If we find ET, don't talk to it, says the man who wants to find ET

If we find ET, don't talk to it, says the man who wants to find ET
Should we make contact with alien life? Credit: Shutterstock/adike

The question of whether there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe has been asked by people for many years.

But if we hear something, should we answer? In the absence of any signal from them, should we try to make our presence known?

One of those asking these questions is Stephen Hawking, the British cosmologist with many deep thoughts and a good sense of humour.

Unlike many celebrity scientists, Hawking's provocative, news-grabbing statements almost always have some content worth pondering.

Looking for ET

Hawking is part of a Breakthrough Listen project to develop more sensitive radio receivers and listen in on the alien civilisations of the cosmos.

There is another project called Breakthrough Message to design a digital message that could be transmitted from Earth to an extraterrestrial civilisation. The message should be "representative of humanity and planet Earth".

The program pledges:

[…] not to transmit any message until there has been a global debate at high levels of science and politics on the risks and rewards of contacting advanced civilisations.

But Hawking wants us to listen, and not to talk – use our ears, not our mouth. He wants us to eavesdrop but not join the conversation. He wants us to keep our head low.

If we find ET, don't talk to it, says the man who wants to find ET
Stephen Hawking. Credit: Flickr/Lwp Kommunika, CC BY

That sounds like a reasonable idea. Better safe than sorry. But in the spectrum between, paranoia and unjustifiable fear on one side, and reasonable caution on the other, where does keeping your head low fit in?

What kind of ET could we find?

Hawking's comments are motivated by a fear of what the would do to us if they find us. In his mind, the aliens are the Spanish Conquistador Cortez and we are the Aztecs he made contact with in central America.

Tribal warfare, genocide and ethnic cleansing have been part of our history for thousands of years. Hawking's fear is a fear of what we have done to ourselves.

Would advanced alien civilisations be as barbaric as we are? Are our genocidal tendencies at all representative of advanced alien civilisations? Maybe.

Hawking says he worries that any aliens "will be vastly more powerful and may not see us as any more valuable than we see bacteria".

But Stephen, bacteria ARE valuable. Our bacterial biomes keep us alive and healthy. They have been here for about 4 billion years. They invented the ability to harvest sunlight for energy. They produced the oxygen we breathe, and as mitochondria, they do our breathing.

Life on Earth would do fine without people, but without bacteria no other life forms would exist. So Hawking is over-estimating our importance and under-estimating our insignificance to aliens. We will be much less valuable to aliens, than bacteria are to us.

Advanced civilisation

The age distribution of Earth-like planets in the universe tells us that the average Earth-like planet is about 2 billion years older than our Earth.

If life has formed on these other Earths, it has had, on average, 2 billion years longer to evolve than we have had. This is the fact that has Hawking worried.

Discovering one of the earliest television broadcasts from 1936.

If you imagine that the pace of biological and technological evolution on these other Earths is about the same as it has been on our Earth, then alien civilisations are on average two billion years more advanced than we are.

To put that time frame into perspective, two billion years ago, our ancestors on Earth were amoebas or parameciums – single-celled eukaryotes of some kind.

I agree with Hawking that we should keep our heads low. But we have already opened our mouths and started coughing – betraying our existence to any big-eared aliens.

Via television broadcasts we have already sent the 1936 Berlin Olympics and the I Love Lucy show to the stars.

Currently our strongest emissions into the cosmos – emissions that are making our presence known to the aliens – are the emissions that we think are protecting us from terrestrial aliens.

Those emissions are military radar. The unintended consequence of this protective radar is that it is simultaneously shouting out to the aliens "here we are".

So the biggest threat to humanity is humanity – our nuclear weapons, our guns, our big brains and our powerful radar systems.

Contact or not?

While discussing the value of searching for extraterrestrial intelligence SETI, a colleague told me that it was dangerous to even listen to aliens. He thought the message would be like a Trojan horse. If we let the message into our minds, it would kill us.

It would be like sticking a virus-contaminated USB stick into your computer. The militaristic generals in the movie Contact should come to mind here: "Ellie Arroway! Don't build that machine!"

Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke once said that any sufficiently advanced technology would be indistinguishable from magic. But futurist Karl Schroeder thinks that any sufficiently advanced technology will be indistinguishable from nature.

I don't know. Maybe Schroeder's right and advanced aliens have made their peace with the universe. But even if there aren't any advanced elsewhere in the universe, keeping your head down is probably a good exercise in humility.


