Seth Shostak has a post up at HuffPost asking what we should say if we ever find ourselves in conversation with aliens. Apparently this was the topic of a recent conference at the SETI institute.
Before commenting on Shostak’s main thesis, I think he makes an assertion that deserves scrutiny.
A decade of research by astronomers now suggests that a trillion planets dot the Milky Way. It takes a real Debbie Downer to believe that they’re all as dead as the Equal Rights Amendment. Unless Earth is special beyond reason, you can confidently assume there are plenty of societies out there.
I’ve got no problem with this statement, until the last sentence, where Shostak takes a logical leap. (Albeit an understandable one being he’s a member of SETI.) Certainly, unless Earth is “special beyond reason”, we can expect plenty of worlds with life out there. Given the history of life on Earth, I think we can expect most extraterrestrial life to be simple microscopic organisms. Complex life (plants and animals) will likely only be on a minority of worlds.
And given that the Earth was 99.995% of its current age before an intelligent species arose, and also given the Fermi Paradox (if there are plenty of civilizations out there, where is everyone?), I think we should expect intelligent life to be exceedingly rare. Rare enough that our closest intelligent neighbor may be millions of light years away in another galaxy.
Of course, it’s always possible that interstellar travel is impossible and that the only way civilizations could ever interact with each other is by signaling across the void. And that gets to Shostak’s main topic.
A leitmotiv of the conference — one thing that just about everyone felt they could agree on — was to beware of anthropocentrism. Don’t assume that the way we think or describe things will be the same for the extraterrestrials. Context and local knowledge are the frameworks of our daily lives, and it’s easy to forget that these are peculiar to us, both in place and in time. The aliens will not get our jokes, our literature, or our reality TV. Their minds, presumably vast and deep, could be as different from ours as those of bats and beetles.
The problem isn’t even anthropocentrism, it’s terracentrism (don’t know if that’s a word, but I’m making it one). We might have some hope of rising above anthropocentrism by comparing ourselves to non-human animals, but aliens that evolved in a radically different environment may think so differently that even communications like pictures or mathematics may simply be assuming too much.
The fact is, we probably have little hope of figuring out, a priori, how we need to communicate with extraterrestrials. With that in mind, I agree with Shostak that, if we choose to communicate (more on that in a bit), we should do so liberally.
It’s a tough problem, and my own contribution was to opine that — rather than wrestle endlessly with what we should say — we send it all. Or at least send a lot. I suggested that we transmit the contents of the Internet, or some large subset thereof, rather than offering up more “greeting cards” similar to those that have been bolted onto some of our spacecraft. Sure, there’s a lot of silly stuff on the web — it’s not curated, to use the language of museums. But it’s wide-ranging, covers a lot of human activity, and is highly redundant. For example, the concept of “automobile” is present in descriptions, photos, and videos. That redundancy will help them — assuming they have the processing power — to figure out a lot of what we’ve sent.
In other words, give them enough so that they have a chance of piecing together our concepts. If you think about it, if we were receiving communication from an extraterrestrial civilization, that’s probably how we would prefer to receive it. Inundate us, and let us figure it out, particularly since interactive communication is probably going to be impossible, with replies likely to take centuries, if not millennia.
But this raises the question of whether we really should communicate. Any other civilization that we’re likely to contact would almost certainly be far more advanced than ours, and by “far more”, think millions of years more advanced. The probability of us connecting with another civilization that just happened to emerge within a few thousand years like we did, is infinitesimal.
Even if they’re 500 light years away, and the soonest they could conceivably affect us would be over a thousand years from now, that’s likely not nearly enough time for us to catch up technologically and be on anything like the same level as they would be. Communicating with them may simply be the mouse summoning the cat.
Of course, it’s hard to see why an advanced civilization would bother conquering us. Any desirable natural resources we might have would be much easier to obtain in the Kuiper belt, or on other planets without the bothersome resistance of the inhabitants. And our biologies aren’t likely to be compatible enough for them to eat us. (In any case, it would be easier to synthesize the food rather than travel interstellar distances to obtain it.)
But we should consider that it likely wouldn’t even amount to conquest for them. Their attitude toward us might be the same as that of a scientist studying mice, and experimenting on them.
I suspect that it we ever did receive a signal, we’d get a lot of clues from what was in it. If there was extensive information about themselves, including information that helped us solve many technological problems, then we might be able to assume they were benign. On the other hand, if all we received was the interstellar equivalent of a dial tone, we would probably want to carefully consider our next move.