Monday, October 05, 2015

The Extraterrestrial Paradigm

When humanity began mindfully observing patterns during our development, it was only natural to one night look up at the sparkling sky and dream up constellations. It's not far-fetched to think that the stars shaped our lives according to when and where they appeared, and what we thought of them. Trying to solve the meaning of life, we brewed many inquiries about the nature of what may spread far above the deep azure. For many of those we discovered solutions and thus achieved progress; yet there are a few we never got around figuring out. Belonging to the latter category, one of our greatest unanswered questions can be paraphrased in many ways: are we on this planet, as a semi-conscious group, alone in the Universe? Are there other species in outer space, who pose Themselves with the same intrigue? Is life common throughout the Cosmos?

Given the recent discovery on Mars, we might find (traces of) life on the Red Planet. What mostly interests the common human, however, is not mere life that is outside of our planetary ecosystem, but life that has organized itself into some form of civilization or a comparable structure of sentience. A contact with such being(s) would prove to be one of the, if not the, most important events to take place in humanity's history.

The father of nuclear power, Enrico Fermi, had proposed His famous question "Where is everybody?", which gave birth to the famed Fermi Paradox. In short, this apparent paradox questions the puzzling clash of the relatively high likelihood of interstellar contact between developed beings, with the fact that we haven't experienced such a contact. Some decade later Frank Drake, a pioneer in extraterrestrial life research, came up with the Drake Equation, a probabilistic formula for estimating the number of other intelligent life capable of interstellar communication within the Milky Way. Its usefulness had been criticized many times over, although if it has at least some validity, then there should be at least two other such civilizations in our galaxy, regarding the latest estimates (valid during the time of writing this blog post).

So far we haven't noticed anyone. My expectation is that meeting any kind of intelligent extraterrestrial life with our current and estimated future capabilities is left to a pure twist of fate, since the scale of different barriers leaves us stranded between passion and unlikelihood. Some readers might find this post biased because of this conviction of mine – however I do assure You that it comes from the most eager of attempts in understanding the topic as much as an enthusiast can. To counter the effects of my doubt, I'm also presenting views that speak in favor of interstellar contact. In-depth descriptions of the most popular and related topics have been written by many other thinkers, so I encourage You, Reader, to broaden Your knowledge by bravely searching the vast Web. Furthermore, in this post I'm avoiding anything that might resemble conspiracy or any similar sighting theories. I am in strong disbelief towards such topics, but I'm in no position to fruitlessly argue against them, so let's just leave them at this.

The Confines on Imagination

Let's begin with the obvious fact that we only assume a lot about the Universe. We have no actual understanding about its prodigious actuality, and what lies across its vastness.

We invest a lot of faith in the idea that space alien life form(s) should be by any means comparable to what we can observe on earth − an attitude which projects Their supposed appearance, functioning, behavior and, usually, use of (computing) technology. This terra-centrism is being scientifically justified, and space alien morphology is regularly compared to our own earth-like organic composition (or its derivative, the appointed technological-life design). The more visionary scientist-artists like Joel Hagen, David Aguilar and Lee Giles seem to leave the semi-conventional evolutionary morphology, although Their expressive creatures are still inspired by how we understand evolution on Earth within its conditions. Scientifically this sentiment definitely makes sense; I'm not here to dispute the effectiveness of such reasoning. It is, in the end, as plausible as anything. There is even a scientific proposition which exchanges the recently theorized dark-matter with consciousness of stars! As a more exploratory approach, there is a dedicated branch of science, dubbed exobiology, which is concerned with life among the stars, and the effects of extraterrestrial surroundings on life as we know it.

If, for a few minutes we allow ourselves to think about the sometimes weird (living) phenomena we can observe on Earth, today and in the distant past (i.e. remains from prehistory), how wild could we allow our fantasies to go while thinking of life beyond the sky? Maybe we are already looking at Them, and They back to us, but we simply cannot decipher each other as equals in the ability to intellectively respond.

extraterrestrial space alien civilization conversation observing earth
“Yo, vkRer, here's the formation the algorithm threw out. What do we think, is it finally a clue that our consciousness is not unique?”
“Nah, iiJuc, that is but a regular fractal pattern, just like the rest in our useless database. The algorithm is useless.”

Challenges of Contextual Communication

If we eventually meet undeniably sentient space aliens, it's possible that we hit an insurmountable obstacle: we might be so different, that any attempts in bridging communication barriers would prove to be a futile attempt. This is, of course, the exaggeration of the worst case scenario in trans-cognizant communication.

Think about how different the communication systems of different animals on Earth are and the challenges these distinctions pose. A group of renowned people is already addressing our domestic issues with a project named The Interspecies Internet. One of its founders, internet pioneer Vint Cerf, also stated the following about the initiative:

“These interactions with other animals will teach us, ultimately, how we might interact with an alien from another world.”
~ Vint Cerf

We humans, think in a peculiar way. Our knowledge is memorial and symbolic (or at least, that's the best emulation we have of it). The way we understand the Universe is based on the way we perceive it through senses specific to humans. Unlocking an extraterrestrial communication system that is completely different than ours will be a challenge for both sides. Their "bodies" and "brains" are probably built differently. The might not think in conceptualized symbols.

