A radio telescope in China has reportedly detected a possible extraterrestrial signal

People have invented a fraudulent gallery of nightmarish fictional aliens over the decades: xenomorphs with acidic blood who want to eat us and lay their eggs in our breast cavities; twilight zone Kanamitz who want to fatten us like cows and eat us; these lizard creatures in the miniseries of the 1980s V who want to take us home for food. (You may feel the theme here.)

But the scariest vision is not an alien creature at all – it’s a computer program.

In the 1961 science fiction drama And for Andromeda, written by British cosmologist Fred Hoyle, a group of scientists operating a radio telescope receive a signal from the Andromeda Nebula in space. They realize that the message contains drawings for the development of an extremely advanced computer that generates a living organism called Andromeda.

Andromeda was quickly co-opted by the military for its technological skills, but scientists found that its real purpose – both that of the computer and the original signal from space – was to conquer humanity and pave the way for alien colonization.

Nobody eats And for Andromeda, but it is chilling precisely because it outlines a scenario that some scientists say could pose a real existential threat from space, which takes advantage of the very curiosity that makes us look at the stars. If highly advanced aliens really wanted to conquer Earth, the most effective way would probably not be through fleets of warships traversing stellar vastness. This will be through information that can be sent much faster. Call it “space malware.”

Call ET

To seriously consider the possibility of extraterrestrial life means to embark on an unexplored sea of ​​hypotheses. Personally, I come across Agent Scully end of the alien belief spectrum. The discovery of intelligent aliens would be an extraordinary event, and as SETI pioneer Carl Sagan himself he said once“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

Intelligent aliens who also want to hack our planet would be even more extraordinary. But this scenario has become a little easier to present this week.

An article published in China’s state-run Science and Technology Daily on Wednesday reported that the country’s giant Sky Eye radio telescope had captured unusual signals from space. According to the article, which cites the head of a team to search for an alien civilization launched in China in 2020, the narrowband electromagnetic signals detected by the telescope are different from previous signals and are under investigation.

The story was apparently deleted from the Internet for unknown reasons, but not before taken from other retail outlets. At this point, it is difficult to understand what, if anything, should be done about history or its disappearance. It won’t be the first time an alien search team has found a signal that looks remarkable just for reject it after further study. But the news reminds us that there are few ways to clearly agree on how the world should deal with an authentic message from an obvious alien civilization, or whether it can even be done safely.

For everyone recent interest in UFO sightings – including NASA surprising message last week that it will launch a research team to investigate what it calls “Unidentified aerial phenomena” – The chance of aliens physically visiting Earth is vanishingly small. The reason is simple: the space is large. Like, really, really, really big. And the idea that after decades of unsuccessful alien searches, there may be alien civilizations capable of crossing interstellar distances and appearing on our doorstep does not believe.

But transmitting gigabytes of data over these vast interstellar distances would be relatively easy. After all, human beings have been making variations on this for decades through what are known as active messages.

In 1974, astronomer Frank Drake uses the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico to fire 168 seconds of two-tone sound to the M13 star system. It sounded like noise, but every alien who listened could see a clear, repetitive structure that indicated its origin was unnatural – just the kind of signal that radio telescopes like the Chinese Sky Eye listen here on Earth.

Such active communication efforts have been controversial from the outset. Beyond the debate over who exactly should decide on behalf of the Earth when we try to say hello to aliens and what that message should be, the transmission of our existence and the location of unknown spacecraft may be inherent. dangerous.

“As far as we know,” wrote the then royal astronomer Martin Ryle, shortly after Arecibo’s message, “every creature there can be malicious – and hungry.”

These fears have not put an end to efforts to actively signal extraterrestrial civilizations that are “very likely to be older and more technologically advanced than us,” as Seagal Samuel wrote in 2019 a story about a crowdsourcing competition to update the Arecibo announcement. But we don’t have to be so sure that just quietly listening to messages from space is a safer method of finding aliens.

Space malware

IN paper 2012, Russian transhumanist Alexei Turchin described what he called “global catastrophic risks of finding an alien AI message” while searching for intelligent life. The script unfolds similar to A’s plot of Andromeda. An alien civilization creates a beacon in space of obviously unnatural origin that attracts our attention. A nearby radio transmitter sends a message with instructions on how to create an impossibly advanced computer that can create an alien AI.

The result is an attempt at phishing on a space scale. Just like a malware attack that takes over a user’s computer, advanced alien AI can quickly take over the Earth’s infrastructure – and us with it. (Others in the wider existential risk community have raised similar concerns that hostile aliens can direct us with malicious information.)

What can we do to protect ourselves? Well, we could just choose swimming to build an alien computer. But Turchin suggests that the message will also contain “bait” in the form of promises that the computer can, for example, solve our greatest existential challenges or give unlimited power to those who control it.

Geopolitics will 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 adversaries will do so first, the same may happen again in the event of a space message. How confident would Washington politicians be that China would be safe to deal with such a signal if it received it first – or vice versa?

Because there are existential risks, space malware cannot be compared to uncontrollable climate change or constructed pandemics. Someone or something should be there to send this malicious message, and the more exoplanets we find that could sustain life, the stranger it is that we haven’t seen any concrete evidence of this life yet.

One day in 1950, at the National Laboratory in Los Alamos, physicist Enrico Fermi ask a question to their companions for lunch. Given the vast size and age of the universe, which had to allow a lot of space and time for extraterrestrial life to occur, why haven’t we seen them? In other words, “Where is everyone?”

Scientists claim dozens of answers to his question, which became known as “Fermi’s 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 bulletin. Register here to subscribe!

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