Astronomer Seth Shostak: We'll find ET by 2037!

SETI Institute chief astronomer Seth Shostak bet hundreds of people at our Boing Boing: Ingenuity live event that we'll hear from an extraterrestrial within 25 years. Watch this video to understand why the odds are in Seth's favor.

Boing Boing: Ingenuity in partnership with Ford C-Max.

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  1. Rindan says:

    Am I the only one that feels Lovecraftian like horror when contemplating the Fermi Paradox?

    If you imagine humans a few thousand years out (to say nothing of a few million), you see them turning stars off on and on, dyson spheres, and the like. You imagine a civilization that is visible on a galactic scale to anyone idiot with a telescope. If you look at Drake's equation and fill in the last few parameters that we have not filled in yet with anything but zero, there should be billions of these style of civilizations floating around... and yet we see nothing.

    The universe looks empty, or if there is someone out there, they are very quiet. To me, that suggests that intelligence inevitably commits suicide, we are freaks who are alone in the universe, we are a simulation or in a zoo, physics says you will never leave your solar system, or there is something out there that you really should not get the attention of. I don't know about you, but all of those answers leave me somewhere between sad or filled with dread. Granted, this is the existential kind of dread you don't deal with in everyday life. If there is something out there snuffing out intelligence as it arises, it is doubtful it is going to whack me personally, but still, the idea that we are just a brief flicker about to be snuffed is sad.

  2. Glitch says:

    It's far more likely that there is nothing else out there that is capable or interested in communicating with us than it is that there is some destructive force that actively seeks out and culls intelligence.

    What makes me say that? Well, historically speaking, every time we've convinced ourselves that there's been some superior force or being beyond a certain boundary, we've been wrong. "Here there be dragons" and all that. Every time we've gone beyond the known world, instead of falling off the edge of the earth or being eatten by sea serpents, we've instead merely encountered the mundane.

    For example, breaking the sound barrier was only exciting because we imagined all sorts of terrible possible consequences of doing so, but it turns out to be pretty boring in reality (aside from some curious Physics involved). What was once beyond imagining, literally the stuff of myth and legend, feared for the remote possibility that it could be poised to destroy us once we crossed the brink, ended up being just one more quirk of the natural world.

    Space is big and empty. If there is other life, it's probably not intelligent. Even if there is intelligent life, it probably can't detect us. Even if it can detect us, it probably can't communicate with us. Even if it can communicate with us, it's probably not capable of space travel. Even if it is capable of space travel, it probably can't reach us.

    And even if, somehow despite the odds, it turned out there was intelligent life close enough and advanced enough and perceptive enough to communicate with us? Can you imagine first contact?

    "We've received a message from Outer Space, that we can confirm is from aliens! We need to figure out what it says!" So we work it out, we think we've decoded the message a little, and we send out our own response. Then we wait. And wait. And wait.

    At best, decades pass - at worst, centuries. During that time we might receive further messages, but they'll have been traveling for a long time, coming in staggered. The conversation is one way until our reply reaches them and they have a chance to reply in turn.

    Generations slowly pass. We've made a handful of back and forth information trades, but the time lag and the difficulty of understanding each other means the information traded is absurdly small. We've parsed each other's numeral concepts, we've maybe traded stellar coordinates, possibly even mutually conveyed a means of swapping the information necessary to contruct images from raw data a la binary, allowing us to trade images.

    Meanwhile, how has life on Earth progressed? At best, due to these developments we've become more reflective and thoughtful, had some positive paradigm shifts on a philosophical level, maybe reformed some religious beliefs along the way (unlikely). At worst, the confirmed knowledge of other intelligent life in the universe has brought out the worst in humanity, sparking conflict and fear and stupidity. Although it's also just as likely we've simply carried on exactly as before, now aware of alien life but entirely untouched by it.

  3. The old assumptions about how easy it would be to detect intelligence are becoming obsolete.

    Remember that as we move from analog to digital, and to more efficient use of electricity generally, our globe's inadvertent RF transmissions have been becoming progressively less recognizable as intelligence and more like a random natural process. Data compression and spread-spectrum and packet transmission and so on remove exactly the information which would be most useful in recognizing that something is signal rather than noise. We're also moving much more to media other than full-sphere RF, for reasons ranging from bandwidth to efficiency to privacy.

    There may be a surprisingly short window in the evolution of technology when a culture can be detected at a distance "by accident".

    OK, what about deliberate transmissions? Well, how many centuries are you going to keep the transmission going in the hope that someone else is looking and picks it up? (We've managed what, a few weeks total?) How wide an angle can you afford to transmit with how much power? (Our deliberate transmissions have been on a fairly narrow angle.)

    And remember that technology-using sapience is an extremely recent development. We're biased in favor of it, being the local examples thereof, but on evolutionary timescales it really has yet to prove long-term survival value. Homo sap is darned good at killing off other forms of life, but our culture has been driven by the energy tied up in random concentrations of resources, and we've been busily serving thermodynamics by scattering those. There is no guarantee that our civilization -- or any civilization -- really can last long enough to have reasonable odds of overlapping with someone else's.

    I'm certain there's other life out there. But technological life may be rarer than we've wanted to believe, and harder to find than we expect. I have to consider any claim that we'll have a clear answer on anything like human timescales wildly overoptimistic.

    I've been a science fiction reader since 3rd grade if not before; I'd love to have another set of minds out there to compare notes with. But at this point I have to count finding them as thought experiment and wishful thinking -- while continuing to hope that someone proves me wrong.

  4. Rindan says:

    There is a lot more to be detected than RF transmissions. Where are the stars blinking on and off, strange physics, and other things that you would expect from a technological civilization that has been around for more than a few thousand years?

    Now, it could be that they are out there and that once you get a certain level everyone say "fuck it", builds a dyson sphere, loads themselves up into computers, and live a happy immortal experience only ever moving once every few billion years when their sun is out of fuel. That is a possibility, but for a flesh and blood human, that is almost as a mildly horrifying thought. Just imagine a vast universe filled with nothing but civilizations quietly running on a server, never growing, shrinking, or really interacting with the physical world. It makes the entire universe one massive tomb where civilizations exist for an eyeblink before they migrate to computers and effectively vanish. Even that answer to the Fermi Paradox kind of freaks me out a little.

    Don't get me wrong, I would sell my soul for the answer to the Fermi Paradox, but I have a feeling that all the answers are soul crushing to a flesh and blood human who dreams of expanding into the stars.

  5. This is a fantastic discussion. Even more fun to read than the article itself.

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