Saturday, July 8, 2017

Wisdom Of The Week

The METI group aims to improve on the Arecibo message not just by targeting specific planets, like that super-earth orbiting Gliese, but also by rethinking the nature of the message itself. ‘‘Drake’s original design plays into the bias that vision is universal among intelligent life,’’ Vakoch told me. Visual diagrams — whether formed through semiprime grids or engraved on plaques — seem like a compelling way to encode information to us because humans happen to have evolved an unusually acute sense of vision. But perhaps the aliens followed a different evolutionary path and found their way to a technologically advanced civilization with an intelligence that was rooted in some other sense: hearing, for example, or some other way of perceiving the world around them for which there is no earthly equivalent.

Like so much of the SETI/METI debate, the question of visual messaging quickly spirals out into a deeper meditation, in this instance on the connection between intelligence and visual acuity. It is no accident that eyes developed independently so many times over the course of evolution on Earth, given the fact that light conveys information faster than any other conduit. That transmission-speed advantage would presumably apply on other planets in the Goldilocks zone, even if they happened to be on the other side of the Milky Way, and so it seems plausible that intelligent creatures would evolve some sort of visual system as well.

But even more universal than sight would be the experience of time. Hans Freudenthal’s ‘‘Lincos: Design of a Language for Cosmic Intercourse,’’ a seminal book of exosemiotics published more than a half-century ago, relied heavily on temporal cues in its primer stage. Vakoch and his collaborators have been working with Freudenthal’s language in their early drafts for the message. In Lincos, duration is used as a key building block. A pulse that lasts for a certain stretch (say, in human terms, one second) is followed by a sequence of pulses that signify the ‘‘word’’ for one; a pulse that lasts for six seconds is followed by the word for six. The words for basic math properties can be conveyed by combining pulses of different lengths. You might demonstrate the property of addition by sending the word for ‘‘three’’ and ‘‘six’’ and then sending a pulse that lasts for nine seconds. ‘‘It’s a way of being able to point at objects when you don’t have anything right in front of you,’’ Vakoch explains.


All of which takes us back to a much more down-to-earth, but no less challenging, question: Who gets to decide? After many years of debate, the SETI community established an agreed-­upon procedure that scientists and government agencies should follow in the event that the SETI searches actually stumble upon an intelligible signal from space. The protocols specifically ordain that ‘‘no response to a signal or other evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence should be sent until appropriate international consultations have taken place.’’ But an equivalent set of guidelines does not yet exist to govern our own interstellar outreach.

One of the most thoughtful participants in the METI debate, Kathryn Denning, an anthropologist at York University in Toronto, has argued that our decisions about extraterrestrial contact are ultimately more political than scientific. ‘‘If I had to take a position, I’d say that broad consultation regarding METI is essential, and so I greatly respect the efforts in that direction,’’ Denning says. ‘‘But no matter how much consultation there is, it’s inevitable that there will be significant disagreement about the advisability of transmitting, and I don’t think this is the sort of thing where a simple majority vote or even supermajority should carry the day . . . so this keeps bringing us back to the same key question: Is it O.K. for some people to transmit messages at significant power when other people don’t want them to?’’

In a sense, the METI debate runs parallel to other existential decisions that we will be confronting in the coming decades, as our technological and scientific powers increase. Should we create superintelligent machines that exceed our own intellectual capabilities by such a wide margin that we cease to understand how their intelligence works? Should we ‘‘cure’’ death, as many technologists are proposing? Like METI, these are potentially among the most momentous decisions human beings will ever make, and yet the number of people actively participating in those decisions — or even aware such decisions are being made — is minuscule.

‘‘I think we need to rethink the message process so that we are sending a series of increasingly inclusive messages,’’ Vakoch says. ‘‘Any message that we initially send would be too narrow, too incomplete. But that’s O.K. Instead, what we should be doing is thinking about how to make the next round of messages better and more inclusive. We ideally want a way to incorporate both technical expertise — people who have been thinking about these issues from a range of different disciplines — and also getting lay input. I think it’s often been one or the other. One way we can get lay input in a way that makes a difference in terms of message content is to survey people about what sorts of things they would want to say. It’s important to see what the general themes are that people would want to say and then translate those into a Lincos-like message.’’

When I asked Denning where she stands on the METI issue, she told me: ‘‘I have to answer that question with a question: Why are you asking me? Why should my opinion matter more than that of a 6-year-old girl in Namibia? We both have exactly the same amount at stake, arguably, she more than I, since the odds of being dead before any consequences of transmission occur are probably a bit higher for me, assuming she has access to clean water and decent health care and isn’t killed far too young in war.’’ She continued: ‘‘I think the METI debate may be one of those rare topics where scientific knowledge is highly relevant to the discussion, but its connection to obvious policy is tenuous at best, because in the final analysis, it’s all about how much risk the people of Earth are willing to tolerate. . . . And why exactly should astronomers, cosmologists, physicists, anthropologists, psychologists, sociologists, biologists, sci-fi authors or anyone else (in no particular order), get to decide what those tolerances should be?’’

- Greetings, E.T. (Please Don’t Murder Us.) by Steven Johnson

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