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Inviting invasion: deep space advertisments and planetary security

The Register warns that Dixons risks future of humanity with Star Wars-themed ads: the electronics chain, not satisfied with merely human customers also as a publicity stunt broadcast its ads into deep space, presumably for aliens to receive. This is done using the firm Deep Space Communications Network, who offers to beam messages into space using their satellite dish. Earlier this year an invitation to the Klingon opera 'u' was beamed towards Arcturus using a Dutch radio telescope. Are these stunts putting mankind at risk?

Most people would no doubt immediately dismiss alien invasion risks as plain silly. After all, they are a staple of low-status science fiction and conspiracy theories. But this is merely looking at the surface properties of the concept, it does not really tell us anything about whether there exists a real risk.

There are two aspects to extraterrestrial risks: the probability that the signals will be received by somebody, and that we would (afterwards) wish the aliens did not receive them. Stephen Hawking argued that we should be cautious: to him the probability of aliens was relatively high, but he also thought the probability of them being risky was high (see responses on this blog here and here). This risk might not be a direct invasion threat, but simply dangerous cultural transmissions: in the past some human societies have fared badly when in contact with more advanced societies. Even a radio signal might consist of an information hazard, for example containing infectious ideas or software. The aliens do not even have to be deliberately malicious: many humans would jump at the chance of converting non-believers to their favourite belief system, thinking they do them a great service.

While optimists about SETI tend to think communications would be benign, it is hard to assign a probability to it. The only thing we can say is that we have not seen any alien communications or even signs of them, which suggests that aliens either do not exist, we are not receiving anything from them (e.g. they are too far away or we are listening on the wrong wavelengths) or they are keeping quiet.

From a species survival perspective we should generally prefer the middle answer. Why? If we are the only ones it means that either intelligent life is exceedingly improbable and we are lucky, or that intelligent life is not so uncommon but something wipes it out before it starts to spam the universe. Bad news. If there are aliens and they keep quiet, then they must have a very good and consistent reason.This could again be something positive or neutral (e.g. they are too alien to communicate, they all do not wish to interfere with us) or something bad (e.g. civilizations that remain obvious fall prey to self-replicating weapons). Only the boring middle answer – that we simply cannot communicate for technical or distance reasons – implies safety. (I have left out plenty of permutations and complications here)

Within the SETI community concerns about messaging has led to the formulation of the San Marino scale for assessing the significance of messages that could be received by aliens. This is a scale from 1 to 10 based on how easily detected the transmission is, and how much information about humanity it contains. Past deliberate transmissions have managed to reach 8, 'far reaching'. Even planetary radar manages to reach a level of 6, 'noteworthy'.

So, how far does these advertisements go? The Deep Space Communications dish is apparently 5 meter in diameter (I couldn't find out the power used), which no doubt is adequate for satellite communications but seems to be problematic for interstellar messaging due to diffraction. It also did not target any particular star. The Dwingeloo telescope used for the Klingon invitation is a bit larger, 25 meters, but again the transmission power is unclear. It targeted Arcturus, about 30 light-years away (and pretty unlikely to have inhabited planets since it is a metal-poor halo star). The level 8 signal from the Arecibo used about half a million Watts of power, making it far more powerful than anything these telescopes can achieve. The Arecibo message was intended to be somewhat understandable to aliens, but contains little detail. Dixon's message is downright misleading about the nature of humanity, while the opera invitation might be slightly confusing, since it was spoken in Klingon. It hence seems that compared to past messages these adverts are unlikely to matter: we are already transmitting other messages, these just add to the choir. 

This doesn't mean we can sigh in relief (or disappointment). It just means that deep space advertising is not making things much worse or better. If there were a race towards greater clarity messages at higher power, there would be cause for concern. But since paying customers are located on Earth, the economic incentives for this are rather low.

On a deeper level there is something interesting going on here: how much should small groups of people be allowed to risk the future of humanity with low probability? Not everyone agrees that the risk from alien contact is negligible: even a very low probability times a great harm can be relevant. Yet we also have great disagreement on the fundamentals in this case. As we saw in the case of the Large Hadron Collider, this is not just a matter of disagreeing on probabilities: there can be disagreement on the fundamental physics or metaphysics (not to mention straightforward bad risk estimation). Should we be equally concerned with occultists trying to summon world-changing supernatural powers? There are probably many more people today who believe in supernatural entities than mere aliens, and that some interactions with them could be harmful. Yet there are no attempts at formulating risk scales for ritual magic. It seems that considerations of risks strongly dependent on low-probability theories (aliens can listen to us, black holes do not work as we think they do, supernatural entities can be summoned) are often considered more based on surface characteristics (e.g. social desirability) than rational analysis. But even if we were to analyse them rationally, we need to have an 'ultraviolet cut-off' for the infinite number of possible-yet-exceedingly-unlikely possibilities we could worry about. How to rationally decide on this cut-off seems problematic.

Maybe the aliens could tell us… but given our own behaviour we might mainly get adverts from them.

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4 Comment on this post

  1. It seems like all of this worry is based on some kind of precautionary principle. And although the precautionary principle is a good rule to follow generally, without brakes, the precautionary principle stops us from doing anything from stem cell research, to walking out the door.

    Maybe there is something fundamentally wrong with precautionary principle?

  2. The precautionary principle can be formulated in non-stupid ways, such as “take precautions even when the risk has not been exactly quantified” and usually with the implication that the precautions have to be proportional to the current, pre-quantification estimate of the hazard – when mixing poisonous and reactive chemicals in a new way we have a a priori reason to be more careful than when mixing cooking ingredients. Doing precaution for alien transmissions might be that they shouldn’t reveal certain information or aim at too nearby stars, for example.

    Love Robin’s response. I just wonder how to enforce it? An unsafe magick tax on ritual supplies unless you can show you are a certified white magician?

  3. Robin Hanson suggests “mild regulation” to prevent a slight risk of a very serious harm. I assume by “mild” she refers to cost of the regulation to the regulator, the regulated and those who gain from the reguated’s risk-producing activity. We’ve seen this discussion before: Global Warming, which is a matter of controversy among intelligent people precisely because the cost of a maximalist prevention program arguably exceeds the harm threatened discounted by its likelihood.

    So, the ethical question has to do with the ethics of argument about the proper degree of regulation, e.g. on the part of those who would be harmed economically now by regulation intended to avert the harm, both with respect to the likelihood and extent of the harm.

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