May 1, 2010

Five reasons why Stephen Hawking—and everyone else—is wrong about alien threats

Stephen Hawking is arguing that humanity may be putting itself in mortal peril by actively trying to contact aliens (an approach that is referred to as Active SETI). I’ve got five reasons why he is wrong.

Hawking has said that, “If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans.”

He’s basically arguing that extraterrestrial intelligences (ETIs), once alerted to our presence, may swoop in and indiscriminately take what they need from us—and possibly destroy us in the process; David Brin paraphrased Hawking’s argument by saying, “All living creatures inherently use resources to the limits of their ability, inventing new aims, desires and ambitions to suit their next level of power. If they wanted to use our solar system, for some super project, our complaints would be like an ant colony protesting the laying of a parking lot.”

It’s best to keep quiet, goes the thinking, lest we attract any undesirable alien elements.

A number of others have since chimed in and offered their two cents, writers like Robin Hanson,Julian Savulescu, and Paul Davies, along with Brin and many more. But what amazes me is thateveryone is getting it wrong.
Here’s the deal, people:

1. If aliens wanted to find us, they would have done so already

First, the Fermi Paradox reminds us that the Galaxy could have been colonized many times over by now. We’re late for the show.

Second, let’s stop for a moment and think about the nature of a civilization that has the capacity for interstellar travel. We’re talking about a civ that has (1) survived a technological Singularity event, (2) is in the possession of molecular-assembling nanotechnology andradically advanced artificial intelligence, and (3) has made the transition from biological to digital substrate (space-faring civs will not be biological—and spare me your antiquated Ring World scenarios).

Now that I’ve painted this picture for you, and under the assumption that ETIs are proactively searching for potentially dangerous or exploitable civilizations, what could possibly prevent them from finding us? Assuming this is important to them, their communications and telescopic technologies would likely be off the scale.Bracewell probes would likely pepper the Galaxy. And Hubble bubble limitations aside, they could use various spectroscopic and other techniques to identify not just life bearing planets, but civilization bearing planets (i.e. looking for specific post-industrial chemical compounds in the atmosphere, such as elevated levels of carbon dioxide).

Moreover, whether we like it or not, we have been ‘shouting out to the cosmos’ for quite some time now. Ever since the first radio signal beamed its way out into space we have made our presence known to anyone caring to listen to us within a radius of about 80 light years.

The cat’s out of the bag, folks.

2. If ETIs wanted to destroy us, they would have done so by now

I’ve already written about this and I suggest you read my article, “If aliens wanted to they would have destroyed us by now.”

But I’ll give you one example. Keeping the extreme age of the Galaxy in mind, and knowing that every single solar system in the Galaxy could have been seeded many times over by now with various types of self-replicating probes, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that a civilization hell-bent on looking out for threats could have planted a dormant berserker probe in our solar system. Such a probe would be waiting to be activated by a radio signal, an indication that a potentially dangerous pre-Singularity intelligence now resides in the ‘hood.

In other words, we should have been destroyed the moment our first radio signal made its way through the solar system.

But because we’re still here, and because we’re on the verge of graduating to post-Singularity status, it’s highly unlikely that we’ll be destroyed by an ETI. Either that or they’re waiting to see what kind of post-Singularity type emerges from human civilization. They may still choose to snuff us out the moment they’re not satisfied with whatever it is they see.

Regardless, our communication efforts, whether active or passive, will have no bearing on the outcome.

3. If aliens wanted our solar system’s resources, they would haven taken them by now

Again, given that we’re talking about a space-faring post-Singularity intelligence, it’s ridiculous to suggest that we have anything of material value for a civilization of this type. They only thing I can think of is the entire planet itself which they could convert into computronium (Jupiter brain)—but even that’s a stretch; we’re just a speck of dust.

If anything, they may want to tap into our sun’s energy output (e.g., they could build a Dyson Sphere or Matrioshka brain) or convert our gas giants into massive supercomputers.

It’s important to keep in mind that the only resource a post-Singularity machine intelligence could possibly want is one that furthers their ability to perform megascale levels of computation.

And it’s worth noting that, once again, our efforts to make contact will have no influence on this scenario. If they want our stuff they’ll just take it.

4. Human civilization has absolutely nothing to offer a post-Singularity intelligence

But what if it’s not our resources they want? Perhaps we have something of a technological or cultural nature that’s appealing.

Well, what could that possibly be? Hmm, think, think think….

