February 7, 2005

Is Active SETI imperiling humanity?

Michael Michaud, a member of the SETI Permanent Study Group, has come out warning that Active SETI may be putting humanity in serious jeopardy. "Let’s be clear about this," writes Michaud, "Active SETI is not scientific research. It is a deliberate attempt to provoke a response by an alien civilization whose capabilities, intentions, and distance are not known to us. That makes it a policy issue."

Proponents of Active SETI advocate that humanity deliberately transmit messages to outer space in hopes that an ETI will intercept them and learn of our existence. These signals would be different than regular radio transmissions in that they would be stronger, more focused, and contain actual messages for potential listeners.

To bolster his case, Michaud lists an impressive retinue of scientists who agree with him, including sociobiologist Jared Diamond, Nobel Prize-winning biologist George Wald, and astronomers Robert Jastrow and Zdenek Kopal.

Even lesser-known scientists have entered into the fray:
Biologist Michael Archer said that any creature we contact will also have had to claw its way up the evolutionary ladder and will be every bit as nasty as we are. It will likely be an extremely adaptable, extremely aggressive super-predator. Physicist George Baldwin predicted that any effort to communicate with extraterrestrials is fraught with grave danger, as they will show innate contempt for human beings. Robert Rood warned that the civilization that blurts out its existence on interstellar beacons at the first opportunity might be like some early hominid descending from the trees and calling "here kitty" to a saber-toothed tiger.
Michaud even brings physicist Freeman Dyson into the discussion--a man who has thought and written extensively on this subject. "Our business as scientists is to search the universe and find out what is there. What is there may conform to our moral sense or it may not," writes Dyson, "It is just as unscientific to impute to remote intelligences wisdom and serenity as it is to impute to them irrational and murderous impulses. We must be prepared for either possibility and conduct our searches accordingly."

Dyson posed two alternatives: Intelligence may be a benign influence creating isolated groups of philosopher-kings far apart in the heavens, sharing at leisure their accumulated wisdom. Or intelligence may be a cancer of purposeless technological exploitation sweeping across the galaxy.

Michaud's recommendations re: Active SETI? Do not transmit a signal more powerful than the Earth’s radio leakage (including radars) without international consultation. And by international consultation, Michaud means the UN. He's obviously pretty serious.

So, is Michaud right?

Yes and no.

Yes, in that we could alert some kind of entity to our existence (like a dormant berserker probe). And yes, in that extraterrestrial agents (sentient or semi-sentient) may be quite malign or hold radically different moral values to our own.

No, in that it's highly, highly unlikely that bad guy ETIs are waiting in their spaceships for signs of less-advanced life so that they can scoot over and subjugate them. I consider this scenario to be rather outlandish--one that fails to take into account the likely existential changes that advanced ETIs will undergo as they evolve into postbiological civs.

Also, these fears fail to take into account the Fermi Paradox. It's more likely that nobody's out there listening. And even if there is, if evil ETIs wanted to overtake the Galaxy they could have easily done that by now. And as the Von Neumann/berserker probe scenario shows, the Galaxy could have been colonized (or sterilized) thousands, if not millions, of times over by now also. Yet clearly this hasn't happened, which is an interesting data point that would seem to argue against the idea of imperialistic entities residing in the Galaxy.

Consequently, I think Michael Michaud's fears are quite exaggerated. Active SETI is likely as useless an endeavor as it is harmless.

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Anonymous said...

See also:


The SETI Paradox

Anonymous said...

Who cares if aliens know were out there, the most they could do is send a virus, maybe reply back with a derogatory comment, Or give the blueprint plans for a clean energy technology. Direct visitations would be out of the question, because of the limits of space travel.

Our lives are dull anyway. "Wake-up, go to work, come home, go to bed." (I wouldn't mind getting interrupted.)

The Fight the Right Coalition said...

We have to get over the outdated fearful concept that aliens want to "eat" us; or utilize our oxygen; or require our space and particular gravity. Smart creatures don't play Cowboy and Indian.