Thursday, April 23, 2015

Giving It All Away?

by James and John Gaines

     A recent op ed article in Popular Science discussed the advisability of trying to communicate proactively with intelligent aliens.  It gave prominence to Stephen Hawking's warning that broadcasts may attract dangerous attention to the planet,making it a target for nomadic alien intellects that would treat our world as nothing more than a disposable resource.  But then it went on to suggest that perhaps such "Here I am!" messages might be justified on grounds that give cause for doubt to any skeptical mind.

      Just as specious is the purportedly practical argument that intelligent contact would allow us a shortcut to solving our planet's foremost problems: disease, starvation, traffic jams, pollution, or the difficulty of making a good hollandaise.  Why should we assume that an alien intelligence would be interested in alleviating these woes?  Would aliens not object that most of these are problems that we could certainly address, if not completely dispel, ourselves.  Our own planet's historical record provides ample proof that a "civilized" culture does not race to solve the perceived problems of a "primitive" culture, but rather to address its own, and to impose conditions on the primitives that generally exacerbate rather than ameliorate their general state of being.  To put it one way, the might only help us with the hollandaise in order to see if we tasted good in it.  

      One underlying rationale for such messages is that we should do it simply because we can.  Even in the relatively closed system of life on Earth, the ethical bases of the assumption are questionable. Most consequences of human action within our atmospheric bubble are fairly well known, or at least predictable.  This has not prevented our philosophies from constructing elaborate systems of checks and balances to restrain actions undertaken on no better justification than because it is physically possible to do.  The consequences of human actions in a cosmic environment, where there are literally no limits to the dimensions of activity and no baselines for establishing predictable reactions, are far more daunting.  This is not to say that we humans should contradict our own natural and eventually unavoidable curiosity.  Yet it does reinforce the necessity for careful reflection on any actions outside our planetary sphere, even when actions may seem benign or "natural."
     The article in question goes on to offer several "safe" ways that communication may be undertaken, ranging from setting off a kind of colossal laser fireworks display to broadcasting the entire Internet into outer space.  The latter possibility could lead to some amazingly negative outcomes that make one wonder how it could be proposed in the first place.  The article's major justification seems to be that it would allow for easy translation because it would make available such a huge sample of material.  Therein lies a problem.  It would not be just a sample, but an effective (though not permanent) totality.  

     A first question to be asked: do we really want the rest of the universe to know how stupid we are?  So much of Internet communication consists of porno, reports on lethal military and criminal adventures, or simply insipid Facebook posts and chats!  Might not a true interplanetary intelligence legitimately conclude that our race is merely insane or too undependable to work with?  There is such a thing as knowing too much that you really don't want to know.  

       A second question: is it really a good idea to tell a potential partner EVERYTHING?  The Internet includes our planet's entire economy, its defensive systems, its most vital needs, its biological secrets, and the accurate location and importance of every man, woman, and child, as well as most of our fellow inhabitants.  Can we assume that an alien intelligence is just some Daddy Warbucks eager to please our every whim, and not a collection of beings with its own agenda that may or may not include us?  To broadcast even an unsifted compendium of our knowledge or communication into space would be tantamount to giving out all one's bank accounts, one's tax returns, one's family history, one's criminal record, and one's most embarrassing moments to a potential blind date. Furthermore, in this case, we would not even know if the "other" was remotely like us or what it meant by a date.  I propose that if we do communicate, maybe it should be more in the nature of a mathematical "speed date" -- an encounter where we could gain some knowledge about what we might be dealing with, without giving away more information than we are comfortable with.  As one contemporary commercial states, "Like comes before love.  Like is good."