Monday, April 26, 2010

It's What I've Been Saying for Over 20 Years

When I worked at TSI (later called Mercator) back in the 90's, there was a young man there, Eric, who was a big fan of the SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestial Intelligence) project. At that time there was a free application (called SETI@home) that you could download to your PC, and it would only run in the background when your computer was doing nothing else. Its purpose was to help sift through massive amounts of the data collected by radio receivers at SETI to sort an intelligent signal from static noise. Eric was encouraging everyone to download the program to add more PCs to the effort to find intelligent life out there in the universe. I refused.

I explained to Eric that while the concept of cloud computing appeals to me, the thought of making an alien race aware of our existence does not. In fact, it scares me to death. "If there are aliens out there, making them aware of us would only add us to their menu."

And now the genius Stephen Hawking has finally come around to see the value of my reasoning. In a recent article, Hawking warns of the dangers in contacting aliens.
I suspect there could be life and intelligence out there in forms we can’t conceive. Just as a chimpanzee can’t understand quantum theory, it could be there are aspects of reality that are beyond the capacity of our brains. - Stephen Hawking
What he didn't say is that any alien who is reaching out to find other aliens (like earthlings, for instance) would likely not be doing it to finish their college doctoral thesis. Although the desire to satisfy curiosity drives much of the knowledge that we have gained over our brief history, the true motivators to get someone to travel for long periods through space would be far more visceral. Chief among these reasons would be the need to satisfy hunger. Any planet that had limited resources would be looking elsewhere for replenishment. Finding aliens willing to communicate and discuss exactly what resources existed on their planet would simply be phase one of a plan to come and plunder us.

And let's not rule out the age old plot in many science fiction movies where the aliens come to make us slaves, or worse - food! Consider our own record in that regard (Columbus' discovery of America, or Cortez's discovery of the Aztecs, or any number of examples through history), and you can see that even creatures with our lofty ideals can wreak devasting havoc upon the unsuspecting "aliens".

President Obama's announcement to go to Mars has its good side. We will inevitably develop new technology and devise new methods that will have their applications outside of the space module. Going to a new environment helps to lose the tired old approaches to overcoming obstacles. Nothing like floating around a tin can thousands of miles into empty space to provide you with a new perspective to solving problems.

So, I agree with Mr Hawking: go ahead and look for signs of intelligent life outside of earth, but do not speak to them, and especially do not let them know that we have so much water on the planet that we do things like pollute and defecate in it or make Coors Light beer out of it. And absolutely don't let them know we have wet-t-shirt contests or they'll be sure to come to conquer us.