Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Playing "Find and Replace" With a Naive Attitude About Aliens

Lots of people have weighed in on Hawking's recent comments, which is great because it means that people are finally thinking about it. It's kind of like the asteroid-strike problem: no, it's not likely in the next few years, but humans are very bad at thinking about probabilities of unlikely but extremely consequential events.

People are apparently unable to apply the lessons of history to this question and end up somehow conflating the ability to travel between stars with having supernaturally transcendent moral sense (which, amazingly, stems from the same value system as the claimant). Imagine that tomorrow it's reported that in the southern Pacific, there's an island that until now the ships and satellites have missed, home to a completely naive culture. Would these folks say "But we have the technology to cross the ocean! That means that we're morally transcendent beings who've tamed our savaged instincts, so contact between global civilization and this island can only be positive for them!" That's the exact argument they're making here, only worse. It would be a little closer if we found a culture of semi-intelligent slime molds.

So let's have some fun with find-and-replace. Here's what Ethan Siegel would say, if he were a North American living in 1491, instead of a member of global industrialized culture in 2010. I have italicized the parts that become particularly rich when viewed in light of actual history.

If a ship managed to come all the way from another continent to within range of North America, we would already know an incredible amount about them. What follows is what I would say to them.

We know that, like us, you grew to prominence on your continent, developing over thousands of years to become the most successful culture in your land. We know -- like us -- you gained mastery over your environment, learning to utilize resources and tools to construct a myriad of things that would have never existed without your intervention.

And, unlike us, you have managed to build a ship to sustain you during a trans-oceanic voyage, far away from any natural power sources (like wood). This is a fantastic achievement, and we are a long way off from anything approaching this! Your technology is far, far advanced from ours. It's very likely that your exploration skills -- particularly for finding lands you're interested in coming to for their natural resources -- are superb, and vastly superior to our own.

In other words, if you're looking for new land in order to harvest resources from and we're a good fit, you're going to find us whether we advertise or not.

But we are young, and in our technological infancy. It was only 3,000 years ago -- about 120 generations -- that we started planting seeds and growing our own food. It is only now, at the present day, that we are beginning to learn how to build organized multi-ethnic governments. And you must have figured that part out in order to develop the technology and devote the resources to sustainably survive without land at all.

There are so many questions we are striving to learn the answer to, that we are only even beginning to pose well. And yet, to survive a long-term ocean crossing, any people must have already figured out an answer to these and many other questions. The two big ones that I want to ask are these:

* We have evolved to be selfish hoarders, always hungering for more, and to expand beyond the means of our resources. How did you overcome the limitations of your evolution? [This part I have ironically left unchanged. -MC]

* The resources available to plunder on our planet are limited, and it is almost unimaginable to imagine surviving a long amount of time (many months, at least) without any solution at all! But you did it. What was your solution to your energy needs?

But to imagine malevolent people? Why? Destroying us would be like crushing a colony of microbes just for kicks to them. Their technological level must be at least hundreds, if not thousands of years beyond ours. Can you imagine even the greatest military force from the Napoleonic Era even lasting a few weeks against our modern warfare technologies? It simply wouldn't happen.

But what irks me most of all is the cowardice behind a viewpoint that we shouldn't rush to meet another culture from across the ocean. It would be like forgetting the best part of being Native American: our bravery, our sense of adventure, our will to explore, thirst for learning and discovery, our curiosity, and our desire to experience all that existence has to offer.

I am eager. I want to meet them. I want to know the answers to those questions. Right now, I find it very unlikely that there ought to be another culture within a thousand miles of us. But if there is, I'm going to try to find them.

So if any other civilizations read this, PICK US! HERE! All Native Americans may not be ready for you, but some of us are. If you come, the rest of us will come around. And I'll be among the first to welcome and greet you. Be gentle with us and be careful with our delicate native flora and fauna. We have a lot to learn, and could use a great teacher. I hope to hear from you soon.


TGP said...

Obscurity is not a sustainable security solution.

Consider that Europeans didn't discover the New World because they heard drums or saw smoke signals or found messages in bottles. Aliens will likely discover Earth in the same way that we might discover Earth 2.0:

Our sun is going to give us away because we're the right class of star. Our planet is going to give us away because it's a terrestrial world with water. Assuming an alien species wants our resources, we're hiding under the bullseye.

If you oppose SETI because of a healthy fear of alien conquistadors, then you'd better propose a better solution than hiding.

Harden the target and make us less easily exploitable: Radio telescope arrays on our moon, bases on Mars and stations in our local Lagrange points, learn to capture and mine asteroids and comets, etc.

Michael Caton said...

Disagree on several points. 1) We don't know whether anything else or anything else close to us will find the sun to be a favorable star. 2) Whether or not they do there is no reason to give them more information about there being replicators here. 3) SETI, which is about detecting signals, is an outstanding idea and should absolutely be continued. Deliberately announcing ourselves is a terrible one.

TGP said...

My bad on SETI. I guess I should have said "Active SETI" to describe transmission activities.

Still, aliens that wouldn't find our star to be favorable, likely wouldn't find our resources to be terribly useful either. If you're worried about being conquered, you're likely worried about being conquered by LGMs that want our star, planet, water, and women. It's unlikely that we'd be able to hide from that sort of alien for any significant period of time because we're hiding under the rock he wants to pick up.

We probably would be able to gain more time by hiding behind the bluff of being unafraid of an alien species.

Better to spend our resources becoming less vulnerable than to cap active SETI and pretend it gives us even the slightest margin of safety.

Michael Caton said...

Of course becoming less vulnerable is a good idea but again, it comes down to what "becoming less vulnerable" means. The more assumptions we make about what will scare off aliens, whether or not they find our biosphere palatable, the more we're likely to be off track. As a first approximation, which is what we're forced to work with, the less information a potential competitor has, the better.