar. I’d also be sure to include a bunch of physiology and anatomy textbooks.

    But again, for all practical purposes, we’ve already sent all that stuff out there. Any object we shoot into space travels too slowly to be of much practical use. We already broadcast tons of info into space via television and radio. We should probably just flip a DirecTV satellite to face outward.

  3. I’d like to go. As the Earth’s representative, I mean, or at least one of them. I’d like to do that with a cloned version of me. And one of Lina, and you guys and, well, all of our close, reason- and libertyloving peoples. And one of Pat’s Magwumpzillwappers (make mine smell like fresh peaches) and some computers and facilities that can keep re-generating cloned bodies to contain our continually expanding consciousnesses in perpetuity.

    There’d be a zerogravity pool, some widescreen tvs, a holodeck, a badminton court, a huge farm and garden (maintained by robots), an array of five-star restaurants, a large pub with billiards tables, a debating society, an extraordinary laboratory, sexbots, a library with no late-fees, clones of great artists and filmmakers and a private school system (at least two schools for every grade level).

    It wouldn’t be so much about the destination as the journey. We’d have so much fun in the holodeck!

    Yes, Pat, we’d bring the NFL, the best-ever Saints team and the best-ever Patriots team… we’d be the coaches.

    Yes, Hallie, public shmeckling would be encouraged! Sure wouldn’t be any laws against it. (-:

    I really think there’s no substitute for a face-to-face meeting with aliens. If we encountered intelligent life, we’d watch A Room With a View and play some Wii games together to establish rapport, and then we’d eat dinner. Wouldn’t take long to figure out whether we’d want to spend much time with them or get back to our journey.

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