Intelligent aliens may long be waiting to be contacted - METI scientist

With a myriad of stars out there, and all the evidence suggesting there is nothing extraordinary about life on our planet, the chances are we are not alone in the vast expanse of outer space. But even if that’s true, should humans really be actively searching for extraterrestrial life? Will it be the downfall of our civilisation, or the opening of a new and brighter era? We talked about it with Dr Douglas Vakoch, president of the Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence organization (METI).

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Sophie Shevardnadze: So your organisation, METI, is focused on sending out signals aimed specifically at aliens - and you say that "extraterrestrials need to know we’re ready to communicate”. But are we really ready to communicate? I mean, look at us - we can hardly communicate with each other...

Douglas Vakoch: It is true, communication is one of the greatest challenges, but it is also one of the defining features of our species. We are intelligent creatures who love to talk with one another. Our work at METI is the natural extension of this desire to communicate but instead of talking with other human beings we’re reaching out to life in the universe.

SS: Your colleague from the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute, Seth Shostack, predicts we will find intelligent alien life within the next 20 years, you said it’ll happen by approximately 2035 - why the next 20 years exactly?

DV: One of the things that we see from our search is the need for computing power. We gather tremendous amount of data from space and we see through all of that cosmic static looking for radio signals that stand out as distinctly artificial and that requires tremendous computing. The great advantage that we’re having right now is increases of technology. You can get a personal computer that is twice as powerful as the one you bought a year and a half ago for the same price. When that accelerates of the course of year after year that gives us a huge advantage. Today our search is trillion times more powerful than the first search conducted in 1960 and we will continue to see that acceleration. So within the next twenty years we will have looked at million stars - that’s a reasonable number to look at in order to actually find the signal if they are out there, trying to make contact.

SS: Could it be that we still haven’t found any aliens, not because of technology holding us back, but simply that other life forms don't want their presence to be known? We've been looking at the possibility of not being alone in the universe for so long - why haven’t we found aliens in all this time if they are out there?

DV: You’re raising the question that the Italian physicist Enrico Fermi asked in 1950 when he said ‘Where are they?’ and it became known as the Fermi Paradox. Well, one of the possibilities is that other civilizations are there but not talking. So, maybe, everyone is waiting for the other civilization to take the initiative. That’s why METI sends intentional messages just in case there are scientists in other worlds waiting to say hello. 

SS: The renowned physicist Stephen Hawking has warned us about meeting aliens, likening it to Christopher Columbus meeting native Americans which, as we know, didn’t turn out so well in the end. Why don’t you believe him, and why should we ignore Professor Hawking’s view?

DV: We shouldn’t ignore his views. When anyone as brilliant as Stephen Hawking says ‘watch out, be careful!’ we have to take it seriously. But what he really hasn’t taken into account is that the aliens that we’re afraid of, the ones that can travel between the stars, could have already picked up our radio and TV signals that we’ve been sending out for the past 70-80 years. So there’s no increase of danger of an alien invasion by sending out intentional signals to let extraterrestrials know that we want to make contact.

SS: SETI scientists who don’t like you sending signals to aliens say that initiating contact isn’t science but diplomacy - why do you do it, and do you think this is what the majority of people actually want?

DV: I think that in fact sending signals to other worlds and listening for a response is a much more traditional type of science than simply observing. Astronomers are in an unusual position among other scientists because they cannot do experiments. Usually you go to a laboratory, make some changes and see what happens. But astronomers and SETI scientists have to passively wait for signals to come in and see if they detect us. We are actually doing what is called ‘a true experiment’ when we send a signal and waiting for a response back. It’s true that there are SETI scientists who say that this is a very long-term project. Most SETI scientists want to focus on a search that can pay off tonight. Our organisation also have observatories in Panama, in the United States looking for signals from extraterrestrials. In addition to this potentially short-term pay-off of detecting the signals we’re also making a long-term investment by sending signals and waiting for a reply that can come in many years from now.

SS: For instance, NASA’s Voyager which has just recently fired up its thrusters for the first time in 37 years floating outside the solar system with a bunch of cultural messages abroad to extraterrestrials. Is what you’re doing more dangerous than that?

DV: No, it is not. But the Voyager recording isn’t an excellent example of how we want to make contact with another civilization. This Golden Record has greetings in 55 languages. It has music from all around the world and it has a scientific tutorial along with over a hundred pictures of life on Earth. So it’s an attempt to give a snapshot of Earth to another world. Although there’s one big problem with the Voyager recording: it travels very slowly. So it’s going to be 70,000 years before the spacecraft comes even close to another star. But by sending radio signals that travel with the speed of light we can reach the nearest star in just over four years. There’s a tremendous time advantage of sending electromagnetic signals, whether they be radio signals or laser pulses, as opposed to trying to make contact by spacecraft.

SS: How do you make sure the extraterrestrials will interpret our signals as an invitation to communicate, rather than a challenge?