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Nov 21, 2016
If an advanced civilisation has developed interstellar communication. Then they probably survived the elite versus everybody else punchup over the resources and rewards-for-workforce which is about to be unleashed on earth.
If they are more peaceful than we are i.e. more willing to share resources and work and rewards: They are less of a threat to us than our fellow man is at present.
Similarly an AI singularity is more likely to tell us humans not to be such plonkers; than it is to attack us over free access to silicon ones and zeros.

Nov 21, 2016
The message should be "representative of humanity and planet Earth".

Do we really want to make ourselves look that bad?

As for the 'advanced aliens are dangerous' argument: Suppose you are a technologically advanced superpower and you discover some backward tribe on an island. What do you do? Do you wipe them out? And if so: why? They have nothing you want. So you ignore them.

And before anyone says "they want our [insert favorite metal/liquid here]": No, the 'resources' argument doesn't hold because once you can attack another planet you're spacegoing - which means you have all the resources you could ever want available in much easier to mine locations.
And that aliens find our planet habitable - and a nice vacation spot - is incredibly unlikley (I'm looking at you "War of the Worlds").
The 'workforce' argument also doesn't work. We require very special environments and rest. Robots don't. Slavery is WAY too much hassle for an alien species to keep up.

Nov 21, 2016
We tend to think in terms of making contact with civilizations but any individual in a very advanced civilization would probably command enormous resources. So we might be of interest to a "butterfly collector". Or the extraterrestrial equivalent of a sadistic little boy. Maybe we already have attracted such attention. Some of our favorite religious myths look to me like the work of a rather malignant alien messing with our minds. Much more likely than anything supernatural, at least.

Nov 21, 2016
But what if they want to build a hyperspace bypass, hmmm?
I don't know, apathetic bloody planet, I've no sympathy at all.

Nov 21, 2016
So we might be of interest to a "butterfly collector"

Even a moderately advanced species could likely make an atomic scan/copy of anything they want to collect.

As for a 'sadistic little boy' species: That's a possibility, but not a likely one. Pain/sadism doesn't translate well accross remote species. E.g. you can - sort of - empathize with animals that are, biologically, relatively close to you. But how much empathy do you have for fish? Or insects? Or amoeba? How much fun is torturing an amoeba, really? And more importantly: What's the point (on a planetary scale, to boot)? And these are species we share a large part of our DNA with.

We're always projecting our motives and emotions onto other species (fear, greed, sadism, ...) . But consider that being freely spacegoing removes the cause for many of them I don't see the 'evil alien' thing happening.

Nov 21, 2016
Suppose you are a technologically advanced superpower and you discover some backward tribe on an island. What do you do? Do you wipe them out? And if so: why? They have nothing you want. So you ignore them.

Suppose you are a standard representative of the human species, and you discover a small patch of mould starting to grow on the ceilling in your bathroom. Do you "wipe it out"? And if so: why? It has nothing you want, and it is completely harmless in its current state & form. So you ignore it?

The question whether or not extraterrestrials could pose a threat to humanity, is not a question of "good" or "evil", but rather a question of "convenience".

We're always projecting our motives and emotions onto other species (fear, greed, sadism, ...)

Well, at least in this very case (Hawking), it is mostly the reader who is projecting. Maybe I'm wrong, but I believe Hawking never said anything (pun not intended) about "evil" motives being the base of his worries..

Nov 21, 2016
Suppose you are a standard representative of the human species, and you discover a small patch of mould starting to grow on the ceilling in your bathroom. Do you "wipe it out"? And if so: why? It has nothing you want, and it is completely harmless in its current state & form. So you ignore it?

You wipe it out because it
a) poses a threat to your health
b) you want a clean bathroom
That piece of mold *has* things you want.

But if you find a piece of mold in the woods - what do you do? Wipe it out? No.

Where's the convenience in so much advanced aliens wiping us out?

Nov 21, 2016
poses a threat to your health
In its current state & form (small patch on the ceilling) it is completely harmless.

you want a clean bathroom
Ignoring the aesthetical aspect - Yes, you want to keep it clean to minimize any potential threats to your health.

Ergo - if you leave the small patch of mold unattended, it could become an "inconvenience" at some point in the future. So as a pre-emptive measure, you simply decide to "wipe it out". And you surely will not shed a tear about it..

