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Stephen Hawking and Yuri Milner Announce $100M Initiative to Seek ET (scientificamerican.com)
288 points by saticmotion on July 20, 2015 | hide | past | web | favorite | 226 comments

One of my favorite topics is the Fermi Paradox and consequently the Great Filter (which someone already discussed).

One of my favorite explanations is that there are other ET out there but they are two engrossed with their own entertainment to "give a fuck" (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fermi_paradox#They_tend_to_iso...). I find it amusing and ironic while also seriously consider it a possibility.

From wikipedia:

It may also be that intelligent alien life develop an "increasing disinterest" in their outside world.[71] Possibly any sufficiently advanced society will develop highly engaging media and entertainment well before the capacity for advanced space travel, and that the rate of appeal of these social contrivances is destined, because of their inherent reduced complexity, to overtake any desire for complex, expensive endeavors such as space exploration and communication. Once any sufficiently advanced civilization becomes able to master its environment, and most of its physical needs are met through technology, various "social and entertainment technologies", including virtual reality, are postulated to become the primary drivers and motivations of that civilization.[72]

aka Star Trek holodeck.... the best drug in the future.

That feels like too much assumption to me. The scenario described well by Michio Kaku is the only one that seems probable to me.

"Lets say we have an ant hill in the middle of the forest. And right next to the ant hill, they're building a ten-lane super-highway. And the question is 'Would the ants be able to understand what a ten-lane super-highway is? Would the ants be able to understand the technology and the intentions of the beings building the highway next to them?"

So it's not that we can't pick up the signals from other worlds using our technology, it's that we can't even comprehend what the beings from Planet X are or what they're trying to do. It's so beyond us that even if they really wanted to enlighten us, it would be like trying to teach ants about the internet."

The only thing this argument has going for it is sounding wise by virtue of being self-deprecating.

If there are structured radio signals being emitted, it matters not whether or not we understand what the aliens are up to, if it hits a sweetspot between noise and simplicity we can tell it's a signal. And no, "radio waves" aren't the equivalent of "smoke signals", if there are better ways to communicate across space, that would change a lot our understanding of physics. This isn't to say that our understanding is complete, but the default assumption should be that it's very unlikely that there is a better way to communicate long distance.

Compression is an issue in that respect, but that's a different argument.

Those are huge assumptions IMO. Maybe they don't feel the need or comprehend the concept of communicating over long distances. Maybe they discovered a different force we don't know of. Just because radio waves worked for us, it doesn't mean every advanced civilization will makes use of them. The possibilities are so vast and endless.

If they are a space faring civilization, they need long distance communication. No the possibilities aren't endless, there's a lot of physics that we know that strongly constrains the search space. AFAIC, I think compression is the big issue, we should be looking for forward error correcting codes in the data.

I do agree with you, but I have the feeling you have a narrow view of how these guys look like. Your argument was not too compelling. For all I know they could be giant gas clouds, silicon life forms, dark matter creatures, a fungi-like thing that spans the whole interior of a small planet and manages to shoot spores into space. Their motivations are not going to be in line with those of the average American. Their lives could span milliseconds, or aeons. Their brain could function at so extremely different rates than ours, that we or they wouldn't consider each other sentient. They could be highly intelligent* and/or propagate successfully without radio communication.

But I think we might be discussing semantics. When you say "intelligent", you probably have something specific in mind. Which probably boils down to "can do math". But a different intelligence could also grasp the laws of physics at an intuitive level, in the same way a dog can catch a frisbee. Perhaps they can "get" turbulence or higher dimensions,understand a trees as a whole, something we completely fail at.

So to me it's a stretch to think that we can find them by looking at error correcting codes. But then again, I have no better proposal.

Laser communication seems more likely for long distance communication. Omnidirectional radio broadcasts need a comparatively huge amount of energy.


I agree, but that's a very different argument from "who are we, measly little ants to think we can understand..."

> If there are structured radio signals being emitted,

Why should there be? Earth itself is getting quieter. Our electronics are more sensitive, for the applications that still use radion. For a lot of things, we are using plain boring fiber-optic (and copper) connections.

The earth is getting louder. 150 years ago, we'd have had almost zero light pollution. Nowadays you can't even see stars when you go outside.

Not only are there more lights, we are getting more efficient at producing energy to power them.

That's noisier, but it isn't a louder signal. We're talking about detecting alien species across vast distances. You can't do that by looking at a planet's light pollution AFAIK, because giving off this level of light is just not very notable — the sun reflecting off our planet is much brighter.

But sunlight reflecting off a random planet (including ours) is not useful. Sure, you can detect it, but it doesn't say anything about whether the planet has intelligent life or not. It would just be noise in the cosmos, no signal.

I'm not a physicist, but my understanding is that all EM frequencies -- visible light, radio, infrared, etc -- travel away from earth at the same speed (c). Since space has (almost) nothing to slow them down, then they'll just keep going forever. Thus, "strength" (however you want to measure it) is largely irrelevant so long as the signal it produces is detectable apart from all the other outgoing information. So the "light" broadcast from a TV tower is the same as the light from a spotlight at a shopping mall, in terms of its ability to travel through space and get noticed by aliens.

The only exception I can think of would be our atmospheric interference. Some light may penetrate our own cloud layers better than others. So all light may not be created equal, in that sense.

The GP was talking about how we're quieter now (i.e. using lower-powered radio signals), and you replied that we're louder because we have a lot of light pollution nowadays. My point was that AFAIK light pollution does not produce a signal for detecting life. We're producing louder noise and a quieter signal.

Isn't encryption the bigger issue? Agreed otherwise.

Quantium communication would be a far better alternative then to sending radio-waves through space.

Then there's always the possibility that we're the superhighway builders and we can't see the ants. Could there be billions of worlds with life that have yet to (or more likely failed to) even evolve chordates?

What if the super-advanced aliens are us?

Yeah there's a horrorshow idea to contemplate. Humanity is the Elder Race. Yikes!

Agreed and please don't forget that our ants may very well have implemented a working planetary scale communications network with an overlaid sentient intelligence (can't really call it an AI) operating on that distributed computational network based on inter-nest chemical pheromone exchange operating continuously for several million years of uptime ... but ... "Hey man they're just ants, sure we don't understand them much better than dolphins or monkeys but I'm sure they're not implementing anything as important as one of our roads"

Its quite likely the beings from planet X understand omnidirectional broadcast electromagnetic waves as an interstellar communications network technology about as well as your average software developer understands arcnet or 10base5 ethernet or flint-knapping.

The problem with all ET intelligence analogies is that we don't have much to work with. Ants can't understand highways. Can dogs or chimpanzees? What does it even mean for a chimpanzee to understand a highway? You might get one to understand that it is for cars and you can get from place to place on it. Maybe she'll understand that we make them for this purpose. Would she understand why this is a big deal? How about a swing? Does a chimpanzee understand a swing? I have never personally known one, but I imagine that if a close friend of a chimpanzee was wont to occasionally come by with a rope and tire and construct a swing, she would eventually understand these can be sued to make swing. Is the difference between swing because the highway is more advanced or because it is more remotely related to fun?

We've got questions to answer before we make these analogies. What does intelligence mean, in the context of ability to understand such things? Is it a hurdle that we are over or a continuous scale from slug to alien? From our (admittedly biased) perspective, it seems to be.

Following from that, all these analogies about advanced civilizations destroying themselves, their planets, living in cerebra-utopian VR. These are all analogies to us, the only "intelligent" creatures we know. They're also based on a very brief period of civilization where we have been able to even conceive of our impact on the planet. Until people went to the moon, how strongly lodged in people's minds was the idea that we are on a planet?

We are not even good about extrapolating 100 years into our own future. People thought factories and technologies would lead to 2 hour workdays and a pleasure society now. How good could we be at making analogies to creatures we don't know exist.

