Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Waiting for those Benevolent Aliens............

One of the prevalent and pernicious variations on the belief that technology will save us is the belief that we will soon make contact with an intelligent extraterrestrial species that will teach us magical secrets and technological wonders that we will use to avert the disasters looming ahead of us. And like all variations on the belief in salvation through technology this simply is not likely to happen. If we bank on that, like mid-lifers planning our retirement around winning the lottery, we are planning on having to live through the worst case scenario of all these future crises.

I am by no means challenging the assumption of other intelligent life in the universe. In fact I fervently adhere to that belief. For some it takes a fundamental refocusing of their belief system to step away from the belief that man is the center of the universe, that man has some special dominion over all the other living species on this planet, that man can do with this planet, and any other part of the universe we manage to reach, whatever we wish. Our species has no special place in the overall scheme of things. Our sun is a minor star in a remote corner of an unspectacular galaxy, one of billions in the vast universe. A growing array of mathematical models suggest that life is probably ubiquitous throughout that universe, possibly existing on billions of planets. We still have not disproven the existence of life elsewhere in our own solar system. It is the ultimate in species chauvinism to believe that, with all of that life, we should be the only intelligent species that exists. The fact we haven't made contact with other intelligent life does not mean that it is not out there.

We are just now developing and enhancing the technology that allows us to determine from earth the chemical constituencies of distant bodies, stars, planets and moons. We are doing so in the hope that we can identify distant planets with the chemical makeup capable of supporting life. The chemical markers we will be looking for have been present on earth for billions of years for any intelligent species out there to have detected. Our sun is a relatively young star. Any intelligent life around a much older star, which is most other stars, could have reached our level of progress millions, even billions of years ago. Assuming that there must be other life and other intelligent species elsewhere in the universe our life-capable planet has in all probability already been detected long, long ago.

In just a century we have progressed from the first powered flight at Kitty Hawk to sending a Voyager spacecraft out of our home solar system to venture slowly across the galaxy. Growth in knowledge is exponential. Imagine what progress we may have made in another thousand years. Now imagine the progress an intelligent extraterrestrial species could already have accomplished if they are millions of years ahead of us in intellectual development.

If we were to receive from outer space a signal that we could clearly identify as being of intelligent origin, whether or not we could understand that signal, it is critical to remember that that signal could have left its planet of origin as much as millions of years ago (the distance in light years from earth to the point of origin of that signal). The species that sent it, whether intentional or accidental, were already at the stage of technological development we achieved in the early 20th century, a short century ago, as long ago as that signal was transmitted.

Radio signals have been leaving earth now for a century. That means that any potential intelligent species on any planet within 100 lightyears distance is able to receive those signals, just as we are constantly monitoring the sky with SETI. They know that we are here, even if they do not understand those signals.

Soon after the development of radio the ability was developed to jam radio signals. The use of this technology has helped dictatorial governments prevent their citizens from receiving radio and television signals from outside the country in order to control the information their populace receives. Once it was understood that radio signals were leaving our planet and emanating out into space an interest developed in using jamming-type technology to block or mask those radio signals leaving earth in order to control what messages extraterrestrial intelligent life might intercept.

It is probable that any intelligent species elsewhere in the universe that develops radio technology will sooner or later want to and eventually succeed in blocking radio signals escaping from their planet's surface. This probably means a period of a century or less when accidental, uncontrolled radio signals would be released into space from any species going through a process of technological development. Once the ability to jam or control outbound radio signals is developed that species may or may not decide to allow any signals to exit their home planet and those allowed are probably going to be designed to be heard by prying ears.

A century of unblocked radio signals may seem like a very long time, significantly longer than the average human lifespan. But it is the blink of an eye in astronomical terms. The potential for us to receive uncontrolled or accidental radio signals from an extraterrestrial intelligent species will depend heavily on a number of lucky factors. The most important of these is that such a species must be in that period of social evolution and technological development where radio transmission has recently been developed. But they must have been at that stage of development at a point in our past equivalent to the distance in lightyears their planet is from earth. For us to receive such a signal today from a planet 1 million light years away that species must have been at a level of technological development equivalent to 20th century earth 1 million years ago.

Any extraterrestrial intelligent species that went through the development of radio longer ago than that will have likely already developed the technological ability to block and control those radio signals before we ever began listening for extraterrestrial radio signals. That does not mean that we will not receive a radio signal from them. What it does mean is that any signal received will be controlled and intentional.

