Seth Shostak From SETI: We WILL Find Aliens In Space

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Seth Shostak busy at work...

Seth Shostak, Senior Astronomer at the SETI Institute, has been patiently waiting by his computer for over two decades now, anticipating the day when some sign of Extraterrestrial Intelligence pops up on his radar screen. It’s been a fairly quiet job so far, but Shostak visited Singularity University on Monday with an optimistic perspective about SETI’s prospects for the near future. With at least 10^22 stars in a universe that has been around for 14+ billion years, the odds are surely in favor for life sprouting up somewhere else besides this pale blue dot we call home. The problem at the moment is that SETI’s range is laughably small when comparing it to the scope of the cosmos; we barely get out of our own solar system let alone tap into other galaxies. But judging by the trends in technology and the advancements of SETI’s satellites, which are increasing at Moore’s Law rates, Shostak believes we will find some sort of ET in the next few decades.

The SETI program's farm of satellites... it's range is increasing exponentially.

As such, Shostak spoke not about if we find aliens, but when. What will they look like? Hollywood has it all wrong, he says. The Aliens will not be bags of meat like us primitive life forms. The idea of bigger brained monsters with small noses, big eyes, and no hair is more like a rendering of what humans could look like in the future as opposed to what true aliens would look like. Rather, he suspects some type of artificial intelligent machine would be more likely what we’d find; A sort of life form that our limited scope of imagination probably can’t even conceive of. And what about the reports that aliens have secretly already visited us on earth? Shostak laughs at that notion, replying: “Do Americans really believe the same government that runs the postal service is covering up alien life?”

In the closing Q&A session Shostak touched a little more on Fermi’s Paradox –  the apparent contradiction between the likelihood that extraterrestrial civilizations exist and the lack of evidence for them. One potential solution is the Transcension Hypothesis; an idea fostered by John Smart (who graciously donated his library to us at Singularity University) suggesting that as intelligent civilizations continue to evolve, they experience a level of STEM (Space, Time, Energy, and Matter) compression that ultimately collapses into a black hole-like structure. Shostak wittingly remarked, “well, we won’t find those guys!”  But all jokes aside, the reason we haven’t met any aliens yet could just be because they don’t care about us – maybe we’re not an advanced-enough civilization to interest them for a visit.

Whatever the case may be, Shostak is on guard and ready for any signal should/when it comes in. In the meantime, we’ve got some work to do if we’d like to prove to our cosmic-brothers that were any smarter than the dinosaurs. Aside from a few stints on the moon, mankind has barely left the rock we arose from. However, with the recent successful launch from Space X,  the rover known as Curiosity scheduled to touch ground on Mars in the coming weeks, and the Google Lunar X Prize competition dated for 2015, we could be in the midst of a space renaissance. With just a little more support for Seth and his friends at NASA, who knows where we could be, or what we could know about the universe 5, 10 years from now…

Discussion — 13 Responses

  • arpad July 23, 2012 on 5:25 am

    The problem I’ve always had with the Drake equation is its last term – “L” – the length of time a civilization releases signals into space.

    It’s pretty clear that our radio footprint is shrinking. Fiber is replacing broadcast RF and intelligence is replacing raw power so the amount of radio frequency energy necessary to perform various functions is dropping.

    The point being that “L”, with our sample of one, appears to be a very short interval indeed. So short in fact that in the cosmic scheme of think it’s much less then an eye-blink which means detecting a civilization that’s both close enough to detect and within that “L” interval would be a very long shot.

    • shauncoates23 arpad July 23, 2012 on 1:12 pm

      Interesting thought arpad. What is the next leap in space communications that we should listen for? Do we even known yet?

      • Gauss156 shauncoates23 July 23, 2012 on 5:22 pm

        @ arpad: Good point indeed!

        @ shauncoates23: Neutrino laser comms may well be a new revolution. Already there are early flickers of this possibility. If we can shrink the detectors for neutrinos down to a manageable size, this may well be a viable platform for future telecommunications. I personally know people who are working on this very problem.

        Another interesting alternative is of course quantum teleportation. We haven’t yet figured out a way to get at the bell basis measurement without knowing its parameters ahead of time, but I’m sure someone will eventually figure out a probabilistic inference framework that will let you do this. (Or just count the negative space against a pre-defined codebook…) The tricky thing about this alternative is that if E.T. has figured out this method, we’d never see any evidence of the communication since, by definition, it happens instantaneously.

        There are many possibilities… E.T. could be using twisted streams of dark energy, vibrations on cosmic strings – who knows what. Nonetheless I wish the very best to the people at SETI.

        • shauncoates23 Gauss156 July 24, 2012 on 6:38 pm

          Neutrino communication sounds awesome. An information highway through the earth would be quite the achievement.

      • arpad shauncoates23 July 24, 2012 on 6:12 am

        That question gets into an area which the Drake equation and SETI carefully ignore – would advanced civilizations/beings want to talk to us?

        And that question puts us in the realm of guessing about beings whose motivations are beyond our imagining.

        There are all these assumptions made about post-Singularity human beings which are, inherently, silly. After all, they’re smarter, better, faster, etc. We’re the six millionth dollar man compared to post-Singularity human beings so their concerns, concepts and limitations are, to a significant degree, beyond us.

        They’ll probaby eat and void although they may, or may not, sleep. But even the assumption of basic physical needs isn’t a safe bet. What are the limitations of beings who are smarter, a lot smarter, then us? Not the limitations up with which we must put.

        Point being, if we can’t make credible predictions about those who’ll succeed us how can we form any worthwhile assumptions about those who’ve proceeded us by, perhaps, billions of years?

        I’m sorry to be blunt since I know I’m raining on some folk’s parades but the inevitable conclusion is that SETI has as much to do with science as does the original Star Trek and is really nothing more then an adolescent conceit.

    • assimilateverything arpad July 24, 2012 on 7:50 pm

      Then I would think we need to start broadcasting a strong signal into deep space. From the moon would be a good place. It might not be a good idea to be found though. We could power it with all that helium3 up there.

  • Socrates July 23, 2012 on 2:53 pm

    Very interesting and exciting. I hope Seth is right and I hope we can have a peaceful and mutually beneficial relationship with ET. Here is Seth’s Singularity University Lecture on How Science Searches for ET:

  • Cyantific July 24, 2012 on 2:52 am

    I have to side with Max Tegmark given his 2011 summit talk and say that I really hope we don’t find intelligence out there and I’ll explain why. We are probably alone in the galaxy because of Fermi’s Paradox, noting that if space travel was possible and life was abundant, then we would be able to see it. Since we don’t, there must be either a roadblock before or after our progress. If the roadblock is before us, then it means life is rare, but it doesn’t matter because we are past that hurdle. On the other hand, if we do find alien life, it suggests the opposite; that life is not rare, and the hurdle must be after us… Watch the talk around 20m mark. It’s interesting.

  • Ivan Malagurski July 25, 2012 on 9:18 pm

    I hope he is right…