We may not be able to understand the ten-lane superhighway, but we can certainly distinguish it from natural phenonemon.

Radio SETI is the most popular, but searches have been done in a wide variety of ways. For instance, A search for a complete Dyson swarm can be done by looking for "stars" which only emit radiation in the far infrared. Partial Dyson swarms can be detected by comparing the mag of a star at two different wavelengths. Megastructures are potentially detectable via the tranit method. And searches have been done to look for signs of galactic engineering.

I'm still willing to entertain the idea that Kaku is correct, but it mostly just seems like wishful thinking to me.

The evidence thus far suggests that even if life is everywhere in the universe, technological life may not be.

Elon Musk disagrees with that statement. He believes once intelligence gets beyond a certain threshold (which humans have), there are no such things that are beyond understanding. Most people don't know how to write complex math equations, but that doesn't mean they can't understand what mathematics is.

In discussions about artificial super-intelligence (the final stage of AI that sends us rocketing beyond the singularity), our inability to comprehend what such an intelligence might desire or do is frequently accepted as a significant risk by those who fear such AI.

When one considers an infinitely and exponentially increasing intelligence that can quickly bypass the point of easily answering the questions that currently most perplex us in all fields, then it is reasonable to believe that intelligence would arrive at a level of considering (and solving) problems that we cannot even imagine, let alone understand.

Given that Elon Musk has spoken about has concern over AI, it would be interesting to hear how he integrates that with his belief that our intelligence is sufficient to understand anything.

We may not be able to predict what such an AI would desire or do, but I assume you'll agree that we'll still be able to observe what it does do and understand that it's doing it (even though we may not necessarily understand how it does something).

>I assume you'll agree that we'll still be able to observe what it does do and understand that it's doing it

No. To make that leap, I must assume the conclusion. I cannot know that I'll be able to observe what it does, because I don't know what it will do (or whether I can even perceive the dimension in which it does it for that matter).

Secondly, the word "understand" is subjective. I assume that Musk meant the word in the sense that there is sufficient depth of understanding as to actually be meaningful, else his statement itself would be meaningless (i.e. so obvious as not to be required).

I had a really long reply written, but before posting I went to try and find the source of the Elon Musk paraphrased belief, and I can't find it. I don't know where sixQuarks got it from, but without knowing what the source is, it's hard to second-guess what Elon Musk was actually trying to say (or whether he even said it at all).

That said, ignoring the Elon Musk bit, even if a superintelligent A.I. figures out how to communicate in some other dimension, surely there's plenty of work it will do that fits within the bounds of the physics we know, and we can observe what it does that we do understand, and we can observe what it does that we don't understand. And given time we can figure out how to understand that which we can observe. And more generally, even if it manages to jump straight to communicating in some other dimension without letting us see its intermediate work, it seems very likely that whatever it is doing will have observable effects within the realm of the physics we understand and can observe (even if it's just EM radiation). At the very least, we can tell that it's there and that it's doing something and start figuring out what it is doing.

This is in contrast to the ants of Michio Kaku, who don't even know anything is going on. The point isn't that the ants don't understand how to build their own 10-lane superhighway, it's that they don't even know that this is a thing built by another species or for what purpose it was built. sixQuarks's point (regardless of whether what he said about Elon Musk is true), summed up in his analogy about complex mathematics, is that we should still be able to observe aliens and comprehend that they're doing something, even if we don't necessarily understand how to do that thing ourselves.

Here is the source: http://waitbutwhy.com/2015/05/elon-musk-the-worlds-raddest-m...

And here is the actual paragraph:

"One topic I disagreed with him on is the nature of consciousness. I think of consciousness as a smooth spectrum. To me, what we experience as consciousness is just what it feels like to be human-level intelligent. We’re smarter, and “more conscious” than an ape, who is more conscious than a chicken, etc. And an alien much smarter than us would be to us as we are to an ape (or an ant) in every way. We talked about this, and Musk seemed convinced that human-level consciousness is a black-and-white thing—that it’s like a switch that flips on at some point in the evolutionary process and that no other animals share. He doesn’t buy the “ants : humans :: humans : [a much smarter extra-terrestrial]” thing, believing that humans are weak computers and that something smarter than humans would just be a stronger computer, not something so beyond us we couldn’t even fathom its existence."

Thanks. It looks like that's a lot more applicable to the Michio Kaku scenario than it is to superintelligent A.I., because the question is whether we can comprehend the existence of aliens, not whether we can understand the technology that a superintelligent A.I. might create, or even understand its motives (comprehending the existence of some other intelligent entity is not the same as understanding what the entity wants or why it does what it does).

yeah, it's quite interesting. Up until I read this, I simply assumed advanced intelligence could be beyond our grasp, but the more I think about it, the more I feel Elon is correct.

I guess I'm not clear on what "beyond our grasp" means to you. Does it mean that you can't even comprehend that it exists? Or does it mean that you can't wrap your mind around what it does, what its motivations are, etc?

Because, your parent seems to be saying the former (that we could comprehend that it exists, but wouldn't understand its motives, etc.).

But that's a non-statement. I don't think there's much question that we'd be able to perceive anything that our senses can detect. And, an ant can grasp that an object exists (and, for instance, that it needs to traverse it), even if it understands nothing about its purpose, who built it, etc.

So, it would seem that the only sensible intent in this statement by Musk (and the interpretation that you, but not your parent, seem to support) is that we would have a better understanding of this alien super-intelligence than an ant would of us, simply because we'd crossed some imaginary and arbitrary intelligence threshold, defined by Musk.

It's a comforting (and very human-centric) thought, but I don't think it's true. Considering "infinite intelligence", there is some point along the continuum wherein our relative intelligence to a super-intelligence is akin to an ant's to ours. So, I don't see any reason why we'd better understand the motives, etc. of such a super-intelligence than an ant would ours. To make that statement is to define the bounds of the super-intelligence based on ourselves and our own boundaries, which is to say that it involves completely circular reasoning.

We may be talking past each other here and I'm not quite sure how to formulate my thoughts more clearly, but I'll try.

>surely there's plenty of work it will do that fits within the bounds of the physics we know

Simply to say some work would itself be a huge assumption, but plenty? That assumes far too much about our current state of knowledge, and it places artificial limitations on the capacity of a super-intelligence.

The flaw in your thinking is your very reliance on our own knowledge as your frame of reference. You're extrapolating from that because you can't imagine anything else. But, that's the point: we don't know what we don't know (or what a super-intelligence might know).

EDIT: I could attempt to use hypothetical scenarios here to convey how your assumptions might be wrong (e.g. what if this intelligence could jump dimensions such that our laws of physics no longer hold?). However, to do that would be to commit the same error that you're committing: it extrapolates back from our own limited language and understanding. By definition, if we can explain it, then it doesn't meet the test of the type of intelligence that I'm referencing./EDIT

Your statement is also a pretty big tell that you're working from an assumption of only marginally increased intelligence, which is where I think our disconnect really enters. To appreciate the degree of intelligence I'm referencing, see [1].

It's long, but a good read in its own right. Specifically regarding this discussion, towards the middle of the page there are two graphs, labeled "Our Distorted View of Intelligence" and "Reality" which might help illustrate the scale of what I'm trying to communicate. Here also is an attendant quote:

>In our world, smart means a 130 IQ and stupid means an 85 IQ—we don’t have a word for an IQ of 12,952

See what I mean? When intelligence reaches such a scale beyond our own, it destroys key assumptions. The idea that we can comprehend that the intelligence is doing something is not guaranteed. Further, even if perceived, that perception itself is potentially only incrementally more representative of true understanding than not perceiving it at all. So, for any meaningful purpose, our understanding would be much more closely aligned to that of the ants WRT the 10-lane superhighway.

Another way to look at this is to imagine an infinitely expanding intelligence scale. At some zoom-level, we are pushed so much closer to the ants that the difference is virtually indiscernible.