DV: The most important thing about sending the message out is simply being clear. And civilizations that had been through this process know that there is going to be some ambiguity. So we can expect a certain amount of reservation on the part of extraterrestrials that they will see what patterns we are sending them and try to make sense of them. That’s why we start our messages with focus on simple mathematical and scientific principles to make it as unambiguous as possible. We’re talking about what we and extraterrestrials have in common in understanding our physical universe.

SS: You’ve said that our radio and TV signals are already in space - could there be aliens watching “Jerry Springer” reruns out there somewhere light years away? I mean, if they base their understanding of us on TV, we’re in deep trouble...

DV: Exactly, I couldn’t agree with you more. If there is indeed a civilization a tiny bit more advanced than we are then they can already pick up “Jerry Springer” or sitcoms, interview shows and nightly news. They see what we are doing to our planet and it isn’t a very pretty picture. So, in addition to sending these chaotic messages that we use to communicate with one another we want to send a clear signal to the extraterrestrials that we also have some rationality in our world.

SS: Like you’ve said, the speed with which the signals are sent out is very slow - I saw the closest was sent to about 8 light years away, so if there’s a reply, it’ll come in 16 years. So we are looking at decades if any aliens are out there. So is your whole work just sending messages in a bottle, hoping that future generations will get an answer? Our civilization will be completely different by that time… will they even remember your role?

DV: Excellent point. That’s been the greatest obstacle within the SETI community to sending intentional signals. Some said they were not ready for something that requires that long-term perspective. Our position at METI is that we need to get ready for a long-term perspective as a species. In fact a lot of problems that we encounter in our world today is because we are always looking for immediate gratification. We want results by the end of the week or, if we’re really thinking long-term, by the end of the next quarter. But some good things take time. So you’re absolutely right. When we send our messages in a bottle we send many of them to many stars, and it’s critical whether we keep track of where we’ve sent these messages from and what they were. So if we do get a reply back we’ll know what the reply was in response to.

SS: How do you figure out what the aliens will understand and what won’t? Do you think human culture has something that transcends this boundary - mathematical equations, or maybe music?

DV: I wish that when we communicate with aliens they will know English, Russian, Spanish and Arabic. But there’s no reason to believe that they would have that in common. We have to say what we and aliens have in common simply by virtue of being able to make contact. If they receive our radio signals we would know that they can build radio antennas. That requires a technical sophistication and you have to be good engineer. You’re not going to be a good engineer on any planet if don’t know something as fundamental as ‘2+2=4’. So that’s what we begin with in our messages simply explaining to extraterrestrials how we count, how we do arithmetics. The interesting thing is that by taking very gradual steps upward soon we can talk about the nature of the radio signal itself and that’s what the aliens have in their hands, what they pick up on their machines. We focus on communicating some very basic concepts very clearly. That’s the essential starting point. Once we have something that they do understand that could open the floodgate to tremendous understanding. We can’t just go beyond math and science and talk about something like music. The beauty of music is that at its core it can be described in terms of mathematical ratios between notes. It can be described by the same terms physicists use: amplitude, frequency, duration… And so by starting with basic scientific and mathematical principles we can begin to give extraterrestrials an idea of what it means to be human.

SS: When you think about extraterrestrials, what do you imagine they’re like?

DV: The ones that we can contact are going to be scientists because that’s the only way we can exchange radio signals and laser pulses if they also have the ability to create instruments that allow us exchange information. But beyond that I don’t expect that they are going to look like us. They even may not necessarily have the same way of encountering the world that we do. We rely very heavily on our vision, vision has evolved 40 times independently on Earth. It’s been very effective here. But what happens if your civilization is on a planet where there is a murky cover over the atmosphere and you need to get around by the sense of hearing, touch or smell? You can still be a scientist discovering your universe and your way of encountering it day-to-day could be very different. That’s why we always need to be open to new possibilities for creating messages so that if they are detected they will understood.

SS: Jill Tarter from SETI told me once that we tend to think about aliens as ‘earthlings on steroids’. Is it likely that we will be similar in appearance?

DV: There are some aspects of our bodies that we might find in other species. For example, we’re bilaterally symmetrical. The left and the right hand sides of us look pretty much the same. Why would we expect extraterrestrials have, say, only two hands? You know, we see very intelligent creatures on our own planet with very different body types. Octopus has more of a radial, circular symmetry and there’s also the possibility of having multiple appendages. I don’t think we can count on extraterrestrials looking like us. I think, Jill is right: we tend to think of aliens as humans on steroids because, frankly, it’s cheapest for Hollywood to make. But we may even encounter intelligence that is not biological at all but created by the biological intelligence in another world. Our first contact may not be with carbon-based life but silicon-based life such as computers and artificial intelligence. As we project our own development of artificial intelligence in this world some are saying that within the next century we will be very intelligent computers. So this may be the nature of extraterrestrials we may first contact with.

SS: Can you study what other species might be like and from where they live? For example, what would aliens from Venus look like, if life was possible there? Longer noses? Huge heads? Or no noses?