This reminds me of this great retrogame Captain Blood which adopts the assumption that all intelligent life operates on bases that are similar to our own. The main interface of the game works on concept-based icons. The player has to use these concepts to first understand the logic of space aliens, and then communicate in a way which makes bilateral sense. This endeavor is already challenging in the form of a game. (If any fans are reading this, there is hopefully a remake on the way.)

Speaking of logic and language... Dr. Hans Freudenthal constructed the Lingua Cosmica — a language designed for sending interstellar radio messages. Alexander Ollongren improved Lincos with the use of intuitionistic logic. As He describes in His book Astrolinguistics, logic could be our best shot at initiating a trans-cognizant chat. He took good care of detaching the core of His work from human arbitrariness:

“Designers of sizable interstellar messages might easily be faced with the problem of how to deal with existential aspects as they occur in our 'knowledge of the world'. Surely topics to be described should exist, but in what sense? Scenes described in poetry 'exist' in a completely different way than descriptions of happenings in a historical survey. Whatever formal system is utilized to express aspects of human societies, it should be able to handle existence and representations of it in a logical sense. De facto the concept is explicitly predicatively used in . . . various aspects of Lingua Cosmica. One purpose . . . is to demonstrate how existence, regarded as a kind of impredicative certainty, can be embedded in Lingua Cosmica.”
~ Alexander Ollongren

Working with messages that were built with the very intention of making them understandable seems to be a way easier effort than deciphering possible "written" remnants of some ancient space-faring civilization. Without an alternative to Rosetta Stone, we would be clueless, just as we were with the hieroglyphs – unless we talk about mathematics.

The most concise description of mathematics I came across is that it is a language based on the universe itself. As such, it is much more easily translatable. There are two difficulties when wanting to find common ground for different mathematical philosophies, which might be used by other advanced civilizations: the logic of models and numerical systems. As long as the supposed space aliens share similar bodily senses (most importantly vision), this shouldn't pose an insurmountable difficulty, as it can be also seen on the photos of the Voyager Golden Record.

As NASA scientist Douglas Vakoch points out, mathematics are not necessarily symbols or images:

“At least as early as the Pythagoreans of ancient Greece, who noted the mathematical relationship between the length of strings and the tones that are produced when they are plucked, humans have been aware of the connection between mathematics and music.
. . .
Even if extraterrestrials do not have a sense of hearing, if they can construct radio telescopes they should be familiar with concepts of frequency, duration, and amplitude that also characterize music.”
~ Douglas Vakoch

In the end, the possibilities for countering potential challenges might be narrowed only by the lack of will. Creative intelligence itself should prove to be the surest bridging for would-be, interstellar communicating efforts. Sadly, that is the least of our problems.

The Frontiers of Tangible Reality

The properties of the physical Universe might be marginalizing our contact craving efforts. We do know that the cosmos is so unfathomably enormous, and that useful information itself needs extensive time to travel (anything faster is restricted to small data and distances, for now), let alone anything more corporeal. Even if we managed to achieve some kind of propulsion that would enable us to travel at the speed of light, we would be extremely limited. We would hardly ever leave our neighboring stars. Faster-than-light movement (like the proposed warp-drive – technology contracting space in front of a vehicle and expanding it behind) of any kind is highly uncertain at this point, leaving the boundary in technologically achievable velocity of movement to be under the speed of light. Actually, considering the way our understandings stand today, we might never leave the galactic cluster we reside in even if we come up with more exotic technology, due to the ever-expanding void(s) between the clusters. Unless we find means of instantaneous travel, that is.

It is also highly plausible that our scientific development is still in need of quite a few steps in order to be able to interlink with highly intricate communication events. Any bubbles of information we might be able to intercept are likely to be limited to us both time-wise (once it passes its gone) and encryption-wise. As the well-known Edward Snowden puts it:

“When we think about everything that we're hearing through our satellites or everything that they're hearing from our civilization, if there are indeed aliens out there, all of their communications are encrypted by default. So, what we are hearing, that's actually an alien television show, . . . a phone call, or a . . . message between their planet and their own GPS constellation – whatever it happens to be, – is indistinguishable to us from cosmic microwave background radiation.”
~ Edward Snowden

Or, there just might be an upper limit to what we can achieve technologically. We can only wait to see whether we can draw far enough with our technology in order to reach out to deep-space species who could recognize us. In contrast, a space alien culture might be scientifically underdeveloped compared to us. They could be oblivious to the Universe's true(r) features, just as we were until the late 16th century, when we believed in the geocentric model.