[1] http://waitbutwhy.com/2015/01/artificial-intelligence-revolu...

I was going to make logingone's argument but here's a better one:

All maths done till ~1600 AD could have been done in 50 years, if you see it from perspective of a civilization which has a stable existence. And forgetting all abstractions, stability of surrounding civilizations is basically a random phenomenon.

And I'm sure maths done in physics departments is beyond understanding of 80% people outside it, let alone any civilization which started 400 years before us.

Okay, but there's still a difference between:

1. Knowledge that is potentially within our understanding, as humans, even if it takes a few centuries.

2. Knowledge that would require a few millions of years, because we'd need to evolve beyond our current level of intelligence, similar to what chimps, as a species, would need to do if they were to really understand theoretical physics (that is, assuming chimps would in fact evolve to higher intelligence, if there were, say no humans around).

A reasonable interpretation of Elon Musk's claim would be mainly arguing against the existence of a barrier like the type 2 knowledge. But I could be entirely wrong, I haven't read his reasoning behind this claim.

How do you think Newton would have reacted if someone said "Pentaquark" in front of him? Think he would have understood when just the word was said? Musk is talking about Newton getting all of modern physics when all he has heard is two undergrads chat on Hacker News.

Elon Musk is an engineer, not a philosopher, and I stand to be persuaded, but I find using him to counter Michio Kaku ridiculous.

A philosopher would be the first to understand that no one is or can be excluded from the realm of ideas or thought.

Being a philosopher is not an extraordinary designation, such that it puts them beyond the mental abilities of someone of Elon's obvious mental aptitude.

Exclusion? Oh dear, here we go with the black or white. "realm of ideas or thought" - and the simplification. "not an extraordinary designation" - and dismissing philosophy. "beyond the mental abilities" - and more simplification. "mental aptitude" - you'll be fine then with neuroscientists or some such fixing the falcon.

It really doesn't matter who said it, it's just good to cite the source. But there is nothing which makes Michio Kaku infallible. Arguments can't be reliably evaluated according to who made them.

Like him or not, Elon Musk has an uncanny ability to figure things out. Of course he's wrong on some things, but for the most part, I wouldn't discount anything he says.

> doesn't mean they can't understand what mathematics is

Yet humans clearly fail to understand things like radioactivity (and the risks involved, for good or bad). I'm not sure what Musk thinks is reliable at all in this matter.

Humans do understand radiation dangers. Why do we have no nuclear war since the atom bomb? Why are there so few deaths from nuclear power plants? Why do people use sunscreen and shield spacecraft?

What's odd and strange is how many ten-lane superhighways we don't see. Because while the highway may just be a "infinite stone plain of death" to an ant, it's there. But you look up in the sky and you don't see stars reduced to heat-radiating Dyson shells, or towed around by Shkadov thrusters. And you really ought to, because any civilization before us should by any reasonable dice roll, be millions of years ahead of us.

Understanding all the motivations for building a highway or how it is built may be beyond us currently, but we can still differentiate it from naturally occurring phenomena. All we're talking about here with the Fermi paradox is detecting evidence of intelligent life, not understanding their technology or motivations.

This kind of argument seems like it's only appealing through it's similarity to one of Aesop's Fables.

I think as far as we know, ant's don't even ask themselves the question "what is this ant hill". Human cosmologists, on the other hand, seek an explanation for everything that they see in the cosmos. The only way some alien phenomena would be ignored would be if it seemed to have the qualities of some apparently easily explained phenomena. This is certainly possible but it seems unlikely it would happen by accident - cosmology's models for ordinary, unexceptional stars, nebula and galaxies are all fairly detailed.

This same argument is quite validly used by people like myself (a Muslim) who believe in a creator.

Yes I generally agree that this is one of the strongest explanations. Especially if you consider the small spectrum of communication we are examining (and thats just electromagnetic for all we know dark energy may provide a superior mode of communication). I just like the entertainment one because its amusing and sort of describe a great portion of our own civilization. The reality I think/hope is there will always be explorers/dreamers/big thinkers.... I hope.

For me the best explanation is the size of the Universe. No other assumptions needed.

Its not the size but rather intelligent entity density. You could have an infinite universe but still have high ratio of contact if the universe has a high density of life forms (think of it as collisions with particles in a large volume).

Compared to the reducing human reproductive rate this is an important point. It's quite likely that somewhere in the regime of 12 billion is all the alive humans there ever will be - even with immortality technology. After all, how many times per 1000 years would you want to have some more children? How many of those people are likely to exist compared to a dormant mass who don't have children?

Now factor in a lack of FTL travel. If it takes thousands of years to go exploring, how many explorers are there likely to be, and how likely are they to stop and setup colonies instead?

Yes this is similar to the self replicating probe problem (one solution to the SETI problem is to launch probes that replicate). That probes start having the same problems as the creating intelligent entity has. Either the probes can't replicate fast enough or decide to stop replicating/exploring for whatever reasons and there are just not enough/fast enough probes.

> For me the best explanation is the size of the Universe

Size, and time of the Universe. Most probably species do not last beyond a couple of million years no matter what, and there may be very little overlap between periods of intelligence even if they were in relatively close area of space.

My thoughts are, its not just that ants trying to understand the superhighway. Its the beings that create a superhighway wishing to communicate in a way the ants would understand.

Maybe they'll just wait for the ants to start to build roads. Maybe what we think are roads (Electromagnetic waves) are to the beings as scent trails are to ants.

I read an interesting book called "Rare Earth: Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe" that attempts to tackle why we haven't found evidence of any other life. It was written in 2000 so I guess it's rather old now in that many interesting things have been discovered since to discredit it.


The main problem we have in the search for extraterrestrial life is that we really do not know much about life. We know a reasonable amount about Earth life, but that's about it. I have read only portions of Rare Earth for my research and plan to return to read it through. But some of the arguments made seemed to rest on a lot of supposition. I'm not convinced they're wrong exactly.

I think there may be many "Great Filters" to explain the Fermi paradox, and the rise of metazoans may be one of those filters. But I'm not necessarily convinced that complex life requires, for instance, a large moon to stablize the tilt of the planet. Evolution seems a little more robust to me.

I do not know if they mention this in the book or not, but I am afraid that the transition to land may be infrequent (many worlds may not even have land above sea level). Even if dolphins or whales were as intelligent as people want to believe, they are unlikely to ever develop space travel or even radio communication.

I'm equally on the fence about the mediocrity principle. Maybe complex life takes a long, long time and Earth somehow got lucky. We are already freaks because we orbit a G-type star. Most stars are M-type (red dwarfs). They are very long lived and have plenty of time for life to form and evolve on planets around them. Put another way, maybe somehow we are just "first".

> It may also be that intelligent alien life develop an "increasing disinterest" in their outside world

That's only something you can say with n size=1 (human civilization). We have no idea if intelligent species out there with similar capacities as humans would actually think in the same way or not. Let's not assume every intelligence out there is just like ours.

(OP here) Well actually we might have some good ideas of thought patterns / behaviors since we as humans and life as we know it have made it this far. The quest to survive and reproduce so far seems to be very common and is probably inherent in any intelligent life. I would imagine most aliens would want to survive and maybe reproduce.

Similar to the original entertainment idea is to imagine though a super intelligence that understands almost everything. What goals would it have? What would it do? Its hard to imagine anything motivating other than perhaps itself. But to your point who knows however its still fun to think about.

Here's a couple of great videos explaining the Fermi Paradox:



That seems unusually optimistic to me. Considering how much warfare human society has had and now that we have nuclear weapons and the endless brinkmanship of them, it seems the reasonable view here is that intelligent species probably just destroy themselves after a certain level of development. There is no Federation or aliens visiting because societies don't like that long due to a self-inflicted extinction event.