What would a civilization that can crunch 10^42 operations per second want from us wily and resourceful humans….

Hmm, I’m thinking it’s iPads? Yeah, iPads. That must be it. Or possibly yogurt.

5. Extrapolating biological tendencies to a post-Singularity intelligence is asinine

There’s another argument out there that suggests we can’t know the behavior or motivational tendencies of ETI’s, therefore we need to tread very carefully. Fair enough. But where this argument goes too far is in the suggestion that advanced civs act in accordance to their biological ancestry.

For examples, humans may actually be nice relative to other civs who, instead of evolving from benign apes, evolved from nasty insects or predatory lizards.

I’m astounded by this argument. Developmental trends in human history have not been driven by atavistic psychological tendencies, but rather by such things as technological advancements, resource scarcity, economics, politics and many other factors. Yes, human psychology has undeniably played a role in our transition from jungle-dweller to civilizational species (traits like inquisitiveness and empathy), but those are low-level factors that ultimately take a back seat to the emergent realities of technological, demographic, economic and politico-societal development.

Moreover, advanced civilizations likely converge around specific survivalist fitness peaks that result in the homogenization of intelligence; there won’t be a lot of wiggle room in the space of all possible survivable post-Singularity modes. In other words, an insectoid post-Singularity SAI or singleton will almost certainly be identical to one derived from ape lineage.

Therefore, attempts to extrapolate ‘human nature’ or ‘ETI nature’ to the mind of its respective post-Singularity descendant is equally problematic. The psychology or goal structure of an SAI will be of a profoundly different quality than that of a biological mind that evolved through the processes of natural selection. While we may wish to impose certain values and tendencies onto an SAI, there’s no guarantee that a ‘mind’ of that capacity will retain even a semblance of its biological nature.

So there you have it.

Transmit messages into the cosmos. Or don’t. It doesn’t really matter because in all likelihood no one’s listening and no one really cares. And if I’m wrong, it still doesn’t matter—ETIs will find us and treat us according to their will.


slartibartfast said...

I, for one welcome our post-singularitarian overlords, whatever planet they are from, including this one.

ZarPaulus said...

How do you know that surviving a Singularity is necessary for interstellar travel? There's no evidence that nuclear propulsion is a post-singularity technology. It's also possible that a civilization might not even conceive of the idea of sentient artificial intelligence, their ultra-fast computers might simply be programmed with a set of pre-determined responses.

And of course, uploading is not a means of immortality! Sure, AIs or uploads could be considered humanity's children, but I'd expect that people would be concerned enough about "Skynet" to push forward regulations requiring AI to be programmed with Asimov-esque safeguards.

digitaltrails said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
digitaltrails said...

I don't think we should put billions of lives at risk based on speculation about how advanced and friendly aliens might be. We should make a decision based on hard evidence.

By all means look for alien civilisations, but only look for now. No scientist or engineer should make the decision to initiate contact on behalf of the entire planet. Such a decision will have to be a political decision where all people are represented in the decision making process.

In the case of the Americas it was unforeseen consequences of introduced diseases that killed the majority of the inhabitants. In the case of ET, who knows, it may even be an unforeseen meme.

Are we being serious here? If we are, have we reached a point where this issue should be legislated both internationally and nationally? It seems a far fetched thing to worry about - but the consequences of a wrong move are potentially huge.

Roko said...

The decision to broadcast - or not - is best done by conditioning on the possibility that the broadcast will have some effect, i.e. that there exists some entity that will pick up the broadcast *and* that that entity will act differently if it receives the broadcast than if it does not.

The case that the broadcast does nothing, (i.e. it is either undetected or unheeded) has no effect on the decision of whether to do it or not.

Therefore arguments like "aliens would surely already know we are here" are not so relevant.

Euan Christopher said...

Maybe the berserker probe just hasn't got here yet.

Martin said...

In short, I agree with what you said in your article, still, my two cents on the resources an ET race might want from us...
What if it's not matter they want? (since, as you stated, we don't have any specific material they could not extract from any other random star system). What if, it turns out, you can't make an artificial conciseness and the only way to get one is through biological evolution. Perhaps then, for whatever reason, such conciseness would be extremely valuable and "they" would wish to "gather" it somehow...

Eric Kansa said...

I feel that there is some misplaced confidence in all of this.

(1) A singularity is still speculative. It may or may not happen. We still don't know if there are fundamental limits in "useful intelligence". Perhaps investment in intellect gets you diminishing marginal returns. Perhaps one can be too smart to be effective.

