Watching the skies
Posted by aogTuesday, 15 July 2008 at 21:21 TrackBack Ping URL

The Daily Duck already mentioned this article about the dangers of broadcasting signals to possible extraterrestial intelligences (ETIs) before I had a chance at it.

I think Duck was a little harsh here —

Is it possible that they are silent because they know something we don’t know?
Notice how the fact of no discernible communication from an ET civilization is narratized into cowardice or superior knowledge on the part of said civilization.

But Brin is inside a hypothetical that presumes that ETIs exist but don’t communicate. Brin is simply suggesting that there are other possibilities that the ETIs are cowards

However, I think Brin (and Rand Simberg) are being overly excitable. What, really, is the problem?

The only significant information that a signal transmission can provide is that a technological civilization exists in a specific solar system. Brin worries about the potential consequences of an ETI obtaining that information. But what would change about the ETI’s behavior in that case? If the ETI desires the resources of our solar system and is indifferent (the scenario I consider most likely) or hostile to our existence is hardly going to make any “attack” more likely.

The other scenario is that the ETI destroys other technological civilization to avoid competition. That can’t be ruled out, but why would such an ETI wait for a signal? After all, we might not do that and so might other potential competitors not do so either. If an ETI has the will and the means to engage in such extermination, it will put sensors in every solar system, rather than waiting and hoping to catch a signal before the competitor gets too far along. In that case broadcasting isn’t going to make any difference either.

The conquest scenario makes no sense to me. We in the West have already advanced past the point where slave labor is of net benefit. ETIs capable of interstellar travel are going to have even less need of it. Perhaps they’d want Earth, but that’s just a variant of the resource scenario and again, the ETIs would take it regardless of our presence, or their knowledge of our presence, because they will be able to detect Earth’s presence without our help.

I simply don’t see any plausible scenarios where there exist ETIs who are dangerous to us where we can make a difference in their behavior that matters to us.

P.S. I think the predator analogy used by Brin and some of the commentors at TransTerrestial Musings makes no sense. Predators are a civilization, they are not intelligently coordinated, they don’t plan. The park analogy shows this most starkly — you may be able to hide from predators by keeping quiet, but not from a determined group of humans. The latter will do a planned, systematic sweep and find you, and they won’t give up because it’s day time.

Comments — Formatting by Textile
joe shropshire Wednesday, 16 July 2008 at 00:32

I don’t think anybody’s all that worried about us as a potential competitor.

Peter Burnet Wednesday, 16 July 2008 at 06:18

AOG, I need your help here. I have always understood the impulse to believe there is life out there somewhere stems from belief in an unguided, unplanned universe. i.e. the notion that we are alone and unique implies something very special and non-natural about us and we all know where that can lead. Then along comes the “hard” anthropic principle, which I understand to posit that the physical laws that support life are so extraordinarily fine-tuned and balanced as to be extremely unlikely and therefore imply design of some kind. I believe I read somewhere that the chance of the physical laws that support life all coming together randomly in the harmony they have is less than one in the number of atoms in the universe. Charmed and awed as I am by this, of course I have no way of verifying it.

The only ripostes I’ve seen to this argument are either “Yeah, so what, stuff happens” or the multiverse theory. I’m not aware of anyone of stature challenging the delicacy of the balance. So if it is true, doesn’t that imply the existence of life elsewhere is improbable in the extreme and akin to human evolution starting in two places at once? In other words, isn’t the case for a random, unplanned, accidental universe bolstered by the absence of life elsewhere and wouldn’t the existence of life elsewhere actually point towards design?

Annoying Old Guy Wednesday, 16 July 2008 at 08:13

Then along comes the “hard” anthropic principle, which I understand to posit that the physical laws that support life are so extraordinarily fine-tuned and balanced as to be extremely unlikely and therefore imply design of some kind.

No, the Hard Anthropic Principle actively disputes design, by stating that even though such a balance is very delicate, it’s also the only way natural law can be structured, so there’s no need to require a designer.

I believe I read somewhere that the chance of the physical laws that support life all coming together randomly in the harmony they have is less than one in the number of atoms in the universe. Charmed and awed as I am by this, of course I have no way of verifying it.

No one has a way of verifying that, we certainly do not understand how physical law came to be well enough to make such a determination. As noted, the Hard Anthropic Principle claims that the chance is, in fact, 1.

I’m not aware of anyone of stature challenging the delicacy of the balance. So if it is true, doesn’t that imply the existence of life elsewhere is improbable in the extreme and akin to human evolution starting in two places at once?

No, because the delicacy is a property of physical law compared to other possible sets of physical law, not any particular place in our universe. In fact, if one takes the Hard Anthropic and Copernican Principles seriously, then one would expect the evolution of sentient life likely and therefore common. The Weak Anthropic Principle allows such evolution to be very unlikely, and so is compatible with a universe empty of sentient life except for us. Keep in mind that the various Anthropic Principles are not about human life, but sentient life. Intelligent gas bag octopi floating in the atmosphere of some gas giant work as well for the principle as we do.

