Over the decades, humans have invented a gallery of nightmarish fictional aliens: acid-blooded xenomorphs who want to eat us and lay their eggs in our chest cavities; penumbra area Kanamits who want to fatten us up like cows and eat us; those lizard creatures from the eighties miniseries V who want to harvest us for food. (You may be detecting a topic here.)
But the most frightening sight is not at all an alien being, but a computer program.
In the 1961 science fiction drama A by Andromeda, written by British cosmologist Fred Hoyle, a group of scientists using a radio telescope receive a signal originating from the Andromeda Nebula in outer space. They realize that the message contains blueprints for the development of a very advanced computer generated by a living organism called Andromeda.
Andromeda is quickly co-opted by the military for her technological skills, but scientists discover that her true purpose, and that of the computer and the original signal of space, is to subdue humanity and pave the way for alien colonization. .
Nobody eats A by Andromeda, but it is creepy precisely because it outlines a scenario that some scientists believe could pose a real existential threat from outer space, which takes advantage of the same curiosity that leads us to look at the stars. If very advanced aliens wanted to conquer Earth, the most effective way would probably not be through fleets of warships crossing the stellar immensity. It would be through information that could be sent much faster. Call it “cosmic malware.”
To talk seriously about the possibility of alien life is to embark on an unexplored sea of hypotheses. Personally, I find myself at the end of Agent Scully’s spectrum of alien believers. The revelation of intelligent aliens would be an extraordinary event, and as SETI pioneer Carl Sagan himself put it, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”
The smart aliens who also want to hack our planet would be even more extraordinary. But that scenario became a little easier to imagine this week.
A state-backed China-based Science and Technology Daily reported on Wednesday that the country’s giant Sky Eye radio telescope had picked up unusual signals from space. According to the piece, which quoted the head of an extraterrestrial civilization research team that was launched in China in 2020, the narrowband electromagnetic signals detected by the telescope differed from previous signals and were in the process of investigation.
Apparently, the story was deleted from the Internet for unknown reasons, though not before being picked up by other outlets. At this point it is difficult to know what to do, if any, about the story or its disappearance. It would not be the first time an extraterrestrial research team had found a signal that seemed remarkable, only to rule it out after further investigation. But the news recalls that there is little clear agreement on how the world should handle an authenticated message from an apparent alien civilization, or whether it can even be done with certainty.
Despite all the recent interest in UFO sightings, including the startling announcement by NASA last week that it would launch a study team to investigate what it calls “unidentified aerial phenomena,” the possibility of aliens physically visiting the UFO. Earth is very small. The reason is simple: the space is big. Like, very, very, very big. And the idea that after decades of unsuccessful ET research, there could be alien civilizations capable of crossing interstellar distances and appearing in our belief in planetary beggars.
But transmitting gigabytes of data over these large interstellar distances would be relatively easy. After all, humans have been making a variation of this for decades through what is known as active messaging.
In 1974, astronomer Frank Drake used the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico to launch 168 seconds of two-tone sound into the M13 star system. It sounded like noise, but any alien who listened could have noticed a clear, repetitive structure indicating that its origin was unnatural, precisely the kind of signal that radio telescopes like China’s Sky Eye are hearing here on Earth.
These active messaging efforts were controversial from the start. Beyond the debate over who should decide exactly on behalf of Earth when we try to say “hello” to aliens and what that message should be, conveying our existence and location to unknown inhabitants of the cosmos could be inherently dangerous.
“For all we know,” wrote then-astronomer Royal Martin Ryle shortly after Arecibo’s message, “any creature out there can be malevolent and hungry.”
These concerns have not put an end to efforts to actively indicate that alien civilizations are “very likely to be older and more technologically advanced than us,” as Sigal Samuel wrote in a 2019 story about a multimedia contest to update the message. of Arecibo. . But we shouldn’t be so sure that just silently listening to messages from space is a safer method of extraterrestrial discovery.
In a 2012 article, Russian transhumanist Alexey Turchin described what he called “global catastrophic risks of finding an extraterrestrial AI message” during the search for intelligent life. The scenario unfolds in a similar way to the plot of A for Andromeda. An alien civilization creates a signal signal in space of clearly unnatural origin that catches our attention. A nearby radio transmitter sends a message containing instructions on how to build an impossibly advanced computer that could create an alien AI.
The result is a cosmic-scale fishing attempt. Like a malicious software attack that takes over a user’s computer, the advanced alien AI could quickly take over Earth’s infrastructure, and us with it. (Others in the wider existential risk community have raised similar concerns that hostile aliens might target us with malicious information).
What can we do to protect ourselves? Well, we could just choose no to build the alien computer. But Turchin assumes that the message would also contain “bait” in the form of promises that the computer could, for example, solve our biggest existential challenges or provide unlimited power to those who control it.
Geopolitics would also play a role. Just as international competition has led nations in the past to adopt dangerous technologies, such as nuclear weapons, for fear that their opponents will do so first, the same could happen again if they receive a message from the ‘space. How confident would Washington policymakers be that China would handle this signal safely if it received it first, or vice versa?
As existential risks pass, cosmic malware does not compare to uncontrolled climate change or designed pandemics. Someone or something should be out there to send this malicious message, and the more exoplanets we discover that could support life in a plausible way, the weirder it is that we have not yet seen any concrete evidence of this life.
One day in 1950, at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, physicist Enrico Fermi asked his lunch mates a question. Given the large size and age of the universe, which should have allowed a lot of space and time for alien life to arise, why haven’t we seen them? In other words, “Where’s everyone?”
Scientists have posed dozens of answers to his question, which became known as the “Fermi paradox.” But perhaps the correct answer is the simplest: no one is home. It would be a lonely answer, but at least it would be safe.
A version of this story was originally published in the Future Perfect newsletter. Sign up here to subscribe!