DV: Anyone living on Venus would almost need an asbestos covering. It’s incredibly hard on Venus. But one of the basic things that we can think about is how big is the planet. The bigger the planet, the greater the gravitational force. And that’s going to favour species that are really going to be sturdy, maybe, shorter, solid and stocky. It’s easier to be on a planet much smaller than our Earth with smaller gravity, like Moon, for example. There would be a selection through evolution for creatures that may be taller and thinner. So these are the fundamentals that you can consider. But, as you’ve pointed out, maybe it’s different environment. Maybe there’s intelligent aquatic life. We know that whales and dolphins are highly intelligent in our world. There may be extraterrestrial whales creating wonderful symphony that they send to one another. But if they never build a radio detector and send radio signals we won’t know about them. So in some sense that narrows the kind of intelligence that we may have contact with in the intelligence that can create technology similar to ours.

SS: Is there a planet that you are specifically concentrating on looking for alien life, the planet you have more hopes for?

DV: Yes, in October 2017 METI first sent its first messages to a nearby star called The Leyton Star. This was in cooperation with the Sonar Music Festival. The project is called Sonar Calling GJ273b. This is the closest star having a known exoplanet within a habitable zone. It’s just the right distance from the star that could support liquid water. The fact that it’s 12.4 light years from Earth means that a round-trip exchange would take just under 25 years. These are some of the best time scales that we can hope for. That’s why we’re focusing on stars that are on our own galactic backyard rather than much further away.

SS: How do you imagine Earth will react to actually making contact? Will there be panic, emergency Security Council meetings, a crisis, what sort of reaction do you expect?

DV: If you believe Hollywood you are going to see tremendous upheaval. But when we do surveys, psychologists ask people ‘how would you respond?’ some people are going to be upset, but all will be fine. But if everybody is saying this, maybe there won’t be a big chaos. Over the last decades people have become more familiar with the idea that there may well be intelligent life out there and getting confirmation won’t be a big deal for a lot of people. They would rather know when is the next football game, that would be the next thing in their attention.

SS: The world’s major religions stress God’s special concern for the Earth and humans. What would that mean for religion as a whole once we know we’re not alone in the universe?

DV: It could have profound religious implications. For many years people said Christianity or monotheistic religions would have special trouble because of the idea there’s something special about life of Earth. But in fact theologians from Christianity or other religious traditions have said that there’s really no incompatibility. If in fact the universe was created by God than God could have populated it with as many creatures as he wants. Even those religions that, people say, will have hard time absorbing it are really pretty comfortable with it. And other religions like Buddhism or Hinduism already have a notion of multiple gods and incarnations throughout the universe. So I think there is not going to be any difficulty at all.

SS: What do you think about people like former Canadian defence minister Paul Hellyer, who says that aliens are already contacting humans very discreetly - and others like him? Have we had contact already without knowing it?

DV: I think, whenever anyone says that aliens have been very discreet and very surreptitious you’ve got to question that. You know, METI and SETI scientists need evidence. We need proof, we need something that you and I can look at together and say if that’s really from extraterrestrials. You can have as many conspiracy theories as you want about the aliens having arrived. But unless someone can give me a piece of their spacecraft I’m not going to be impressed. We need to be incredibly sceptical, that’s built into the way we detect signals in SETI and we have to be just as sceptical about any claims that aliens have come to Earth. No, I’ve seen no evidence that would suggest that aliens have already arrived.

SS: There’s so many ufologists out there who claim that aliens build the pyramids, that aliens steal our water, our oxygen… I mean, it seems these people are a bit wacky, but on the other hand, they believe in aliens just like you believe in aliens, perhaps you guys aren’t that different?

DV: I would make a distinction. I say it’s possible they are out there, and certainly devoted by life to trying to make contact. But as a scientist I also have to be open to the possibility that humankind is the only intelligence in the universe. When people say that aliens are going to come to steal our oxygen or our water that just doesn’t make economic sense. You can claim and believe whatever you want, I mean, who am I to question somebody’s beliefs… But the big question that science asks ‘what evidence can you give so that somebody could share your belief?’ That’s what’s lacking from the UFO community.

SS: So like you say, there’s no hard evidence that aliens exist. As far as we know without speculating - Earth is the sole planet where life exists, surrounded by the vast freezing black space of dust and gas. Could our obsession with aliens be just a way to cope with understanding this enormous, lonely, cosmic desert?

DV: I think some people want to make contact because they feel like their lives are empty in this world. And my advice to them would be to get a friend on this planet because aliens would never be our friends. If we ever do make contact extraterrestrials would be so different from us that we cannot expect them to solve all our problems. We can’t expect salvation from the stars. I think the best we can hope for in contacting with other civilization is to learn how another species understand the universe. In essence it’s like holding a mirror up to ourselves. What we know from contacting people from other cultures in our world is that it gives us the new perspective on ourselves. It’s not that we are going to give up our culture and take on theirs but we will have a better appreciation of ourselves.

SS: Well-said, Dr Vakoch, get a friend on this planet and don’t rely on aliens! Thanks a lot for this interview. We were talking to Dr Douglas Vakoch, the president of the Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence organisation discussing our chances of finding intelligent alien life and whether we should be trying to in the first place.