Let's remember that Castro was begging the Soviets for a nuclear strike against the US and Khrushchev had to fight off a Politburo that wanted nuclear war during the crisis.

I can't see any reason why this wouldn't happen. Bigger guns means bigger consquences and eventually you'll have a war with the biggest guns - nukes or biological or grey goo or whatever and life will end. Funny how the most obvious answer is almost the most horrifying, thus all the silly suggestions about aliens becoming VR addicts or trans-dimensional supermen or whatever.

It's a different world today though. Even if two countries go nuts and drop the bomb on each other, it doesn't really mean the rest will jump into the fray.

Please excuse my complete ignorance - this is something that continues to perplex me no matter how many times I hear it explained and I may sound like a complete idiot here. Can someone explain how this would work in layman's terms?

Let's say that life on another planet 150 million billion miles away wanted to send us a message. So that's 25,000 light years away. They send us one single 1 minute duration message at t=0 and that message travels at the speed of light as an example. And let's just say t=25000 happens to be today. Does that mean that we have a one minute window to intercept part of the message otherwise it's lost?

If so, let's say the life on that planet was persistent and continued to send messages continuously directly to us and no other planets for 500 years. Then I would assume we have a 500 year period to play with. If they started sending signals let's say 10,000 years ago, it seems we have absolutely no chance to receive the message unless this program is operational for the next 15,000 years or so. But our odds of receiving an intelligent signal is vastly higher simply due to the number of planets in our galaxy. Is my understanding remotely correct?

Traditionally, SETI is not specialized to messages intentionally crafted for us (or, in fact, necessarily crafted for anyone). It's just a search for radio transmissions that are unlikely to have been created by natural sources using various statistical techniques.

Even for intentional messages, it's certainly conceivable that another civilization with sufficient power simply transmits the message in all direction continuously.

Even for intentional messages, it's certainly conceivable that another civilization with sufficient power simply transmits the message in all direction continuously.

I think that scenario would imply a relative scarcity of intelligent life: after all, if a space-faring civilization needs to transmit powerful, omnidirectional signals in the blind, it must be pretty lonely. Maybe, just maybe, the fact that we're not seeing much is actually indicative of a fairly rich sea of life in the galaxy, communicating point-to-point with each other. Not so much to randomly overhear in that world.

Personally, I am willing to bet that all intelligent life will end up being quite lonely. Unless we find ways to bend space, there is little chance of us ever getting out of our local solar system, let alone galaxy or the local galactic cluster.

I am a big fan of science and science fiction, do not get me wrong. I do feel that technology evolves and will surprise even the most tech savvy, but to violate faster than light travel seems more far fetched than any theory out there to me.

I'm expecting somewhere way down the road, scientists will unlock the secrets to prolonging our lives for nearly forever. They'll stop the telomeres from degrading, come up with ways to address cancer quickly and effectively, etc.

At the same time, space travel technology will also have been advanced, allowing for self-sustaining spacecraft that offer protection against the harsh environment of outer space.

At that point, you can imagine that a hearty band of explorers will undertake a mission of leaving our solar system and exploring way beyond our world. Who knows how far they could get.

These are the sorts of advances I can imagine becoming real many generations from now. I wouldn't underestimate our capacity to make it happen.

If you want to speculate, how about the possibility of uploading people's mind to a robot? Let's say that we are able to send outer space a bunch of self replicating robots (they can travel to various planets and build a copy of themselves using the raw materials they can find there). After some time, we have lots of robots at many points in space, then you make a copy of your mind and send it at the speed of light to those robots. Because of the self replicating nature of the thing, we can have lots of robots so anybody who wants to can upload his/her mind to one of them. That way we have a non risky an relatively cheap way to explore the galaxy - it would just take couple of thousands of years to have everything set up.

Still a relatively slow way to get around. We have some co-factor here for "median time between alien contacts" which might be thousands of years. In which case they came, they saw, and the people who saw them remembered it as folk tales.

"Speed" could be seen in terms of perceived time for distance covered. No reason with a robot-uploaded consciousness that you couldn't slow its perception of time such that travel between the stars becomes something comprehensible by a human-like mind. A bit like video game time acceleration, but real.

That doesn't address what happens to the visitees, but if that kind of slow-scale exploration becomes the default, then any civilizations on a similar level to the robot explorers would have technology and societal structures in place to support meaningful contact of that nature.

> stop the telomeres from degrading

Both our bodies and minds need to hardened to endure deep space.

10,000 years between stars is a long time to be playing solitaire. The voyagers may need to sleep, hibernate, slow down their metabolism, alter their perception of time, or something, to make the journey bearable.

10,000 years between stars is a long time to be playing solitaire.

That's assuming our space ships resemble a Saturn V or the Space Shuttle. Why limit ourselves to that? How about a colony ship the size of New York City, built in orbit, housing millions of people? At that point we don't even need to live thousands of years; we'd have a generational ship.

I'm skeptical as well...but...something at the beginning of the universe caused it to expand far faster than the speed of light...something, some unknown force is causing it's continuous expansion. There are many deep, fundamental questions we don't know about the universe. FTL travel may be possible, but I wouldn't bet on it.

I present to you the answer that I most prefer for that question: http://www.multivax.com/last_question.html

I'm hoping that even though we don't seem to be so lucky, there are other solar systems out there with multiple worlds where intelligent life developed roughly in parallel.

At least someone in the universe would be living out my space opera fantasies!

SETI isn't just looking for spacefaring civilizations. It's looking for any form of intelligent life. Take us, for example. We've been broadcasting radio signals into space for many years now (basically as a side-effect of broadcasting them to ourselves). Given sufficient time for the radio waves to travel, an alien equivalent of SETI would be expected to recognize them as non-natural.

That's not really true (for better or worse). Radio signals attenuate with distance. In the case of omnidirectional signals expanding in a sphere, they attenuate at a rate of 1/r^3. As a result, virtually all of our radio signals intended for terrestrial consumption are basically noise before they even leave the solar system.

The wikipedia page on Path Loss[1] suggests that radio and antenna engineers typically model path loss (in decibels) using the formula

  L = 20 * log10(4 * pi * d / λ)
(where λ is the wavelength and d is the distance between the transmitter and receiver expressed in the same units as the wavelength)

If I'm doing the math right[2], this says that the path loss over 1 lightyear for an 80MHz transmission (which seems to be in the analog TV range?) is something like 330 decibels. Now I'm not sure how strong TV transmissions are, but I'm guessing it's not that strong.

Darn. Seems Futurama and every other piece of mass media that claims that aliens are watching our TV from 80 years ago is wrong.

[1]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Path_loss

[2] Which is to say, if I'm typing it into Wolfram Alpha correctly.

Maybe, just maybe, the fact that we're not seeing much is actually indicative of a fairly rich sea of life in the galaxy, communicating point-to-point with each other.

Except for the small question of how those many civilizations would have found each other in the first place.

True. But nearer the galactic core where stars are so much closer together? SETI might have a much higher hit rate there. We are in kind of a backwater out here. It's easy to forget about the big city when you're out in the sticks.

It's not very likely though. Occam's Razor alone suggests that the reason for loneliness is that there aren't a plethora of civilizations all talking to each other over narrowband channels. And we'd be very unlikely to pick up the omnidirectional beacon of a lonely civilization way out here anyway.

Or, perhaps planets able to support civilization are relatively rare, and the few civilizations dumb enough to loudly broadcast their presence soon get exterminated when their planets are colonized.

Sounds about right. Frank Drake created his famous equation [1] to try to quantify the probability of detecting ETI, but you do need to make guesses at some of the inputs.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drake_equation

Relevant xkcd: http://www.xkcd.com/384/

Due to the expansion of spacetime during those 25,000 years, we would have slightly longer than 1 minute to receive the signal, but it would be so insignificant that you might as well call it a minute.