Peter Burnet Wednesday, 16 July 2008 at 09:11

Thanks, but now I am really confused. I should have said strong rather than hard, but aren’t you describing the weak anthropic principle?

Annoying Old Guy Wednesday, 16 July 2008 at 09:50

No. The Weak Anthropic Principle (which I take as almost tautological) says that sentient life will always observe a universe in which sentient life evolved, regardless of how unlikely it may be (for both physical law and contigent evolutionary history). Therefore our existence tells us nothing about the probability of such a thing.

The Strong Anthropic Principle says (as is noted in your link) that the universe must be such that sentient life will evolve. Therefore, the probability of physical law supporting sentient life is 1 — there is no other way the universe can exist. I don’t see why it would be embraced by the religious, unless they take the “must” as “by order of God” rather than logical and physical requirements. For example, Stephen Hawkings claim that the past history of the universe is determined by its final state is an attempt to justify the SAP without recourse to divinity.

John Weidner Wednesday, 16 July 2008 at 19:32

“I simply don’t see any plausible scenarios where there exist ETIs who are dangerous to us where we can make a difference in their behavior that matters to us.”

I don’t think you are taking into account the sheer size of the universe.

Our galaxy probably has ~200 billion stars. That alone gives you many plausible scenarios where the presumed enemy is not likely to find us unless we announce ourselves somehow.

And it’s possible to come up with scenarios about WHY they might be inimical. Greg Bear’s Forge of God is a good yarn about this

Annoying Old Guy Wednesday, 16 July 2008 at 21:52

I don’t see how the size of the universe makes a difference. If we sent out a signal now, 50 years from now only locations within 25 light years would be of any relevance. Whether the galaxy has 1000 stars or 200 billion makes absolutely no difference.

And you’re missing my point if you are trying to discuss the why of the presumed emnity. The question is, what do our actions matter? Note that in Greg Bear’s story the actions of the humans is of no significance, which is precisely my point.

Gideon7 Thursday, 17 July 2008 at 00:41

Shaddap and listen first. The 1st ETI message might be a warning to lay low..

cjm Friday, 18 July 2008 at 19:05

is it even physically possible for a ship to cross between solar systems? i read some article that posited that it wasn’t possible, you could never have enough fuel to get through the dead space between systems. i have a funny idea for a story where et’s come here pretending to be all powerful bet they are really like space gypsies and con us out of things (instead of destroying us).

Robert Duquette Saturday, 19 July 2008 at 19:44

The one thing that never seems to be taken into account in these scenarios is the cost/benefit analysis of mounting an intergalactic invasion of a distant planet. What’s the projected, risk-adjusted payback period for such an enterprise? With the level of technical sophistication required to embark on such an effort, wouldn’t there be so many more projects with attractive returns available locally, like terraforming a moon or sister planet?

cjm Sunday, 20 July 2008 at 08:03

that is aog’s main point on this issue — there is no such justification. it would be like driving a 1000 miles to get to a starbucks (even though there are plenty of starbucks near your home). in the movie “Independence Day” the aliens motivation was that they had no home planet, and they acted liked locusts, devouring one planet and then moving on to the next.

Jack Okie Sunday, 20 July 2008 at 14:40

Robert Duquette:

What was the cost/benefit of the Crusades to the Crusaders (of course the benefit to those who stayed behind was that those murderous knights were out of their hair)? Why assume that a civilization that can navigate between stars is rational? The Nazis had the most advanced technology before and at the end of WWII. If Hitler had listened to his (competent) generals, and treated the captured eastern populations better, the war might have had a much different outcome. Could not the paranoia of an alien race which had barely survived an interstellar war not match the paranoia of the Germans after WWI?

Peter Burnet Monday, 21 July 2008 at 05:20

Robert:

wouldn’t there be so many more projects with attractive returns available locally,…

You mean like eradicating racism and poverty? Remind me why you folks went to the moon again. Oh right, because it is there. But it is telling that we seem to have a hard time imagining a civilization with the capacity to make contact with us that isn’t at the same time the very epitome of emotional caution, rational planning and carefully considered cost/benefit decision-making. Whatever happened to the Victorian science fiction nightmare scenarios where Attila the Hun conquered space-time? Now it appears we take for granted he evolved an altruistic gene.

Annoying Old Guy Monday, 21 July 2008 at 20:21

The one thing that never seems to be taken into account in these scenarios is the cost/benefit analysis of mounting an intergalactic invasion of a distant planet. What’s the projected, risk-adjusted payback period for such an enterprise? With the level of technical sophistication required to embark on such an effort, wouldn’t there be so many more projects with attractive returns available locally, like terraforming a moon or sister planet?

You are making two mistakes here.

One is what I call the “unitary” or “specieist” fallacy which is that a species / civilization is unitary, i.e. that the civilization as a unit makes a decision about terraforming or going interstellar. I think it’s quite plausible that a civilization might well have factions that make different decisions. This is a common trope in much science fiction and it’s always bugged me.

