Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Greetings E.T. Please Don’t Murder Us

On Nov. 16th, 1974, a few hundred Astronomers, Government Officials, and other Dignitaries gathered in the tropical forests of Puerto Rico’s Northwest interior, a four-hour drive from San Juan. The occasion was a rechristening of the Arecibo Observatory, at the time the largest Radio Telescope in the World. The mammoth structure, an immense concrete-and-aluminum saucer as wide as the Eiffel Tower is tall, planted implausibly inside a limestone sinkhole in the middle of a mountainous jungle, had been upgraded to ensure its ability to survive the volatile hurricane season and to increase its precision tenfold.

To celebrate the reopening, the Astronomers who maintained the Observatory decided to take the most sensitive device yet constructed for listening to the Cosmos and transform it, briefly, into a machine for Talking Back. The assembled crowd sat in silence at the edge of the Telescope while the Public-Address system blasted nearly three minutes of Two-Tone Noise. To the Listeners, the Pattern was indecipherable, but somehow the experience of hearing those Two Notes oscillating in the air moved many in the crowd to tears. That 168 seconds of noise, now known as the Arecibo Message, was the brainchild of the Astronomer Frank Drake, then the Director of the Organization that oversaw the Arecibo facility. The Broadcast marked the first time a Human Being had intentionally transmitted a Message targeting another Solar System. The Engineers had Translated the missive into Sound, so that the Assembled group would have something to experience during the Transmission. But its true Medium was the silent, invisible pulse of Radio Waves, traveling at the Speed of Light.

It seemed to most of the onlookers to be a hopeful act, if a largely Symbolic one. A Message in a bottle tossed into the sea of Deep Space. But within days, the Royal Astronomer of England, Martin Ryle, released a thunderous Condemnation of Drake’s stunt. By Alerting the Cosmos of our Existence, Ryle wrote, we were risking Catastrophe. Arguing that any creatures out there [might be] malevolent or hungry, Ryle demanded that the International Astronomical Union denounce Drake’s Message and explicitly Forbid any further Communications. It was irresponsible, Ryle fumed, to tinker with Interstellar Outreach when such gestures, however Noble their intentions, might lead to the Destruction of all Life on Earth.

In the Age of Radio Telescopes, Scientists have spent far more Energy trying to look for Signs that other Life might Exist than they have Signaling the Existence of our own. Drake himself is now more Famous for Inaugurating the modern Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) nearly 60 years ago, when he used a Telescope in West Virginia to Scan Two Stars for Structured Radio Waves. Today the Non-Profit SETI Institute oversees a Network of Telescopes and Computers listening for Signs of Intelligence in Deep Space.

From 1996 until 1999, I was part of the SETI Project, by allowing part of my computer's processes to be used to Analysis the captured Space Noise for Signs of Intelligent Patterns.

A new SETI-like Project called Breakthrough Listen, funded by a $100 million Grant from the Russian Billionaire Yuri Milner, promises to Radically Increase our Ability to Detect Signs of Intelligent Life. As a Species, we are gathered around more Interstellar Mailboxes than ever before, waiting eagerly for a Letter to arrive. But we have, until recently, shown little interest in Sending our Own.

Now this Taciturn phase may be coming to an end, if a growing Multidisciplinary group of Scientists and Amateur Space Enthusiasts have their way. A newly formed group known as Messaging Extra Terrestrial Intelligence (METI), led by the former SETI Scientist Douglas Vakoch, is planning an Ongoing Series of Messages to begin in 2018. And Milner’s Breakthrough Listen endeavor has also Promised to Support a Breakthrough Message Companion Project, including an Open Competition to Design the Messages that we will Transmit to the Stars. But as Messaging schemes proliferate, they have been met with Resistance. The Intellectual Descendants of Martin Ryle include Luminaries like Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking, and they caution that an Assumption of Interstellar Friendship is the wrong way to approach the Question of Extraterrestrial Life. They argue that an Advanced Alien Civilization might well respond to our Interstellar Greetings with the same graciousness that Cortés showed the Aztecs, making Silence the more Prudent Option.

If you believe that these Broadcasts have a plausible chance of making Contact with an Alien Intelligence, the choice to send them must Rank as one of the most important Decisions we will ever make as a Species. Are we going to be Galactic Introverts, huddled behind the Door and merely Listening for Signs of Life Outside? Or are we going to be Extroverts, Conversation-Starters? And if it’s the latter, what should we say?

The newfound interest in Messaging has been piqued in large part by an Explosion of newly Discovered Planets. We now know that the Universe is teeming with Planets occupying what Exobiologists call the Goldilocks Zone: not too Hot and not too Cold, with just right Surface Temperatures capable of supporting Liquid Water. At the start of Drake’s career in the 1950s, not a single Planet outside our Solar System had been observed. Today we can target a long list of potential Goldilocks-Zone Planets, not just distant Clusters of Stars, now we know that Virtually All Stars have Planets. And of these stars, maybe one out of five have potentially Habitable Planets. So there’s a lot of real estate that could be Inhabited.

