Since the 1960s some of the world’s best scientists have been searching for signals from extraterrestrial intelligence using large radio telescopes. This program is known as SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. And while this planet has been leaking its own radio signals into space since the 1940s and actively listening for signals, we now have the capability to do more than listen and leak. We can send intentional and powerful radio signals into space. This kind of effort, called Messaging to Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI) or Active SETI, would differ from standard SETI in that we would broadcast our existence and our ideas in a way that optimizes the chances of a technological extraterrestrial civilization finding out about us.
And it is this idea, Active SETI, that has recently become the topic of heated controversy in academic and scientific circles. The worry is that an extraterrestrial civilization will find out about us and come here and do something, well, bad. As our technology gets better and the data about the possibilities of life on other planets keep pouring in almost daily, many people feel that Active SETI is not just a pipedream but, rather, an issue that is increasingly realistic and, therefore, has to be carefully deliberated.
Recently, a small group of scientists published a statement entitled “Regarding Messaging to Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI) / Active Searches FOR Extraterrestrial Intelligence (Active SETI)”, in which they propose we should have a vigorous global debate about doing Active SETI before we try it. Their main concern is that “it is impossible to predict whether ETI will be benign or hostile.” No wonder we’re afraid of our chicken wings coming home to roost.
I respect the signatories and their concerns. Many of them are colleagues. But I find it ironic that we should be concerned about some faraway extraterrestrials coming here to destroy the Earth. If that’s our concern, we need look no further than in the mirror! It’s hardly as though everything is fine here on Earth and all we have to worry about is someone else coming from halfway across the galaxy to mess it up. We’re doing that ourselves. Planetary destruction? Check. Mass extinction? Check. Enslavement? Check. Torture and killing? Check.
So what exactly are we afraid of that isn’t already happening right now?
If we’re concerned about becoming the proverbial “ingredient in someone’s soup” (as in the Twilight Zone episode “To Serve Man“), then it’s even more ironic given that we consume other animals by the hundreds of millions every year. (Shark fin soup, anyone?) No wonder we’re afraid of our chicken wings coming home to roost.
The concerns expressed in the Berkeley document are a distraction from the real work we need to do to save this planet and its inhabitants. Articulating anxieties over a remote possibility over which we really have very little control is the easy part. We will decide to either do Active SETI or not. It is a simple binary choice. What is much more difficult, however, is to navigate the complex dimensions of human nature and our effects on life on this planet and find a way out of the “invasion” our species has already enacted.