Snowden’s answer to the Fermi Paradox and its assumptions

The Fermi Paradox is the question that, if the conditions for life in the galaxy are as ubiquitous as they appear to be, so that there should be hundreds, if not thousands of alien civilizations out there, then where is everyone?  Why have we found no evidence for any for those civilizations?  And why aren’t they here?

Edward Snowden has a proposed answer:

“When you look at encrypted communications, if they are properly encrypted, there is no real way to tell that they are encrypted. You can’t distinguish a properly encrypted communication, at least in the theoretical sense, from random noise,” says Snowden. He suggests that over time all societies realize that encryption is a necessity. “So if you have an alien civilization trying to listen for other civilizations, or our civilization trying to listen for aliens, there’s only one small period in the development of their society where all of their communications will be sent via the most primitive and most unprotected means.”

This is an interesting idea, although it’s a variation of another one that’s been around for a while.  Many have speculated that a society that simply digitally encodes all of their signals might make them indistinguishable from natural noise.  Digitally encoding a signal requires protocols, which we, of course, wouldn’t be privy to.  Encryption would just make it even more unlikely that we’d detect it.

But this answer makes a large assumption, that interstellar exploration of any type is impossible, or so monstrously costly that no one ever bothers.  On the face of it, the idea of Star Trek like exploration might well be impossible.  But when you consider ideas like AI probes exploring the galaxy at 1% the speed of light, the notion of exploration being impossible starts to look overly pessimistic.  If those probes were self-replicating, they’d be able to fill the galaxy in 20-30 million years, a long time by human standards, but peanuts on geological or cosmological time scales.

Of course, another possibility is that such exploration is possible, and that the probes or similar technology are here, but keeping hidden.  We can’t eliminate this possibility, except that the idea that an alien intelligence wouldn’t be interested in researching our biosphere seems far fetched, or that if they’re doing so, that we wouldn’t find any indications of it.

Another possibility is that they are here and not being hidden at all, but that we’re simply too primitive to even distinguish them from the natural environment, similar to how a monkey probably regards a building as just another rock, or a vehicle as just another animal.  Again, it doesn’t seem like we can eliminate this possibility, but I can’t see that it’s especially productive to dwell on it.

This always brings me back to the simplest explanation, that intelligent life is profoundly rare, and that the closest civilization may be millions, or maybe even billions of light years away.

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30 Responses to Snowden’s answer to the Fermi Paradox and its assumptions

  1. I never got why this was a problem. First, the universe is big, so even if it were teeming with intelligent life, we’re unlikely to find it. Second, why assume other civilizations want to communicate (with us)? Third, we’re bad at scanning the skies, so we could easily miss life and its probes.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I like your second one. It may be that there are intelligent species who never get into technology, much less communicating with it. It may be that if we ever to encounter another intelligence, that it may be so strange that it will challenge our definition of what “intelligence” is.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Steve Ruis says:

    They do not have to be millions or more light years away. If they were just 10,000 years out of phase with us, they would have been listening to us when there was no tech here to listen to. Or we could be listening now when their civilization has collapsed. How long do you think civilizations last? We are scattered in time as much as by distance.

    Liked by 1 person

    • If it’s normal for civilizations to go extinct before they can do interstellar exploration (or again, if such exploration is impossible) then I’d agree. It’s a dark possibility. Maybe it’s in the nature of intelligent life to destroy itself.

      Or maybe civilization is just a passing fad and in 10,000 years we’ll be hunter gatherers again, with strict taboos against technology. I hope neither of those scenarios are true, but I don’t see any way to rule them out.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. James Pailly says:

    Snowden’s answer makes a kind of sense, but I don’t find it entirely satisfying. Wouldn’t alien communications, encrypted or otherwise, still have to have enough signal strength to stand out from all the background radiation in the universe?

    Liked by 1 person

    • The same thing occurred to me. Even encrypted, it seems like there’d be patterns that we could recognize as unnatural, even if decoding them would be hopeless. But I listened to the podcast at lunch; Snowden is talking about theoretically perfect encryption that would be indistinguishable from random natural noise. I’m not an encryption expert, so I have no idea if that’s possible, although when “theoretically” and “perfect” are used in the same phrase, my skeptic impulse gets triggered.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Steve Morris says:

    Seems to be based on present-day concerns and paranoia, like visions of the future during the Cold War when every intelligence wipes itself out with nuclear weapons.


  5. bwcarey says:

    very simple answer to all of this, we are all human spirit with divine potential, those that control us via matter dont want anyone to connect with the outside help, it’s called the abuser syndrome, amen


  6. Wyrd Smythe says:

    I share your skepticism, and I think Snowden gets two things wrong.

    He is right that well-encrypted content approaches noise in apparent randomness. In fact, so does well-compressed content. Just take a data peek at any ZIP file. It’s quite possible that, even so, such content still needs markers or headers or other structured information obviously not noise-like.

    What I think Snowden misses is something you’ve already mentioned: transmission protocols. We may not be able to decode them, but they won’t look like noise. Here’s the conundrum: How does a putative receiver distinguish this supposed data from actual noise?

    Even if an ultra-paranoid civilization developed a highly encoded TCP that was super-hard to recognize, one would think the modulated carrier wave would still be pretty regular. So you have at least three levels: the “link” level (carrier); the “TCP” level; the “content” level. That last one may well have extremely high entropy, but I don’t see how a system could work if the first two do.