I wish someone would instead come up with a project to really capture the public's attention about space exploration. More interest means more funding. The U.S. Budget is measured in billions. The New Horizons project, for example, only cost $700 million.

The Lunar X Prize might have been that project but it doesn't seem to be making progress:



I saw a lot of people complaining online about the cost of New Horizons. I took the time to explain that if we had foregone a single aircraft carrier, we could have sent nearly 20 such missions to Pluto. And that was just for the carrier, not for the support craft, aircraft, etc.

A carrier costs roughly $12 billion, and costs about $1.5 billion per year in operational costs.

People really have no concept of how much NASA costs. They think NASA gets an insane amount of money. We'd have moon bases and maybe even a Mars base if NASA got the funding people think they get.

Hi, I'm a member of one of the GLXP teams. There is progress. But it's hard and mostly invisible to the outside world. Basically we are small teams catching up to what governments or larger companies are doing. It takes time.

1. Tech development: It requires changes in thinking, tools, procedures etc. Perhaps harder than tech itself is to acquire the required mindset.

2. Legal: Space law is fun but complex once it goes into the details. US laws like ITAR (now a bit milder than before) haunt us. Plus plenty of other laws.

3. Funding: It's hard to make business cases for a (literal) moonshot. Sponsorship and payload are the main revenue sources, but most teams don't succeed. Their story (or presentation) is not exciting or convincing, their team is not adequate (skills, mentality, manpower), so they don't get sponsors, investors, or customers. Or they're just in a country where risk is not rewarded or capital is absent.

4. Launch: Finding the right rocket is important; it influences spacecraft design. Then negotiating a contract and sticking to it. Many hurdles. And it's expensive before the launch. Launch is the biggest cost center.

5. Politics: XPRIZE Foundation is a US org, so US law and politics determine much of what you (not) do, e.g. avoid tech or people from blacklisted countries. Or when geopolitics kicks in and the rocket in another country suddenly or potentially becomes unavailable.

And much more. So we're making progress. But it's not something we talk about much.

I just realize that I wrote the five points above in a kind of negative tone. They're not. E.g. once you have the required mindset, you're filled with nearly unshakable certainty about what you do and why. Laws are solved problems--or when they work on them, they make open problems pretty clear. The pressure to find business cases makes you think hard about what is possible and economical at what time, you start to see a roadmap of doable things until you reach your goal; after all to kickstart private space is one of the GLXP's intentions. The launch sector is a funny business, you meet interesting people and it gives you insights into one of the greatest filters that still stops humanity from going into space at large scales. Politics is not always a burden, it can also be a source of support and goodwill; e.g. if you align interests and avoid stepping on the wrong toes, it can be very helpful.

So, yeah, space is hard. But we're getting there.

> I wish someone would instead come up with a project to really capture the public's attention about space exploration.

The imaging and spectroscopy of exoplanets has proceeded quickly [1] and in a not-too-distant future we may be able to roughly analyze the composition of the atmospheres of exoplanets.

Now, given that microbial life formed on earth pretty much right after the young planet had cooled down, it may not be too far fetched to hope to find a planet with oxygen in its atmosphere, signaling the presence of at least microbial life.

Now that would be something.

[1] http://www.pppl.gov/events/colloquium-adaptive-optics-imagin...

I am surprised they haven't kickstarted a mission yet. $700 million is less than $3 per person in the US, and probably something like $10 per person with an interest in space travel in the developed world. I'd love to see such a mission with 70% devoted to science, and 30% devoted to awesome spectacle like high-resolution stereoscopic video.

We need to build a huge space ship with a fusion engine and send it to the nearest star. But that sort of doesn't make any sense because we have lots of our own solar system to explore.

There might also be the small problem of actually building the fusion engine first. I don't think that's something we're really able to do right now, is it?

Three of those are fission, not fusion. And Daedalus looks more like a very high level concept, without the actual tech to accomplish it.


You could potentially replace fission with fusion and speed things up. And yes they were high level designs because of the supposedly immense expense.

Right. I'm sure fusion will one day allow us to do incredible things. We just haven't figured it out, yet. Right now, our best attempts at fusion (to my knowledge) put in orders of magnitude more energy than they get out. And the first applications of positive fusion energy would likely be to generate cheap power on Earth, long before it reaches a point where we could drive a ship with it.

Daedalus is not even a high level concept at the level we are talking about, it's a completely different level altogether. Project Daedalus was more like a project to establish reasonable parameters on which to base a high level concept.

Well, the nearest star is the Sun, so…

I'd like to think the podcast Radiolab has done more for generating interest in science then any other project I can think of.

sorry to break your perception (or not), but even as a space exploration enthusiast, never heard of that. but then again, podcasts generally are on outer rim of interest of general population

I've never heard of it either.

Where are you located?

Sorry but I think NASA has done a LOT more for generating interest in science than any other project.

It's cool to hear that people are podcasting about it. I'm glad you were able to plug them on HN.

Are there any good space or physical science focused episodes? Whenever I check in on Radiolab it seems like it is all about pop-psychology topics or TED-ish "turns out this counter-intuitive notion is true" stories.

Maybe you can change that for the remake of Cosmos.

I know America is supposed to lead the way but Europe is larger and richer and has a space budget one third of NASA.

The US is richer, and has a larger GDP as of now (post Dollar run and Euro drop) than the European Union. The US has about ~40% of all private wealth (globally private wealth is around $270 trillion, with US households holding $86 trillion [1] of that; then furthering that are US corporate assets, which are far larger than European corporate assets).

By comparison private wealth in all of Europe is about $60 to $65 trillion. [2]

[1] http://www.federalreserve.gov/releases/z1/Current/z1.pdf

[2] http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/10/01/us-europe-wealth-s...

Better yet, why does it have to be an "individual nation" thing? Why can't all (or even just some) of the developed nations collaborate and pool funding and have a bigger team to work on the problem?

That individual nation thing was the only reason America visited the moon.

Sure. And we definitely need some kind of motivation to focus our efforts on space exploration (it's very noticeably become an afterthought ever since we stopped trying to compete).

But if we could somehow find that motivation, it would be far more productive to work together -- we'd have a lot more manpower and a higher budget that way.

Also Europe is a continent.



Hawking wants to find them, but seemingly not reveal ourselves...


Didn't we lose that battle when we sent the Voyager with the Golden Record [1] that carries the exact coordinates [0] (with respect to nearest stars) to the origin of the spacecraft.

  Voyager 1 and 2 both carry with them a 12-inch golden phonograph record 
  that contains pictures and sounds of Earth along with symbolic directions 
  on the cover for playing the record and data detailing the location of 
  our planet. The record is intended as a combination of a time capsule 
  and an interstellar message to any civilization, alien or far-future 
  human that may recover either of the Voyager craft. The contents of this 
  record were selected by a committee that included Timothy Ferris and 
  was chaired by Carl Sagan.
[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voyager_program#/media/File:Vo...

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voyager_program#Voyager_Golden...



Voyager has on board antennas and a sufficiently intelligent civilization would be quite interested in intercepting a spacecraft which seems to be on a mission to somewhere carrying <creator>-knows-what.

Wouldn't worry, that's not going anywhere interesting for thousands of years. Any aliens near enough to intercept that aren't going to need the return address to find us. Our radios signals will give us away long before that probe.

By the time Voyager reaches another star we'll have advanced sufficiently to have beat it there.

It is actually far more likely than an alien civilization would detect our radio and tv broadcast signals than our space probes. Those broadcast signals have been sent out in all directions from earth pretty much continously for almost a century now, and they travel at light speed, so they cover alot more distance much faster.

No, I'm pretty sure we lost it well before that when we started spewing radio signals. Voyager is a minuscule speck travelling in a single direction at a snail's pace, while those radio signals are racing across enormous swaths of space at the speed of light.