We have come far since then, and we have achieved promising developments both technologically and methodologically. Lately there have been scientific investigations based on the Kardashev Scale, which is a hypothetical method of measuring a civilization's technological advancement based on its total energy utilization. Although these investigations found nothing, there are more to come. Maybe we are basing too much on the speculations of the mentioned and widely accepted scale, which is commonsensically based on our knowledge in physics. Earth might be a pioneer among celestial bodies with its environment that supports consciousness. Or, perhaps, after figuring out the theory of everything or reaching a singularity, transcendence is the actual form of progression. Indeed, the list of probabilities is very broad.

Then there is our economy-driven society. Unless we find a source of free energy, the financial support necessary for credible efforts in space technology is darn hard to acquire. If we don't manage to find ways of cost- and resource-effective manned transport that could achieve (or surpass the limits of) ultimate speed, our chances of finding intelligent life in space are wretched. If such is our case, and if some thousands of years into the future people do happen to meet space aliens, there will be only a selected few of our species to actually know about it. Moreover, unless we leave it up to evolutionary adaptation (which would last generations in the least), before any long-term journeys off of Earth, we also have to get around solving the problem of physiological changes in the human body that occur during space travel (perhaps circumventable via genetic engineering).

Not everyone shares such a grim prospect, of course. Many well educated people are convinced that humanity will much sooner than later discover means to proficiently travel beyond our planet's premises. Impressive efforts are being made in order to discover life in outer space. Most prominently we have the SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) enterprise, which includes METI (Messaging to Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) and other related fields of activity with similar acronyms. The forecasts in the advancements of relevant technology definitely look promising, especially those still in the domain of sci-fi.

A group of prominent scientists and entrepreneurs recently pledged to kick off an unprecedented search effort for extraterrestrial intelligence, with all of its data publicly available to boost the analytics. Other innovative technologies, like Project Dragonfly, are all proof that we are intrinsically and very enthusiastic about exploration, just as Star Trek reflects.

type three two one civilization
Let the ether form from Your ambitious storm.

First Contact

So what if we do find extraterrestrial life? Beside the well based arguments from the astronomic community, there is science-fiction. I'm a fan of it, mainly in the form of literature. The genre's fantastic technologies, if actually developed, would ease the spread of our species across the universe. The space alien topic has been the subject of such inventive speculations that it's not far-fetched to imagine that we will, in a way, be prepared for a first contact. Most of us have an opinion on what should be done if (the probability of) contact emerges. Naturally, there are professional debates and protocols conducted as well. There is the Rio scale for calculating the importance of detected uncharacteristic signals of potential space-alien origin. You can play around with the calculator to see the importance of fictitious signals from Your favorite novels and movies. It also has a counterpart, the San Marino Scale, a tool for quantifying the informational value of messages sent from Earth. It's useful to think about the question: "what types of messages should we send, and why?"

Loving sci-fi, I could go on and on with ways of interacting with, and the imagined levels of development and motives of extraterrestrial civilizations, so let's rather just proceed with the idea that contact and eventual bonding with an advanced and benevolent civilization will happen. That's some positive jetsoning right there. >:3

Whatever the nature of the contacted life-form(s) might be, the impact on our society at large is certain. The cultural, political, social, theological and scientific changes due to a paradigm shift which would follow have been theorized repeatedly. Among all the aspects of our lives that will be affected, fiction is my main concern here. Will novels written before first contact hold their belief value for the future generations? Or will they merely serve as a great insight into the pre-contact era, but will be hard to relate to? All our basic assumptions about reality would significantly alter, making it hard to imagine everyday concepts from prior the change. Even fiction could become less believable if basic assumptions about living are not present in it.

Let's think about the emergence of the World Wide Web: the freshest of generations are growing in a World where the element of the internet is omnipresent. It is here, as a part of nature. Those of us who had the chance to see the World before the well developed (and still developing!) cyberspace, can still remember how it was before any information was just a swipe away. Already we have to imagine historical novels by removing certain variables from the paradigm of the characters. Their reality, which definitely had its time, is something we can only wonder about. Try to think through the magnitude of having another sentient race mingle with our own. The whole perception of norms would profoundly alter. If we take the mentioned domain of sci-fi, novels with humans interacting with other types of imaginative beings wouldn't seem as plausible as they are now.

Or will they? Under the weight of current evidence, we might never know. I mentioned in one of my previous posts how our craving for interstellar companionship might not be more than mere escapism from responsibility. Who knows, we might be the ones who have the privileged duty to seed the universe with ever-evolving life.

If You are interested in the topic, I suggest further reading:

Contact with Alien Civilizations written by Michael A.G. Michaud, which explores the intricacies of contacting with space aliens;

Archaeology, Anthropology, and Interstellar Communication edited by Douglas A. Vakoch, which draws from the accumulated experience of the titular sciences to better conduct possible contact;

also written by Douglas A. Vakoch, Extraterrestrial Altruism, a contemplation about the probability of benevolent ethics as a natural outcome in highly developed societies;

and The Search for Extraterrestrials written by Monte Ross, an intricate consideration of SETI efforts.

What do You think, dear Reader? Will we contact extraterrestrial life during our lifetimes, or ever? How will we experience Them, and how will They understand us? How will we communicate? Leave Your opinion below.

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