When Frank Drake and Carl Sagan first began thinking about Message construction in the 1960s, their approach was genuinely equivalent to the proverbial Message in a Bottle. Now, we may not know the exact Addresses of Planets where Life is likely, but we have identified many promising ZIP Codes. The recent Discovery of the Trappist-1 Planets, Three of which are potentially Habitable, triggered such excitement in part because those Planets were, relatively speaking, so close to Home: just 40 Light-Years from Earth. If the Arecibo Message does somehow find its way to an Advanced Civilization in M13, Word would not come back for at least 50,000 years. But a targeted Message sent to Trappist-1 could generate a Reply before the end of the Century.

The Plaques that NASA sent into Space with Pioneer and Voyager had the advantage of being Physical objects that could convey Visual information, which at least enables you to connect Words with Images of the Objects they refer to. In other words, you draw a cow and then put the word ‘‘cow’’ next to the drawing and slowly, with enough pointing, a Language comes into view. But Physical Objects can’t be moved fast enough to get to a potential Recipient in useful Time Scales. You need Electromagnetic Waves if you want to reach across the Milky Way.

The METI group aims to improve on the Arecibo Message not just by targeting Specific Planets, but also by rethinking the Nature of the Message itself. Visual diagrams, whether formed through Semi-Prime Grids or Engraved on Plaques, seem like a compelling way to Encode Information to us because Humans happen to have evolved an unusually acute sense of Vision. But perhaps the Aliens followed a different Evolutionary path and found their way to a Technologically Advanced Civilization with an Intelligence that was rooted in some other sense: Hearing, for example, or some other way of Perceiving the World around them for which there is no Earthly equivalent.

Of all the many manifestations of our achievements as a Species, what’s the simplest Message we can create that will Signal that we’re Interesting, Worthy of an Interstellar reply? But to METI’s critics, what he should be worrying about instead is the form that the Reply might take: a Death Ray, or an Occupying Army.

In some future time, the question Where are we? could results in: A word of advise, in the future, no matter who you meet, human or otherwise, don't ask for location of their worlds. That's basic bit of manners in the Cosmos, like how impolite to ask a lady's age..

Before Doug Vakoch had even filed the papers to form the METI Non-Profit organization in July 2015, a dozen or so Science-and-Tech luminaries, including SpaceX’s Elon Musk, signed a Statement categorically Opposing the Project, at least without Extensive further Discussion, on a Planetary scale. Intentionally signaling other civilizations in the Milky Way Galaxy, the statement argued, raises concerns from all the people of Earth, about both the message and the consequences of contact. A worldwide scientific, political and humanitarian discussion must occur before any message is sent.

One Signatory to that Statement was the Astronomer and Science-Fiction Author David Brin, who has been carrying on a Spirited but Collegial series of Debates with Vakoch over the Wisdom of his Project. I just don’t think anybody should give our children a fait accompli based on blithe assumptions and assertions that have been untested and not subjected to critical peer review, he said. If you are going to do something that is going to change some of the fundamental observable parameters of our solar system, then how about an environmental-impact statement?

We have been sending Structured Radio Signals from Earth for only the last 100 years. If the Universe were exactly 14 billion years old, then it would have taken 13,999,999,900 years for Radio Communication to be harnessed on our Planet. The odds that our Message would reach a Society that had been tinkering with Radio for a shorter, or even similar, period of Time would be staggeringly long. Imagine another Planet that deviates from our Timetable by just a Tenth of 1%: If they are more advanced than us, then they will have been using Radio and successor Technologies for 14 million years. Of course, depending on where they live in the Universe, their Signals might take millions of years to reach us. But even if you Factor in that Transmission lag, if we pick up a Signal from another Galaxy, we will almost certainly find ourselves in Conversation with a more Advanced Civilization.

It is this asymmetry that has convinced so many future-minded Thinkers that METI is a bad idea. The History of Colonialism here on Earth weighs particularly heavy on the Imaginations of the METI Critics. Stephen Hawking, for instance, made this Observation in a 2010 Documentary series: 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. David Brin echoes the Hawking critique: Every single case we know of a more technologically advanced culture contacting a less technologically advanced culture resulted at least in pain.

There is something about the METI Question that forces the Mind to stretch beyond its usual Limits. You have to imagine some radically different form of Intelligence, using only your Human Intelligence. You have to imagine time scales on which a decision made in 2017 might Trigger momentous consequences 10,000 years from now. The sheer magnitude of those consequences challenges our usual measures of Cause and Effect. Whether you believe that the Aliens are likely to be Warriors or Zen Masters, if you think that METI has a reasonable chance of making Contact with another Intelligent Organism somewhere in the Milky Way, then you have to accept that this small group of Astronomers and Science-Fiction Authors and Billionaire Patrons Debating the ubiquity of Visual Intelligence may in fact be wrestling with a Decision that could prove to be the most Transformative one in the history of Human Civilization.

In 2017, the idea of Global Oversight on any issue, however Existential the threat it poses, may sound naïve. It may also be that Technologies have their own inevitability, and we can only rein them in for so long: If Contact with Aliens is Technically possible, then someone, somewhere is going to do it soon enough. There is not a lot of historical precedent for Humans voluntarily swearing off a new Technological capability, or choosing not to make Contact with another Society, because of some Threat that might not arrive for Generations. But maybe it’s time that Humans learned how to make that kind of choice. This turns out to be one of the Surprising Gifts of the METI Debate, whichever side you happen to take. Thinking hard about what kinds of Civilization we might be able to talk to ends up making us think even harder about what kind of Civilization we want to be ourselves.

NYC Wins When Everyone Can Vote! Michael H. Drucker
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