How about nuclear tests and explosions? Would that be drawing curiosity?

I wouldn't think those would be noticeable unless you were already closely observing the earth.

I'm not a physicist, but I assume there isn't any detectable, unique signature of an explosion that can be detected from space. Stories I've read about test-ban treaties and non-proliferation efforts give the main mechanism for detecting tests are the seismic effects they have.

What sort of signals do (human scale) nuclear explosions give off that are detectable from light-years away?

Some scientists have similarly been warning against blindly revealing our existence. If our history is anything to go by, meeting another civilisation would be very dangerous.

Yeah, he's reiterated this plenty of times over the past bunch of decades, so I was mightily surprised to see this announcement.

So if every alien society has a Hawking mindset then no one will discover each other.

A very noble endeavour indeed, but I still don't get it.

So let's say that by examining the petabytes of data that's received from the telescopes, at some point a signal is detected.

Let's say that somehow all the competing scientests and skeptics, religious and opinion leaders magically and peacefully agree: the signal is from an inteligent life form. Somewhere close, just a couple of hundred light years away ...

Then what ?

Do we build rockets to travel there ? Do we 'tune-in' and decipher the signal ? Do we send them our own signals in the hope that they are listening ?

Do you not think that actually knowing, really knowing, is a worthy cause in and of itself? To have proof that we are not alone? Even if we can't get there I think that certainty would be a very nice thing to have.

I would venture to say that most educated people allow for a pretty high probability that life exists on other planets in the Universe, given the sheer scale of the place.

In fact, a much harder task would be to prove that life absolutely doesn't exist anywhere else in the Universe.

So we instinctively believe, but we still want proof. So would the SETI thing provide that definite proof ?

In many ways this is similar to 'does life exist after death'. Either way you stand, it's impossible to absolutely prove it, but some day everyone will definetely find out ;).

I agree that knowing is a worthy cause, but never mind getting there we will not even be able to have anything even resembling a conversation if you have to wait hundreds of years for a response.

Edit: Does anyone know the current thinking of the odds that information could be able to travel faster than light, ie a wormhole? As far as I know they are very slim.

> Does anyone know the current thinking of the odds that information could be able to travel faster than light, ie a wormhole?

An Einstein-Rosen Bridge is purely theoretical, and mostly a way to understand the equation of general relativity better. The equation requires you to set a few parameters that we have no way of determining currently, and that describe the structure of the universe. By setting those parameters just right, we can imagine really strange things, such as time travel or a wormhole.

But even if those parameters allowed a wormhole, having a traversable wormhole requires exotic matter with negative mass, another thing that we have no tangible proof exists.

In other words, general relativity is so general that it allows behaviour that can't exist in the real world. Computing the odds that information could go through a wormhole is like computing the odds that God exists.

Well, if we do detect a signal, we're not going to just transmit "wassup?" and wait for an answer. I think it will be an interesting problem to have a conversation with other beings where the lag time is measured in decades!

Well galactic communication is one-way: every civilization reaching the tech level needed to participate in it just starts to send out everything they know, never hoping for anyone to reply. Additionally, every participating civilization starts relaying everything they hear from one side to the other side, so civilizations which are mutually out of range can hear from each other.

There is a galactic consent that nobody will ever be able to actually visit each other.

And of course, this is pure science fiction :)

Why would you wait for a response? When you send a letter, you don't send the line "Greetings from happyscrappy! How are you?" and then wait for them to reply - you go ahead and ask them questions, tell them about yourself, etc., and then wait for a reply. Or don't! Send them a letter once a week, etc.

Anything contradicting relativity is currently out of the scope of science and not backed by any observation whatsoever, so any travel-faster-than-light theory has exactly the odds granted to it by it's own believers, and zero for everybody else.

Wormholes don't contradict relativity. In fact they were predicted by relativity (or rather a solution to the singularity problem predicted by relativity).

The scientific name for a wormhole is an Einstein-Rosen Bridge - named after Nathan Rosen and, obviously, Albert Einstein who conceived the idea.

There are other suggestions for "faster than light" travel, but FTL is a bit of a misnomer because the concepts of FTL aren't about having a velocity that's greater than c (the speed of light in a vacuum), it's about warping or cutting through the fabric of space in a way that makes the distances shorter. A wormhole is just one theoretical method of jumping those distances via a shortcut.

IANAP, but isn't the only argument against faster-than-light-travel the fact that it contradicts causality?

I don't see a problem there. The definition of causality is circular anyway. There's no formal mathematical self-consistent proof of causality. It's just sort-of assumed, and then there are back-arguments from relativity that say "Well, that violates something we sort of assume."

The problem is that in science, if you assume things in a naive way ("What goes up must come down." "Planets travel in circles") you're almost certainly wrong - because the details of physical reality are usually counter-intuitive and unexpected.

So what we really know is:

1. Spacetime is a thing. It has bulk properties described by GR. 2. Er - that's it.

We don't know what spacetime is made of, or what you can do with the things it's made of, or what their properties are.

So I'd classify this as "definitely not known due to lack of knowledge" rather than "definitely not proven."

Proposals like Quantum Dynamical Triangulation, Causal Sets, and Loop Quantum Gravity are beginning to ask what spacetime is made of, but they're barely in their infancy.

The one thing they have in common is the idea that there's a network of - something... - and the reality we recognise propagates across the network.

If the elements are discrete - and they almost certainly are, because of the Planck limit - there will be some moment where an element changes state.

How fast does that happen? What's the mechanism? What limits the state changes? (Adjacency? Some other property?)

It's completely mysterious, and I think it's unwise to make definitive statements about it until it stops being a mystery.

I don't know if it's the only one, but it is one Stephen Baxter's novel Exultant plays brilliantly with: the people in that universe discovered means to travel faster than light, but at a high price: causality was gone - and they had to get over it.

Is it worth millions of dollars to know that? Nope.

It's rich people playing with their toys.

What is millions of dollars for scientific research compared to millions blown on stadiums, or billions on new jet fighters?

Stadiums benefit millions of people. Jet fighters save lives. Finding out that there's water on mars, or some single cell organisms on pluto, does nothing apart from fill a few future text books.

With attitude like this we'd never have neither stadiums nor jet fighters.

Nailed it. That's why it matters - without a hunger for knowledge, our species would still be living in caves, pilfering scraps of flesh from carrion. Our desire to understand ourselves and the world we inhabit has lifted us out of the darkness.

I completely agree. But it's a pursuit individuals should pursue. If you want to go explore mars, go ahead! I'm sure it'd be great fun. But it should absolutely not be anything to do with public money, taxes, grants etc.

Leave it completely to rich people and companies to waste their money on.

Citizens of London would likely have felt the same way if they learned about Michael Faraday's experiments with electricity which were funded by the Royal Society, given that electricity was considered a party trick at the time. A government which spends public money on scientific exploration is doing its job to guard society against the cost of lost discoveries.

"the cost of lost discoveries"?

Things will get discovered eventually, by people who are passionate about them.

That's not necessarily true; some leaps are so obvious that it was only a matter of time before someone got to them, but there are critical jumps which are not so simple. If Newton hadn't invented Calculus, it's impossible to predict when another soul would have...so it's a damn good thing that he was supported by the Royal Society.

And there would be much rejoicing.

Since there IS water on Mars, then it's a lot more likely those future textbooks will be written there.

Edit: corrections.

It would make it that much harder to justify many religious beliefs, which I predict would be a positive outcome. It's harder to be arrogant and self-righteous when you find out you're not an only child. Sure, some people would find a way to stay stuck in their ways, but not everyone.

However, the much more important thing for me is that we'd know we aren't necessarily going to run into some Great Filter [0]. I'd fret a little less about dangerous new technologies if I knew at least one case where a civilization survived.

