Over the decades, humans have invented a renegade gallery of nightmarish fictional aliens: acid blood xenomorphs who want to eat us and lay eggs in our breast cavities; Twilight Zone Kanamits who want to fatten us up like cows and eat us; one lizard creatures in the 1980s miniseries V who want to pick us up for food. (You may feel the theme here.)
But the scariest vision is not an alien being at all – it is a computer program.
In a science fiction drama from 1961 And for Andromeda, written by British cosmologist Fred Hoyle, a group of scientists who operate a radio telescope receive a signal coming from the Andromeda nebula in space. They realize that the message contains blueprints for the development of a very advanced computer that generates a living organism called Andromeda.
Andromeda is quickly co-opted by the military for its technological skills, but scientists discover that its real purpose – both that of a computer and an original signal from space – is to conquer humanity and pave the way for alien colonization.
Nobody eats And for Andromeda, but it is frightening precisely because it outlines a scenario that some scientists believe could pose a real existential threat from space, one that takes advantage of the very curiosity that leads us to look at the stars. If highly advanced aliens really wanted to conquer Earth, the most efficient way would probably not be through fleets of warships crossing stellar space. This would be through information that could be sent much faster. Call it “space malware.”
Seriously discussing the possibility of extraterrestrial life means embarking on an unknown sea of hypotheses. Personally, I fall for Agent Scully the end of the alien spectrum. Discovering intelligent aliens would be a remarkable event, and as SETI pioneer Carl Sagan once said“Extraordinary allegations require extraordinary evidence.”
Intelligent aliens who also want to hack our planet would be even more unusual. But this scenario has become a little easier to imagine this week.
On Wednesday, a story was published in the Chinese state journal Science and Technology Daily that a giant radio telescope in the land of Sky Eye had captured unusual signals from space. According to the article, which quotes the head of the team for the search for extraterrestrial civilizations, which was launched in China in 2020, the narrowband electromagnetic signals detected by the telescope differed from previous signals and were in the process of research.
The story was apparently deleted from the internet for unknown reasons, but not before picked up other outlets. At this point, it is difficult to know what, if nothing else, to do about the story or its disappearance. It wouldn’t be the first time an alien search team has found a signal that seemed significant, just yes discard it after further research. But this news is a reminder that there is little in the way of a clear agreement on how the world should deal with the authentic message of an apparent alien civilization, or whether it can be done safely at all.
For all recent interest in UFO sightings – including NASA surprising announcement last week that he will launch a study team to investigate what he calls “unidentified aerial phenomena” – The chance that aliens will physically visit Earth is completely small. The reason is simple: the space is large. Like, really, really, really big. And the idea that after decades of unsuccessful searches for aliens, there could be alien civilizations capable of crossing interstellar distances and appearing on our planetary doorstep is unbelievable.
But transferring gigabytes of data to those vast interstellar distances would be relatively easy. After all, human beings have been doing 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 emit 168 seconds of two-tone sound according to the M13 star system. It sounded like noise, but all the aliens listening could notice a clear repetitive structure indicating that its origin was not natural – just the kind of signal that radio telescopes like the Chinese Sky Eye they listen here on Earth.
Such active messaging has been controversial from the outset. Apart from the debate about who exactly should decide on behalf of the Earth when we try to say “hello” to aliens and what that message should be, passing on our existence and location to unknown inhabitants of space could be dangerous.
“From everything we know” wrote the then royal astronomer Martin Ryle shortly after the message from Arecibo, “every creature there could be malicious – and hungry.”
That concern has not ended efforts to actively signal to alien civilizations that are “very likely to be older and more technologically advanced than us,” as Sigal Samuel said. wrote in 2019 the story of a competition to update the Arecibo message. But we shouldn’t be so sure that simply quietly listening to messages from space is a safer method of detecting aliens.
U Work from 2012, Russian transhumanist Alexei Turchin described what he called “the global catastrophic risks of finding an alien message of artificial intelligence” during the search for intelligent life. The scenario is similar to plot A for Andromeda. Alien civilization is creating a beacon in space of apparently unnatural origin that is attracting our attention. A nearby radio transmitter sends a message containing instructions on how to make an incredibly advanced computer that could create extraterrestrial artificial intelligence.
The result is an attempt at phishing on a cosmic scale. Just like an attack by malware that takes over a user’s computer, advanced alien artificial intelligence could quickly take over the Earth’s infrastructure – and us with it. (Others in the wider community of existential risk have caused similar concerns so that hostile aliens can target us with malicious information.)
What can we do to protect ourselves? Well, we could just choose no to make an alien computer. But the Turk assumes that the message would also contain “bait” in the form of a promise that the computer could, for example, solve our greatest 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 be repeated in the case of a message from space. How convinced would Washington policymakers be that China would respond safely to such a signal if it received it first – or vice versa?
As existential risks pass, space malware cannot be compared to uncontrolled climate change or pandemics. Someone or something should be there to send that malicious message, and the more exoplanets we discover that could credibly support life, the weirder it is that we have yet to see any concrete evidence of that life.
One day in 1950, at the National Laboratory in Los Alamos, physicist Enrico Fermi asked a question to his companions for lunch. Given the enormous size and age of the universe, which was supposed to provide plenty of space and time for the emergence of extraterrestrial life, why didn’t we see them? In other words, “Where’s everybody?”
Scientists have argued dozens of answers to his question, which became known as “Fermi paradox. ” But perhaps the right answer is the simplest: No one is home. It would be a lone answer, but at least he would be sure.
A version of this story was originally published in the bulletin Future Perfect. Sign up here to subscribe!