October 3, 2004

Building a machine designed by ET: not a good idea

I recently re-watched "Contact," the 1997 film adaptation of Carl Sagan's novel of the same name.

In this film, extra terrestrial contact is made, with the ET's transmitting the blueprints to a massive engineering project—supposedly for us to build. After studying the schematics it is determined that it is the outline for some sort of transportation device for a lone passenger. The exact means of transportation is unknown, as is much of the science behind the radically advanced technology.

There is some debate about the safety of embarking upon such a project, including worries about it being a possible Trojan horse or doomsday device, but ultimately the fears are set aside and the device is built at a cost of a quarter of a trillion dollars. [spoiler follows]Of course, the machine is a success, and our heroine gets to go on the thrill ride of a lifetime [end spoiler].

As I reflect on this film, however, I believe the decision to construct the device was the wrong one. Rather, the precautionary principle should have been invoked big time. In general I'm not a big fan of the PP, but in this case I think it would have been warranted.

Without knowing the nature of the transmitting ETs themselves, or even if conscious entities were actually transmitting the signal, there's no way we could predicted ET's true intentions. It very well could have been a Trojan horse; the device could have been deliberately designed to look like a transportation device to fool us into building it, only to turn out to be something far more nefarious instead—like a doomsday device, for example.

Why would ETs do such a thing? Well, the transmission could have been viral. Imagine a malevolent or paranoid civilization (or group or individual) determined to wipe out intelligent life across the Galaxy. They set up a bunch of beacons across the Galaxy that transmit the evil code.

As precedent that intelligences are capable of such a thing, people write viruses here on Earth for no good reason. Perhaps signals such as these are the ultimate manifestation of computer viruses—one information system finding memetic compatibility with another and infecting it. The trouble with such a scenario, however, is that such a code wouldn't replicate and re-transmit. But if the source transmitter remains intact, it would be the Typhoid Mary of civilizations.

So, rather than build the device on sheer blind faith alone (i.e. Not knowing how the technology works, not knowing exactly what the device is supposed to do, not knowing who transmitted it, not knowing why it was transmitted....), I would have suggested that the extra terrestrial schematics be studied, reverse engineered, and modeled to the point were we felt comfortable enough to predict as much of its effects as possible.

And then we could build it.


1 comment:

George said...

[this is a comment from Kip Werking]


First of all, let me say that I think the book and movie Contact, if not perfectly executed, expresses one of the most beautiful ideas to be found in popular culture: an uncompromising endorsement of rationality over superstition, and a magnificent vision of what science can accomplish. I am utterly amazed that the movie was even made, and I have a tremendous amount of respect for Zemeckis and Foster for using the Hollywood blockbuster machine--which usually just produces shit--to make this work of art. For these reasons, the film will always remain on my list of ten best films:


Second, I want to express that I understand the concern that you or anyone would feel about aliens who contact us. Are they hostile? Will we survive? Nevertheless, I object to your claim that we shouldn't follow the aliens' instructions for this reason:

* It is extremely unlikely that a post-Singularity civilization would fail to destroy us, if they wanted to do so. They would blow up earth with a Death Star, or they would send us instructions that would be so seductive that our primitive brains could not but happily follow them, or they would send a super-virus in a paper envelope. What they wouldn't do is send an elaborate set of instructions, detailing a 3-trillion$ engineering construction, just to kill us off. In other words, their success in destroying us--or accomplishing any goal--will probably not be contingent upon us failing to exercise caution or freedom of the will (what that means), upon our decisions going the right way. Any inclination to resist the aliens' intentions betrays, I suspect, a lack of appreciation for their intellectual dominance over us.

The above is just speculation. My chief objection to your idea, of course, is that it scars the plot of an exceptionally beautiful film.