It should not be difficult, relatively speaking, to determine if any extraterrestrial signal received is accidental or intentional. The accidental will clearly stand out as a radio signal but may prove impossible to interpret and understand, like an early broadcast of Amos and Andy or an evening news broadcast. The intentional signal, on the other hand, just like the plaque attached to Voyager, will be meant to be understood by alien species outside the planet of origin. It is likely to be pictorial and/or scientific in nature. If it is not directed at an alien species known to exist but rather meant for any intelligent species that might receive it, it will probably contain information that is believed by its senders to be universal, information like the periodic table, universal physical laws, astronomical data, etc.

If, on the other hand, it is directed at a know alien species, a species from which the originating species has already detected radio signals, any message directed at them will probably be designed to be understood by that species alone. It may echo back information they have gleaned from previous radio signals from that species, very possibly in the language and context of that species to whom their message is directed. In other words, if there is an intelligent species out there that has picked up radio signals originating from here on earth, any directed response they would transmit toward us may very well come back to us in English, or French or Russian or any of the other earth languages that have left this planet as radio signals. They may transmit back to us, as Carl Sagan suggested in Contact, the first television image that left this planet, that being Adolf Hitler opening the Olympic games in 1936 Berlin.

There is another important factor for consideration, however. Trust! When we are aware or suspicious that someone is monitoring our communications and we are uncertain of their motives and intentions - such as in the case of spying whether industrial, political or military - one consistent tactic is the leaking of misinformation or disinformation. This has been done most effectively by we humans during wars, hot and cold. It should not be assumed, therefore, that any radio communication picked up from an alien species has been sent with good intentions. If they are aware we are aware of them they will want to determine our intentions and motives and decide whether we can be trusted or should be feared. They are not going to begin intentional communication with the formula for a new energy source or the blueprints for a fantastic new machine using a previously unrecognized or untapped energy source.

Any extraterrestrial species that has been monitoring radio signals (which includes television) emanating from earth will not have been seeing a very flattering picture of our species. Our news and TV programming tends to largely focus on our darker side; wars, murders, violence, crime. Should an advanced extraterrestrial species volunteer any technology or knowledge to us, and I am at a loss to understand why they would, it is not likely to be of the type that would enhance our ability to make war nor help us further destroy the environment of our planet.

It is far more likely that any intelligent species out there that has become aware of us and has been intercepting our radio signals will now be in an observe-only status, continuing to monitor our radio signals without making themselves known to us. And they are likely to stay in that mode until they determine that we have in some way resolved or lived through the current tumultuous period of human development. They will likely want to see if we can advance beyond our warlike tendencies and whether we can learn to live within the limits of our environment. It may take a very long time, centuries perhaps, before they see a satisfactory outcome of either of those.

One of the incredible ironies is that what signals any alien species may pick up from earth represent the lowest, basest picture of our species. Through that they get to see us at our worst. They are receiving what passes as entertainment and mass media, sensationalized journalism. They have no access to print media, to books that represent the highest expression of human wisdom, or to the internet with its constant search for truth and representation of and support for alternatives. They would have no way of knowing, through what communication they can intercept, that there is wisdom in our species. What a shame.


Gauhar Kachchhi said...

Very interesting article Mr. Richard. But I see your blog is based on Peak Oil theory, and it would be difficult for human beings to go back to the Technological level we have achieved now, once the energy crisis becomes permanent...

With Peak oil, we get Peak Technology, unless, outcourse, we can somehow manage to gather our resources and work towards moving to sustainable living.

This article reminded me of a discussion on "Fermi's Paradox and the End of Cheap Oil".

There is an interesting blog... which you should check out... It proposes an interesting idea of what human beings have to accomplish in order to grow and thrive...

Do give me a message, sometime, at gauharjk[at]

Gauhar Kachchhi

Richard Embleton said...

I am not sure what your comment was meant to say. If you browse through my blog you will see that I am not optimistic about the long term viability of human civilization, because of peak oil but also because of global warming, soil degredation, the global freshwater crisis, and a host of other catastrophes lying ahead of us. I agree fully that we will not be able to return to or even maintain our current technological level once the energy crisis becomes permanent. With peak oil, as you say, we get peak technology, peak food, peak chemical/pharmaceutical industry, peak growth of the money supply, peak population and more. The best we can do is use whatever resources we need or are available to minimize the impact on human society, to minimize the number of deaths attributable to peak oil and the other crises.
I do not normally write about aliens, benevolent or otherwise. I did so only because there are so many people who seem to believe that some advanced race will arrive from space and save us from ourselves. Whether the crisis is peak oil or otherwise, salvation is not going to come from space. We need to create our own salvation.