(2) Alien motivations may be very diverse. True many post-Singular civilizations may have no interest in us or our solar system, but some may (motivated for whatever reason).

(3) Unless the laws of physics are suspended with the singularity, they will still face constraints on using matter and energy. Some aspects of economics (and ecology!) may still apply to post-singular critters.

At any rate, so far, we've either been ignored, left alone, escaped notice, or they just don't exist. All this despite an atmosphere that's plainly out of chemical equilibrium and easy for all to see.

However, given this happy state of affairs (non-interference), why rock the boat? I feel it prudent not to do "active SETI", JUST IN CASE. Why waste resources doing something that makes us a little more conspicuous?

Anyway, fun and totally speculative conversation. Key issue here is to keep some humility because we're all well beyond the limits of our knowledge.

mongrel said...

Everything on this planet eats something only goes to reason that the universe would be simular but on a larger scale....and on the subject of intelligent life, some of the most successful serial killers have had very high IQ`s

Maurizio said...

I think we are efficiently destroying ourselves already, no need for extra help, job almost done.

Michael Hansen said...

If you look at our mess we have made on this planet in everything from Goldman Sachs to the World Wars and pollution, not to mention politics, I would say that we will also mess up and pick the wrong choice when trying to decide if we should contact an advanced ETI. With such a history of bumbling, it is a miracle we are still here.

Jon Nichols said...

Very well put.
While I am of the belief that we have already been found, invasion and overt exploitation are obviously not on the agenda.

Lloyd E. Hargrove said...

Speculations of such are nothing new:

"Vortices of pure energy can exist and, if my theories are right, can compose the bodily form of an intelligent species." - William Thomson, 1st Baron Kelvin

2Cr 11:14
And no marvel; for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light. - Paul the Apostle

Eze 1:13
As for the likeness of the living creatures, their appearance [was] like burning coals of fire, [and] like the appearance of lamps: it went up and down among the living creatures; and the fire was bright, and out of the fire went forth lightning. - the prophet Ezekiel

Jake Cannell said...

George, I believe all your points are valid, but there's another interesting route to reach them.

Its entirely possible that the speed of light and space-time curvature of the universe is setup in such a particular way as to make colonizing space travel forever economically infeasible.

The singularity, more than anything else, is an acceleration of time itself, an acceleration into a future inner space, as opposed to an acceleration into a historical outer space.

For post-singularity beings thinking thousands, millions and eventually billions of times faster than humans, the equivalent of entire human lifetimes will pass by in seconds and then milliseconds.

And as insane as that is to ponder, that future really should be considered pre-singularity, when post-human descendants break away into an era of acceleration that is so fast as to be instantaneous to biological humans. The singularity itself is the end, the moment when said descendants optimize their local matter computronium into the optimal final computer - a black hole like entity (BHE). As shown by Seth Lloyd and others, current known physics posits that to continue the current acceleration of moore's law indefinetly into the future is to compress ourselves into something resembling a black hole singularity. Literally. Nothing like a Jupiter Brain, really. That is the final local Singularity - possibly giving rise to new pocket universes and a new beginning cosmic Singularity.

At the point where everyone knows this, travel out into outer space will be a quaint out-dated idea, like Well's cannon ride to Mars, or worse.

The counter-argument to all of this is that some tiny percentage of the population/mindstream may go against the grain and still decide to create von Neumann probes, no matter how antiquated they may be, and such probes could quickly colonize the galaxy.

The counter-counter to the von Neumann probe argument is in such case the galaxy is certainly already colonized and we certainly live in a simulated pocket universe anyway - as in the Simulation Argument - taking us back to square one, essentially removing the von neuman probes in our current simulated timeline.

Thus taken all together, if there is a Singularity in our future timeline (and right now it looks like all non-terminal timelines have future Singularities), then aliens are a moot point. We are either in their simulation, or will encounter them only in our simulations.

Or put another way, two civilizations developing towards singularities do not typically encounter each other on the same plane. Developmental physics prevents that.

bruceleeeowe said...

Hi George,
your first three comments doesn't seem valid to me. Why everything should be done by now? If you are talking about aliens why to override your assumptions over plausibility? What if aliens just want to eradicate us right now? But relativistic distances are keeping them away. It directly falsify your arguments. I would be interested to have full discussion over Fermi paradox and relativistic civilizations. See my article here about why hawking is wrong
you can see my all articles here

astropin said...