Lastly, maybe we'd learn something from the signal itself! A new communications protocol, new music, new technologies, insight into how languages work - who knows? Finding out what we have in common with the beings who sent the signal and what we don't would teach us a great deal about what is arbitrary on our world and what's fundamental. It's like growing up in a society with extremely rigid gender roles and then traveling to a country where that's not the case - you get that "Oh I didn't realize women could even have jobs" moment, but potentially with problems that aren't self-imposed.

0. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Filter

I think it's worth trillions.

Just imagine what proof that we're not alone would mean for the world. I'm not positive it would galvanize everyone, but it would surely create new industry and untold number of jobs as we, as a world, decide to try to go and meet them.

It is definitely, indisputably worth millions of dollars to know that.

Well, agree to disagree. The average person doesn't really care if there is or isn't water on mars, or if someone spent millions of their dollars taking a photo of pluto.

Year after year the news reports another big experiement which cost millions to setup, and which claims to "give us answers as to how the universe was created". I just couldn't be less interested. It's rich people (Or taxpayer funded people) playing with their toys.

It must be great fun if space exploration is your hobby, like explorers of days gone by, but for most people it won't have any impact at all on their lives (Apart from wasting their taxes).

Space travel and exploration have directly resulting in many commercial products, which themselves have generated billions in revenue and tens of thousands of jobs (if not more).

Not only is your statement disappointing to hear from anyone presuming to be technically literate, it is objectively wrong.

Actually, I think you're wrong here. Space travel is a very inefficient method of R&D. Almost any other basic research has more practical benefit.

As a fellow reply states, using "Space travel" as a means for general R&D is pretty damn inefficient.

You would have a similar result if you poured money into alchemy research - lots of side products etc.

That's actually exactly my philosophy [1]. I agree with each of your examples (water on mars, photos of Pluto, early-universe cosmology). Nonetheless, the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence is in a completely different league. The random guys on the street will not only care about this tremendously, he will care for the same correct reasons that scientists care.

[1] Minus the part about it being a waste of taxes; just because people aren't interested doesn't mean it's not worthwhile, because people can be wrong.

So we find out there's some creatures on Pluto that are roughly the same as frogs. How does that impact anyones life? It'd be an interesting fact, and maybe fun if we could move some over here as pets, but beyond that, it's a colossal waste of energy and money.

Do you mean impacting their life materially? Why would it have to impact their life materially to be valuable? Sharing a joke with a friend at a bar doesn't have material benefit, but it's one of the valuable things in life.

If you're going to force people to pay money, through taxes, grants etc, to explore space, then it should have some material benefit.

That's a pretty unusual axiom that most people don't subscribe to, and it's orthogonal to disagreements over justifications for involuntary taxes.

Well, presumably any civilization advanced enough to communicate with us wouldn't be interested in being our pets. Civilization being sort of a prerequisite of communicating with us?

If you can't see how that would be one of the most impactful things in human history, I don't think there's any more to discuss.

Let's imagine a remote island on Earth that was colonized five thousand years ago (and completely forgot about how they got there). They may spend a very long time sending and listening to sonar signals. However, we (the aliens from their point of view) use sonar for ourselves, not to detect intelligence. It would be very hard to detect intelligence from our use of sonars (which is similar to that of a few animals). Even if they did guess that we were intelligent, their understanding of who we are and how we live would be minuscule.

On the other hand, if they spent their energy sending ships, they would eventually find us, and they would learn phenomenally about technology, science and their place in the world, even before they reach us.

> It would be very hard to detect intelligence from our use of sonars.

Why would it be hard to determine that we're intelligent? We've clearly created some sort of apparatus for generating sonar. I would imagine that someone listening in our oceans would be able to tell fairly quickly that we're a technical civilization.

> Why would it be hard to determine that we're intelligent?

Underwater sounds can come from a wide range of sources, including tectonics, natural events and animals. Those did not create some sort of apparatus. Yet, they can have a similar signature.

It is not even a hypothetical situation. A SETI lab spent a lot of time trying to figure out what a particular signature that their telescope picked up was, only to discover it was caused by their microwave oven: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/seti-the-hunt-for-....

Let's say that somehow all the competing scientests and skeptics, religious and opinion leaders magically and peacefully agree..

That's sounds like exactly the sort of outcome we want, regardless of what else happens.

An upheaval in the way we see our role in the universe? Re-invogorate the race to space? I think there's plenty of things that follow "then what?".

There are very few pieces of information really worthy of deliberate broadcasts across star-systems in the hopes of someone catching it. One of these few might be a full dump of neural vector-states (or functional equivalent thereof), at an appropriately low-level assembly, which when successfully executed, brings not a message, but the messenger itself.

In fact, any sufficiently advanced digital program can be a "messenger" rather than a "message". But how do we know what kind of execution environment is available at the destination?

Aliens probably use Brainfuck [1], so we need a substantial increase in Brainfuck AI research. Some modern-day Kennedy needs to step up to this challenge.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brainfuck

A fair amount of work has already been done with algorithmic communication systems, as its a small step from a mathematical language to a general purpose programming language. Paul Fitzpatrick, then with the MIT AI lab, developed the most complete framework around the idea, CosmicOS.

The answer is usually "what would Jean luc Picard do?"

Taking the "I don't get it" attitude on this resembles a sort of classic anti-science ignorance, not sure if that's what you were going for.

What we will have is a lot more experience with protocols as are required to detect such signals. Not difficult to imagine circumstances in which such capability could be highly significant or even critical for mankind or the Earth's future.

It's certainly difficult to imagine projects that operate on a timescale beyond a single human lifetime, but it got civilisation this far!

Yes. Yes we will.

If we really believe in scientific progress, then we must accept that, compared to some time in the future, our current understanding of the Universe is akin to people thinking the world was flat some time in the past.

Maybe the Universe's scale compared to our physical form has a purpose. Maybe it's intended to not be traversed physcally. Maybe that's the most obvious conclusion an intelligent life form might draw from analyzing it's scale ?

Maybe in the future we will understand it just like the aliens we're looking for did a long time ago - that the way to communicate in this Universe does not involve physical travel or physical signals.

Just look up some pictures of Pablo Amaringo - a shaman making drawings of his trips on ayahuasca. Notice the 'aliens' and the galaxies and the the distant worlds that he is visiting while tripping.

Anyone who has been on powerful psychedelic trips would agree that there is a lot of stuff to explain there, besides just the brain reaction to a chemical. Stuff like traveling through time, out of the Universe, into the microcosmos, before and after life, etc.

People did this for thousands of years - they used terms such as 'spirits', 'beings' and 'gods' to describe who they made contact with.

But what if those substances are more than just intoxicants, what if they really trigger some unknown mind-space-time gateway which we haven't yet tapped scientifically, which makes space and time travel possible. What if we could approach this scientifically and actually make these trips predictable and repeatable ?

What if the aliens are actually just high tech savages using advanced psychedelic drugs + mind machines to travel and explore time and space, while sitting in a forest around a fire ?

We should start exploring the inner space just like we are exploring the outer space. When will we see $100m invested in that ? :)

> We should start exploring the inner space just like we are exploring the outer space. When will we see $100m invested in that ? :)

We already have: http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/04/why-spend-...

And I'm sorry to tell you that I think brain science does a good job at explaining perception when intoxicated without invoking "other stuff out there"

Yes yes, the brain, the mapping, the neural network... the physical, chemical, electrical thing that if wired properly would produce consciousness...

It would be so easy if it were that easy...

And brain science can't explain too much, because it couldn't research these substances, since they're illegal everywhere in the world.


Long story short - take the red pill and you'll see for yourself how little we understand about the mind and the Universe.

Brain science has a very long way to go for sure, and legislation had impeded studying certain substances, yes. But there has been research on perception and its limitations and this leads to an understanding where it is not remotely surprising that a substance could cause severe misperceptions undetected by the owner of the brain -- it happens continuously to all brains even when they are not tripping.