The second is the presumption that there are moons or planets left to terraform. There are only so many per solar system and eventually a civilization will run out. And maybe the environmentalists will prevent it in the local system (seriously, there are people who are already objecting to lunar mining or terraforming Mars).

cjm is mostly correct. I don’t see any justification for conquering an alien species. I can see, however, doing industrial development in another solar system. As we don’t worry about ants on our future housing sites, so aliens may not concern themselves with aboriginals if they want to build some lebensraum. But again, our presence or our actions (such as beaming out signals) isn’t going to make any difference.

Why assume that a civilization that can navigate between stars is rational? The Nazis had the most advanced technology before and at the end of WWII. If Hitler had listened to his (competent) generals, and treated the captured eastern populations better, the war might have had a much different outcome. Could not the paranoia of an alien race which had barely survived an interstellar war not match the paranoia of the Germans after WWI?

On the other hand, how long would Nazi Germany had kept its high technology? It inherited most of it and the rest was developed by people raised under the previous system. Like Communism, it starts well but isn’t very sustainable. It’s not clear a civilization long lived enough to reach other stars could be that irrational. And the treatment of the easter populations was implicit in the make up the regime — it’s not clear that the regime could have treated them better.

Ali Choudhury Tuesday, 22 July 2008 at 05:36

Long enough to cause severe pain for the rest of the world.

cjm Tuesday, 22 July 2008 at 06:34

using a viral model nazism died out much faster than communism because it was more virulent — i.e. killed the host country much quicker than communism did to russia.

Annoying Old Guy Tuesday, 22 July 2008 at 08:36

Long enough to cause severe pain for the rest of the world.

Not at all. Nazi Germany didn’t cause much trouble in Central and South America, nor much of Asia. The USSR was much more of a world wide trouble maker. The relative distances in the galaxy are much larger, and so the odds of being within the sphere of influence while the civilization persists are much lower.

Ali Choudhury Tuesday, 22 July 2008 at 12:15

Japan’s empire-building in East Asia would have been terminated a whole lot quicker if there had been no Nazis to contend with in Europe and Northern Africa. The damage wrought by the Axis world-wide in that relatively short time-frame was pretty much on a par with the sum total of communist crimes, which occurred over decades.

Nazism was easily more benign to the German host population than communism was for the USSRians. It died out faster because it was more virulent to target countries, who had to disinfect with extreme prejudice.

Annoying Old Guy Tuesday, 22 July 2008 at 12:35

Hmmm. I will have to give you that as plausible.

On the other hand, Japan’s empire building in East Asia started long before WWII, especially the places where it did the most damage (Korea and China). Absent Nazi Germany, what nations by what means would have stopped the Empire of the Rising Sun that didn’t in actual history?

cjm Tuesday, 22 July 2008 at 14:19

ali: you have to be joking? who do you think were the first victims of the nazis — other germans! and once you add the war dead to the butcher’s bill…

also, keep in mind that by removing german jews from the war effort, the nazis effectively crippled may of their advanced weapon programs. hardly benign.

Ali Choudhury Wednesday, 23 July 2008 at 05:11

Absent the Nazis, the Royal Navy and British army (2.5m strong in India alone) would been deployed to a far greater extent in the Pacific. Assuming Pearl Harbor still takes place, and bearing in mind only about 15% of the US’ military strength was in the Asian theatre during the war, they most likely would not have been able to invade Hong Kong, Singapore, the Philipinnes, Indonesia, Burma etc. They’d have been pulverised within two to three years.

cjm: How many Germans did the Nazis shoot, send off to the gulag or starve? It’s politically incorrect to say so now, but the bulk of the population was quite happy with the regime. I’m not sure you can count the German war dead as being victims of Nazism when they were in favour of it.

The persecution of Jews hurt their scientific research, but Germany was the European centre for R&D dating back to the nineteenth century. They still had Heisenberg, von Braun, Horten and many others. They developed jet aircraft and long-range missiles before anyone else. Their arms and equipment on an individual basis was usually better than Allied equivalents. If their industrial base had been more suited to mass production rather than top-notch engineering, the war would have dragged on even longer.

cjm Wednesday, 23 July 2008 at 06:33

ali: without the nazis taking power would there have been a war? no. therefore you have to count all germans killed in the war as the cost of the nazis coming to power. the viral model is a good fit. the nazis infected a democratic country and transformed it. sure the average german went along just like the average cell goes along when it is infected. given that the nazis lasted about 13 years and the soviets about 70 years the relative virulence of each infection is clear.

the only thing that was going to shorten the war in the pacific was the development of the atomic bomb, which was independent of whatever else happened on the ground. the war in the pacific was always going to be over on the day the first test explosion occurred.

your opinion of british fighting ability is considerably higher than mine. had the british gone after the japanese in force they would just have had a pacific dunkirk situation without the cobbled together rescue effort. many ex british sailors are still alive because the royal navy wasn’t deployed to the pacific. sorry, but there is a reason the overall commander of the war effort in europe was american.

Ali Choudhury Wednesday, 23 July 2008 at 10:44

You need to read up on William Slim. SCAEF was an American because America had the bigger army and industrial base.

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