Politics, Foreign Policy, Current Events and Occasional Outbursts Lacking Couth

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Galactic Signals Intelligence Gathering

Via Warren Ellis is this New Scientist article from a week or two ago on a Doritos advertisement being beamed into space. Ellis writes:

Fuck that. I don’t care. Attempting to announce our presence to any intelligence that can get in front of the signal by sending them something made by a company that sells crunchy shit in bags is not the way to the maturity of the species.
Unless the ETs are a galactic stoner civilization, then they might be quite pleased that we bring munchies not war. This whole active SETI concept is quite interesting and seems we've been doing it for awhile. One usual counter-argument is that we've leaked electromagnetic signals for years anyway, so who cares; however, there is a difference in the power, and antenna usage, of the electromagnetic signals. Terrestrial-based signals like TV, radio etc. are weaker and their antennas are directed in such a manner to broadcast signals to receivers on earth. These signals are leakage and dissipate into noise much earlier. While the active SETI projects use high-powered beams with antennas directed at objects in outer space.

One of the better articles on the cons of active SETI is this one by David Brin. Some choice quotes:

Let there be no mistake. METI is a very different thing than passively sifting for signals from the outer space. Carl Sagan, one of the greatest SETI supporters and a deep believer in the notion of altruistic alien civilizations, called such a move deeply unwise and immature. (Even Frank Drake, who famously sent the "Arecibo Message" toward the Andromeda Galaxy in 1974, considered "Active SETI" to be, at best, a stunt and generally a waste of time.)

Sagan — along with early SETI pioneer Philip Morrison — recommended that the newest children in a strange and uncertain cosmos should listen quietly for a long time, patiently learning about the universe and comparing notes, before shouting into an unknown jungle that we do not understand.

Alas. To date, groups that plan to engage in METI have done the opposite, keeping a low profile and avoiding discussion with experts in near-related fields like exobiology, bioastronomy, or evolutionary biology... or even historians who are knowledgeable about human "first-contact". Especially biologists and historians. (For reasons that will become clear.)

(In The Third Chimpanzee, Jared Diamond offers an essay on the risks of attempting to contact ETIs, based on the history of what happened on Earth whenever more advanced civilizations encountered less advanced ones... or indeed, when the same thing happens during contact between species that evolved in differing ecosystems. The results are often not good: in inter-human relations slavery, colonialism, etc. Among contacting species: extinction.)

... Let me just offer one thought here. If aliens are so advanced and altruistic... and yet are choosing to remain silent... should we not consider following their example and doing likewise? At least for a little while? Is it possible that they are silent because they know something we don't know? ...

It'd be interesting if there was a galactic radio silence because of galactic signals intelligence gathering. It'd also raise the question, in the unlikely event, that when we receive some form of decipherable communication whether that intercepted signal is real or a deceptive ploy (a form of imitative or manipulative communication deception) similar to some sci-fi stories. I think this gets to the heart of the argument between the pro and con sides of the active SETI debate: whether life outside of Earth has good intentions. The definition of life is problematic, as it is defined by our exposure to one sample set within the universe: Earth-based life. Also, the definition of 'good' is problematic, disregarding arguments within meta-ethics for the moment, life outside may have no ethical-based system (or what resembles one to us anyway) or they may have one that we consider topsy-turvy where good is evil, evil is good, and there is, in the words of Peter Venkman in Ghostbusters, "Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together... mass hysteria!"


M├╝nzenberg said...

For anyone who wants to read a good counter-argument to my 'differences in electromagnetic power/antenna' position then have a look at this article via the wiki page on active seti:

subadei said...

Interesting. Brin seems oddly pessimistic, I'd have put him as a proponent of SETI.

Good points, however. For all we know the word Dorito maintains a phonetic exactness with some incredibly aggressive alien's own "we come to make war."

SnoopyTheGoon said...

Another explanation for the galactic radio silence (by Stanislaw Lem many years ago) is the huge technological gap between us humans and the really advanced star-engineering level civilizations. What we consider a radio/TV signal may be a senseless noise for them - to be ignored.

There is a good side to this too: not being noticed also means not being swatted as a bothersome fly.

Be it as it may, the even more pessimistic treatment of the silence is the total lack of (relevant - technological) civilizations, which is surely even more depressing.