03 January 2014

Thoughts on SETI... what if we succeed?

What would actually happen if SETI were successful, and some kind of signal from an extraterrestrial civilization were actually discovered?

Although the SETI effort is in deep financial trouble right now, it seems likely that in some way or other the Hat Creek Array will be reinstated and continue searching before long. Seth Shostak has plotted a timeline based on expected searches, and the estimated probability of a detectable civilization based on the Drake Equation (Google it if not familiar). Conservatively, these folks believe that it’s fairly likely detection of a civilization capable of communicating with us will occur sometime between now and 2050. I am personally skeptical for a variety of reasons which I’ve discussed on this blog (Search), but let’s just stipulate it’s certainly a possibility.

What would happen? Here are my speculations:

First, there would be a great deal of public interest. It would travel the breadth and depth of popular culture worldwide as the Greatest Meme Ever. But there is something important to bear in mind. We will not be having a chat with aliens. At best, we will glean some kind of meaning from a one-way signal, because if the conservative estimates are correct, and there are 10,000 communicating civilizations among the 300 billion stars of the Milky Way (I would guess more like 10 to 100, but let’s stick with 10,000), that means the nearest one is probably 500 to 1000 light years distant… so two way conversations would be very tedious indeed. 

It’s not at all clear that we would even be able to decipher a “message,” if we did receive one, but even unequivocal proof that living beings capable of technology exist at all would be one of the most momentous discoveries in human history.

Shostak has given his reasons for thinking that any civilization we contact will likely be a “machine civilization,” because the potential of technology to surpass the ability of living beings to “think” is already at a threshold in our, presumably quite young, civilization. I doubt this, too, for other reasons I’ve also discussed on this blog, but I’m not sure this is critical. The key point is that, just statistically, it’s a near certainty that any beings we contact will be far more technologically advanced than we are.

And this is the great unknown of SETI. What exactly would that mean? Would we be the recipients of a technology transfer that would transform our lives?

We really cannot know, but it seems likely that if it proves possible to discern meaning from a signal, and if the signal is rich enough in content, it probably would contain information that would catapult scientific knowledge, at least in some fields, far beyond anything anyone can meaningfully speculate about; and the same may apply to technologies as well.

As I’ve intimated, I’m somewhat of a SETI skeptic. But, the upside of value to be potentially gained from success, and the natural curiosity of people to just want to know what’s out there, more than justifies the relatively minor expenditure. (Currently, the US government is not spending anything on this effort; it’s entirely privately funded).

As for those who fear alien invasion, or our culture being overwhelmed like the Tahitians by the Europeans… well, we’re in a pretty fair pickle anyway, so I’ll take my chances. But, seriously, these arguments are ignorant. The distances to the stars are so great that it’s just not worth it to try to exploit other star systems. If “they” are out there, it’s a fair certainty that their only interest in us will be purely out of the same interest we have: to find out what’s out there. The universe is literally full of matter and energy, and there is nothing to be gained from hostility to remote neighbors; now, or ever.

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