Hmmm....It would appear that either Jake Cannell is right or...

No civilization ever survives long enough to actually reach the technological singularity.

Te said...

Am with the comments wondering why aliens would have to be post-singularity. As Humans we've got wrapped up with a manipulative greedy elite who are more bothered about profit on earth. Many aliens could have pushed for space-travel from the moment they were able to instead, which if true, means we could encounter all types of races out there.

Saying that though I don't think we'll only encounter aliens like that, would like to think there'd be a mixed set of types, with an allied set of aliens protecting most places.

I do think there'll be problems out there though, I mean, you only have to look at what we'd be like if we'd pushed to get people out into space decades back and put enough money and effort into it. We'd surely be causing trouble in several ways, and if we met pre-space travel races ourselves we'd surely cause them problems as well.

And there's the chance some alien races don't have the intelligence to reach a singularity? Which means they could have been out there for any amount of time doing more or less anything, unless those other races have put a check on things.

Sounds like fiction, but who knows...

peterxdunn said...

For a few more reasons go here:

Get a more personal side to the story.

GottaKnow333 said...

To paraphrase the Bible (KJV) . . . And Elisha prayed, “O LORD, open his eyes so he may see.” Then the LORD opened the servant’s eyes, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha. 2 Kings 6:17

Perhaps the aliens are there but we just can't see them. It is said that we only use a 10th of our brains and only five of or senses--though some claim to have extra sensory perception. Also, we can only perceive things from a three dimensional perspective. I know of no one, or at least have not heard of anyone, having quantum vision and can tap into parallel universes. So, who is to say that aliens aren't here "scoping" us out? Who is to say that they aren't controlling everything that's happening in our world, like the Matrix or something?

If they have made contact, maybe we're too primitive for them to concern themselves with. Perhaps, they won't intervene until we become technologically advanced enough, or on the brink of annihilating ourselves.

If there has been contact, perhaps they're just "checking up" on us to gauge our progress.

David Brin said...

Sorry George. All five of your general statements are more full of holes than Battleship Bismarck. Really, they are pretty darn tendentious.

First, the SETI Institute folks themselves calculated that non-coherent radio emitted from Earth across the last 60 years fades into static background within less than one light year. And mind you, these are the guys who WANT to make all of your arguments. But physics is physics.

Tight-narrow coherent (laser-like) beams are another matter. We've sent a few as radar scans across some moons and asteroids. A few. They could be seen far away. But they are very narrow and likely not to be seen for that reason... unless aimed right at a center of civilization.

Mind you, I do not find Hawking's scenario plausible. He says our shouting at the cosmos might attract alien attention (true) and that their values may not be altruistic (also true: see )

But he then says they would come and rape our solar system for resources because we drew their attention? What? That makes no sense. You go get resources independent of being called. Indeed, Earth's oxygen atmosphere advertises the existence of life, so neither life-hating nor resource grabbing are likely doom scenarios from drawing attention.

Nevertheless, I could come up with a dozen unpleasant scenarios off the top of my head. Indeed, something is bizarre and daunting about a cosmos that's so eerily silent. It is not a time to blithely list completely unsupported conclusions and claim "case solved."

Cesar Santos said...

About resources, there is the fact that we do need gold or diamonds to live. They are worthless shiny things, they have no intrinsic value whatsoever by themselves.

But we, as a species, committed multiple genocides to have them.

Also, maybe a future civilization will simply choose to remain organic?

A metal body sounds uncomfortable, if indestructible, and it is impossible to upload one's mind to a computer.

You can copy yourself inside one but, as there is no soul to remove from point A and insert into point B, you yourself will still be trapped inside your brain.

I believe substituting natural neurons by artificial, undying ones is an alternative. But that is an unproven method for now.

So maybe a cyborg civilization is more probable, synthetic inside and organic outside. If nothing else because sex is a dirty, dirty exchange of fluids and feels better among organics.

Cesar Santos said...

Oh yes, I also agree wholeheartedly with your first argument.

We, primitive apes, could already have telescopes searching for alien life and planets with civilization signs if we weren't such cheapskates.

A civilization merely one hundred years more advanced certainly have them and is scanning the galaxy by now.

I doubt they have evil reasons to do so but who's to say what an alien is thinking? Maybe they descended from their T-Rex equivalent and consider 'sentient being's soup' a delicacy.

The Chinese don't give a damn about the species they are cruelly exterminating because of their, worthless because it does not work, traditional medicine and high class cuisine.