I'll juste leave this quote here:

"Isn't it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?"

I enjoyed that ! Thank you.

And maybe the entire progress of science over centuries and millenia has taught us that the crazy stuff we see when tripping isn't real in the slightest.

Maybe we were not supposed to cross the Sea. Maybe the reason we did not have wings is so that we do fly across nations. Maybe the reason we are different skin color and speak different languages is so that we remain each in our clan.

Or maybe, the Creator just said "let me see how far these guys will go?"

Didn't Hawking said that actively looking for ET was reckless and dangerous and that any contact with a more advanced civilization will end up like the colonization of America with us being the natives?

He said actively trying to contact was dangerous, vs. actively looking (i.e. passively listening, which is confusing!) No harm in seeing who's out there as long as they don't detect us.

Wow. Thank you, Yuri!

I suspect even if this is unsuccessful at finding ET, it will do lots of awesome other things.

And if it is successful in finding ET, then it's probably the most significant possible discovery.

What "awesome other things" will this accomplish? No research is being done with this, it's just pointing a radio dish at the sky and listening.

Data/signal processing at scale.

Qasar/pulsar surveys.

Other general radio astronomy.

Amazing initiative! I wish we had more of these. And it's coming right after "Armada" by Ernest Cline was released, which deals with aliens.

If the livestream is overlaid with page elements for you as well, try this URL:


If we ever receive radio from another world, they're probably already extinct.

Even if they were, that would be ok. Confirmation of other intelligent life through received communication, would be a really big deal. It would likely spur a large increase in investment into science, technology in general and space technology in particular.

Wow, a colossal waste of money. Space is far, far too vast and the time scale of human civilization far, far too small. To think of what other good uses that time and money could be spent on (that goes for SETI too)

Firstly, it's not a waste of money because it'll be spent on employing people, building things, developing technology, etc. They're not just pouring money down a hole.

Secondly, although it's hugely unlikely they'll find anything, in the event that they do it'll fundamentally change our perspective of who we are and where our place is in the universe. The outcome, while improbable, is so huge it's still worthwhile trying.

> it's not a waste of money because it'll be spent on employing people, building things, developing technology, etc.

The same can be said about digging holes and filling them afterwards.

You speak as if the money was yours to spend and it was misused somehow. As far as billionaires eccentricity goes, this is a great use of money.

This isn't a direct comment on Hawking's proposed search, but there are things that would have real value for space exploration and life on Earth - new energy sources or efficiencies, life extension, AI, production methods, etc. If we one day want to send von Neumann probes out, we'll need to master these fields and none would have uses isolated to space exploration either.

Yes, space is vast but once upon a time the ocean was too.

Could you name another good use of money that is better than SETI?

Building seawalls for the upcoming sea level rise.

For now I am more interested in terrestrial life which cannot be perceived with our senses alone. Are there others roaming around next to me, but we cannot perceive one another with some additional tool?

Interesting that SIGINT tools (zero sum at best, and probably negative sum) are basically going to be useful for something which extends the ears of humanity in a positive way.

Can a satellite "orbit" so that it imitates a star?

Or would it have to "stand still" out there, which would make it fall back to earth?

A satellite can appear to "stand still" from the perspective of an observer on the ground, so long as it orbits at the right altitude/speed (speed and altitude of an orbit are proportional); the satellite's orbital period just has to be exactly a day long. For Earth, that altitude is about 42,000km up. However, it would still be easily determined to be a nearby satellite as opposed to a distant star by triangulation.


But the stars don't stand still with respect to an observer on the ground.

You're suggesting we fake a signal?

Technically, a satellite could be parked in a Lagrange Point. But the signal would have to be very, very convincing because there will be many, many very smart people looking at it.

But wouldn't a Lagrange point satellite appear to move in a completely un-star-like manner over the course of weeks and months?

Funny enough, I wonder what the numbers would hit if they crowdfunded something like this? I think the number would be surprisingly high.

I think Giorgio A. Tsoukalos would be the best choice instead of Stephen Hawking, who is against finding ETs.

Seems like a huge waste of money to me. If you're interested in ET, why not invest in the space industry to advance our capabilities? It'll be hard to interact with ET when as a society we are essentially[0] earth bound.

[0] http://howmanypeopleareinspacerightnow.com/

I guess that's a matter of defining "earth bound." If we don't have people in space but we have probes on all the nearby planets, moons, comets and anything with enough gravity to hold one down, does that count as earth bound?

ATM, a manned mars mission is in the "very hard and expensive" file. Unmanned missions to anywhere in our solar system are doable on smaller budgets. We can use telescopes to look much further. In all cases information is being moved back and forward between earth and space.

Agreed that manned missions are hard and expensive. That is an area that $100 million could help (even in a small way).

But even robotic missions are very limited. We just had our first flyby of Pluto (not an orbiter). Jupiter doesn't get an orbiter until 2016 (Juno). No orbiters around Neptune or Uranus. So, lots still left to explore and observe with probes in our own solar system.

one week Hawking warns about skynet-style AI. next week he insist of us go hunting it. good troll?

It strikes me that the two are very different things. ET != AI.

Funny you say that:

The Dominant Life Form in the Cosmos Is Probably Superintelligent Robots

“If they were interested in us, we probably wouldn’t be here,” said Schneider. “My gut feeling is their goals and incentives are so different from ours, they’re not going to want to contact us.”

That’s a welcome divergence from Steven Hawking’s claim that advanced aliens might be nomads, looking to strip resources from whatever planets they can, and that all efforts to contact said aliens may end in our own demise.

“I’d have to agree with Susan on them not being interested in us at all,” Shostak said. We're just too simplistic, too irrelevant. “You don’t spend a whole lot of time hanging out reading books with your goldfish. On the other hand, you don’t really want to kill the goldfish, either.”


EDIT - HN discussion for that article, 212 days ago: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=8773778

Hah. I suppose it depends how you classify "Artificial Intelligence". It was my understanding that Hawking was concerned about humans creating skynet-style AI ourselves, rather than discovering AI created by an Extra-terrestrial.

In just a few hundred years, human civilization will be expanding at something on the order of the speed of light, unless we manage to blow ourselves up first.

How is that not interesting?

SAI != ET.

The idea of SAI is that it progresses at a significantly faster rate than biological processes can. For example, if humans and chimps were on a "staircase of evolution" and were one step apart; SAI would be one step above us a mere hour after it is turned on. After 2 hours it would be multiple steps above us. So the theory goes, anyway.

This means that evil aliens would be unlikely more dangerous than evil SAI.

Not that he's suggesting we announce our presence to aliens, merely look for them.

A minor note on word usage here: usually the word "theory" is reserved for explanations with a good track record rather than wild speculation.

A timescale of hours is not required for most of the AI-doom arguments; if it took a year, that would have a similar outcome.

It's definitely not a requirement, it's just an example of how it could rapidly progress. Within the scope of the argument 1 hour is as plausible as 1 year - the main point is that it happens shockingly fast and continues to happen even faster.

Humans being humans, one year is not nearly as shocking, which could contribute to people actually considering the possibility.

thanks for pointing this out, it made sense in my head in the lines of: super civilization creates AI, AI outlives civilization, humans find trace of super civilization, eventually establish contact with the AI

Well, they might not be the same thing or they might - or perhaps more likely of all, some kind of hybrid society with AI and natural intelligences.

He wants us to to look for ET's, but not reveals ourselves to them: to see but not be seen. So just like in the AI question, his stance is to be cautious.

I think Hawking would ultimately like ET's help in the coming war against AI.

Either that or early warning?

I don't think there is ET. The probability that atoms fuse together to construct a organism that is capable of turning sun into bio-energy and multiplying itself just by chance is too small to have two civilizations in this universe.

seems legit :D

My comment gets voted for having a sense of humour? Charming HN.

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