    This could well be a failure of imagination on my part, but I don’t see how an “unrecognizable” transmission could be distinguished by the receiver.

    The other thing I think Snowden misses is that the search for intelligent life via signals is a search for civilizations explicitly seeking to be found. In that case, the transmission would obviously be made as recognizable as possible (like the Arecibo message we sent).

    There is one other element. This putative ultra-paranoid civilization would probably go to great lengths to find transmission techniques less likely to be intercepted (if friendlies can receive and decode, potentially so can any enemies who’ve stolen secrets — e.g. Enigma). They might use extremely narrow, highly focused lasers or microwaves. They might use a system with just enough range to reach the destination.

    There is finally the inverse-square law, which means that any general broadcast signal we could pick up would imply a massive amount of power at the source. Again, not something an ultra-paranoid civilization is going to use for secret broadcasts.

    So, yeah,… I think extreme skepticism (if not derisive laughter) is appropriate here. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good points. Even if the routing information is encrypted, the receiver still has to have some way, some framing mechanism, to recognize the beginning of the signal from random noise. It doesn’t seem like there is anyway around that. Although perhaps the marker could be so complicated that we might not recognize the repeating pattern.

      I do tend to think that most interstellar communication would be via tightly focused beams. That means that if you’re not in the dispersion of the beam, you have no way to intercept it. Of course, if there are any probes in our solar system, it seems like we might have a chance. Indeed, the receiving station would probably be large enough for us to eventually see it. (Unless they’re using a relay station far enough out to put us outside of the beam’s path. I’m not sure how much lasers or microwave beams disperse across interstellar distances.)

      For me, it always comes back to the fact that they’re not here, and that it seems likely that there is some way to get machines to the stars.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The statement that Carl Sagan used to make a lot. But it’s one that can be asserted for any unfalsifiable notion. Absence of evidence that should be there shifts the probability toward absence (or a fundamental misunderstanding of whatever notion is under consideration).

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Brett says:

    Exploration by AIs might be very different from exploration as we usually think about it. They can send a probe to a targeted solar system, explore, then digitally transfer themselves back to a “hub” system by radio or laser transmission (after which the probe is left to drift or crashed into a planet/star).

    I actually think it would be pretty rare to find them in systems like ours, since they could get much more bang for their buck by hanging around in systems with high metallicity and large amounts of energy/resources. You’d only see their probes drop by every few million years or so.

    This always brings me back to the simplest explanation, that intelligent life is profoundly rare, and that the closest civilization may be millions, or maybe even billions of light years away.

    I don’t know about them being that far away, but pretty far. Cultural values may come into it as well – they might just not care that much about space exploration. Humanity itself only cares to a limited degree, for example, And if the number of civilizations in a galaxy is small enough, then you can get a galaxy full of non-expanders just by chance.

    Liked by 1 person

    • “I actually think it would be pretty rare to find them in systems like ours”

      It’s totally conceivable that we might not be one of their priority systems, but I think we have to consider why they wouldn’t eventually spread to every star in the galaxy, including ours. The idea is that even if it took 100 million years, if there are civilizations out there, they should have been here billions of years ago.


  9. Ignostic Dave says:

    I suspect that life is quite common. Intelligent life, though, I think is rather rare (insert Republican joke.) What I think is that evolution almost always fails to equip intelligent life with the capacity to have foresight that can see past the rapid pace of technological progress. We multiply too rapidly, annihilate the environment, and build exponentially more powerful weapons. My guess is that nearly all intelligent life wipes itself out within a few centuries of being detectable.


    • That’s definitely possible. If so, we’re on borrowed time. We’ll be lucky if we last another century.

      But it’s also possible that the evolution of intelligent dexterous species is an evolutionary accident, requiring an elaborate combination of historical accidents, the occurrence of which might be profoundly rare.


      • Ignostic Dave says:

        The ability to retain and act on memories is a clear evolutionary advantage, but it is freaking expensive in terms of energy consumption. Whether or not dumb prevails depends on how prohibitively expensive it is.

        Our problem is that we’ve got a multitude of obstacles put up in place of realizing our precarious position. Most of us are hopelessly poor and can’t devote the time to thinking about anyone other than ourselves. The people with money and influence frequently got there by greed and self-interest, which negates that advantage. Those that remain are outnumbered, preoccupied, or, odds are likely, participate in a religion that discourages giving thought for the morrow, seeking deeper knowledge, and even things like birth control. That leaves us with a few people like Elon Musk who know how to think long term and have the money to make things happen.


        • There are numerous intelligent species out there, but only one intelligent enough to build a civilization. If we wipe ourselves out in a way that leaves most of the biosphere intact, it seems unlikely that another species would take our niche.

          On our issues, so I fear it’s always been. Yet somehow we’ve always muddled through. We can only hope we continue to find a way to do so. The broad sweep of history is moving in the right directions (for example more people rise out of poverty every decade), but only if you take a multi-decade view.


          • Ignostic Dave says:

            Actually, I’ve always thought if an octopus species became social, they could manage. Of course, getting out of the water might be a bitch, but they’re damn good problem solvers.


      • Ignostic Dave says:

        As it stands now, they like to eat each other.


        • Humans (as well as chimpanzees) have a history of that too.

          The other issue for octopuses is their life cycle, which is short (six months to five years depending on species) and usually further shortened by reproduction.


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