But if you find a piece of mold in the woods - what do you do? Wipe it out?
No. It was there long before humans even existed, and in its natural habitat is part of a balanced ecosystem, which keeps it "in check" - eg. prevents it from spreading excessively.

Where's the convenience in so much advanced aliens wiping us out?
The convenience is in keeping potential future hazards at a minimum. Just like we do with disinfection, deratization, etc..

Nov 22, 2016
Ignoring the aesthetical aspect

I don't know if you've ever been a student or lived in a shared flat. In the case where aesthetics aren't an issue (i.e. no one cares about cleanliness). No one in that situation will wipe out the mold. No one.

t could become an "inconvenience" at some point

I.e. it could become a health threat or an aesthetic problem. Now I don't think humans are an aesthetic problem for aliens. So the only thing that remains is a 'health threat'. So how much would you be afraid that some native island tribe banging their sheep skin driums will - in the future - develop warlike technology to the point to be a real threat and wipe you out (and also develop the tendency along the way to want to do so). Answer: you're not.

Humans are not a 'potential future hazard' to something that advanced.

It was there long before humans even existed

Humans were here long before aliens came. Natural habitat. Same argument.


Nov 22, 2016
We might be able to visit other planets and check out any life forms. A sleeping invention by Dr. Robert L. Carroll (1910-1997) a mathematical physicist - could open space to human exploration far beyond present ideas. Carroll's Ultra-Cold Disruption (UCD) is a revolutionary alternative to any form of fission or fusion. The fuel is very small amounts of ordinary water. There is no radioactive waste. Carroll was aiming for the stars. His alternative to relativity proposed the maximum speed of a spacecraft is 20 million times that of light. It might also replace chemical rockets with a system that cannot explode and would be much lighter and cheaper. That would allow humans to settle in space in great numbers. AESOP Energy intends to prototype the reactor. A small robotic spacecraft can be launched aimed at a star. If it quickly returns with data and photographs consistent with the Hubble telescope, Carroll will have been proven correct. See: aesopinstitute.org look under MORE

Nov 23, 2016
Humans are not a 'potential future hazard' to something that advanced
@AA_P
not so sure about that...
we've demonstrated the ability to learn very quickly, and we're a very reckless species (as a whole) that doesn't have a problem wiping out themselves, let alone strange unknown anything

...any species with even a modicum of common sense would consider us a potential threat, especially if we managed to get our hands on their technology

...

and depending on their physiology, we could be a food source though

Nov 23, 2016
Food source? How far would you travel for takeout?

Im sure all the singularities around us are very familiar with all the potential variations of life, including the ones they emerged from, and would look at us as just one more on the verge of joining the club. Right on schedule.

Our transition to machine life is unavoidable and inevitable.

In the meantime we can expect no communication from them as they have heard it all before and what would they have to say to us except 'enjoy it while it lasts'?

Sooner or later every bio-intelligence figures out how to obsolete itself. Meatlife is so incompatible with intelligence, so fragile, so ephemeral, so restricted, so messy. We all resent it dont we? We fantasize about gods and supermen and then we invent them.
https://www.youtu...p8UWQce4

Why put people in spacesuits when spacesuits are fully capable of operating by themselves?

Nov 23, 2016
we've demonstrated the ability to learn very quickly

So have they (presumably). When we'll be ahead another 1000 years, so will they. So the 'balance of power' pretty much remains.

and we're a very reckless species (as a whole) that doesn't have a problem wiping out themselves, let alone strange unknown anything

Sure. But if there's one alien species that is spacefaring then there are probably many (Paraphrasing from Isaac Asimov's book 'The Gods Themselves': "The number two is irrational and cannot possibly exist." Meaning that either something is universal/out there in large numbers or it is unique). So what would they all do if they start seeing one upstart clobbering an established species?

Being aggressive in a multi-way society isn't a long-term winning strategy.

we could be a food source though

Unlikely. Far more likely we're poisonous. If they can go to space they can make their own food (MUCH more likely they don't need any)

Nov 23, 2016
Food source? How far would you travel for takeout?
@Otto
not "travel for"... but just "fresh meat"
and meant more as satire than serious
Our transition to machine life is unavoidable and inevitable
actually, i see this as more probable than anything, but i also don't think we will live to see it

otherwise, as AA_P noted from Asimov in the post following you..."The number two is irrational and cannot possibly exist."

.

Being aggressive in a multi-way society isn't a long-term winning strategy
@AA_P
agreed

but then again, humans don't tend to learn from their own history (usually), otherwise we would be a mite more peaceful towards each other, wouldn't we?
Unlikely
like i said - more satire than reality
you know... "how sweet. fresh meat"? - freddy

next time i will add LOL or something - i thought it was kinda obvious... sorry folks

Nov 23, 2016
So have they (presumably).
@AA_P
you know, if their species is advanced enough for space travel, especially long range, then i doubt seriously that we would be a threat at all (with rare exception) simply because they would likely avoid us

i think they would view us more like the cosmic "hillbilly" or "zoo" - to be avoided except for the occasional observation to see what changes we are making

more importantly, your other comment
something is universal/out there in large numbers or it is unique
we don't see civilizations, nor do we see advanced technology... so where is it all?

i mean, we can see a LOT out there, but can we really not see some signs of advanced tech?

something to think about...

.

Meatlife...We all resent it dont we?
@Otto
not me

taste like chicken... LMFAO
(PS - jk )

Nov 23, 2016
@Otto
not "travel for"... but just "fresh meat"
and meant more as satire than serious
And the only reason a machine singularity would need to travel is to relocate to a safer and more sustainable location. Being concerned with the long run, it would consume no more than was absolutely necessary to survive.

The long run could however entail reordering large regions to minimize danger... cultivating systems, neighborhoods... galaxies... clusters... This sort of unnatural order should be easy for us to detect.

Perhaps the CMB Cold Spot or WMAP Cold Spot is a region where a schizoid singularity eliminated EVERYTHING of danger. Peace and quiet forever (until the next crunch, and its working on that)

Nov 23, 2016
we don't see civilizations, nor do we see advanced technology... so where is it all?

I don't really find that surprising. Consider: what would we see civilizations by? Their waste (EM radiation that is not going towards its purpose, changes in environment)
Alternatively: Megastructures.

Waste:
The hallmark of advancement is: you use stuff more efficiently. You create no waste. Even we start to do it.
- Instead of omnidirectional broadcasts we send only from transmitter to receiver
- Instead of polluting the environment we're already considering not doing so

Megastructures: These make no sense to me as the sign of an advanced civilizations. I'd rather expect them having transferred to smallish, hardy - and above all efficient - substrates. We're already miniaturizing everything we can think of (from phones to computers to colliders) - what's the point of building big?

I expect advanced species become (to our instruments) invisible fairly quickly.

Nov 23, 2016
but then again, humans don't tend to learn from their own history (usually), otherwise we would be a mite more peaceful towards each other, wouldn't we?

Well, if we go out there and start treading on other's toes I'd expect us to get rubbed out in short order. But even the most megalomaniac dictator (or his soldiers) will not wage war against an opponent of totally unknown capabilities...or not even knowing how many civilizations might be pissed off by such a move.

you know... "how sweet. fresh meat"? - freddy

I like the 'Bad Taste' (Peter Jackson's first movie) take on it better.

Nov 27, 2016
Megastructures: These make no sense to me as the sign of an advanced civilizations. I'd rather expect them having transferred to smallish, hardy - and above all efficient - substrates. We're already miniaturizing everything we can think of (from phones to computers to colliders) - what's the point of building big?


We've just discovered the world of the small, so obviously we have the illusion that you can make stuff smaller and smaller and still have it work in some practical manner, but what if it's just not possible to travel the stars without building in the gigascale? What if you ultimately can't "download your brain" into nanomachines or any of the other singularity bullcrap.

There's no such thing as 100% efficiency, so we would notice an interstellar society by its energy signature, because of the truly mind-boggling amounts of energy they would process and handle.

Nov 27, 2016
Besides, if interstellar travel and communication was possible at our everyday scale of energy and materials - very efficiently and inexpensively - it would mean any interstellar society wouldn't need to be very socially advanced. Instead, a society that can get off their planet on a budget is likely to become balkanized and warlike, since they don't need to resolve their conflicts.

Imagine if the Soviet communists - instead of having to live on this earth with the rest of us, had simply moved to Mars and built their "utopia" there. 100 generations later in complete intellectual and social isolation, who knows what sort of a monster would return? Maybe they finally succeeded eliminating all dissent and became a collective of Hegelian drones - an interplanetary North Korea.

So you may have what amounts to ant-like super zealot aliens coming at you, that left their home planet over a war for resources and is heading our way to for the same reason.

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