Hawking: Beware the Alien Menace!

Okay, that’s a bit alarmist. But Stephen Hawking has generated a bit of buzz by pointing out that contact with an advanced alien civilization might not turn out well for us backward humans. In fact, we should just try to keep quiet and avoid being noticed.

“If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans,” he said.

Prof Hawking thinks that, rather than actively trying to communicate with extra-terrestrials, humans should do everything possible to avoid contact.

He explained: “We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet.”

To which I can only say: yeah. Sounds about right. If aliens were sufficiently enlightened to be utterly peace-loving and generous, it would be great to have back-and-forth contact with them. But it’s also possible that they would simply wipe us out — not necessarily in a Mars Attacks! kind of invasion, but almost without noticing (as we have done to countless species here on Earth already). So how do you judge the risk? (Dan Drezner gives the interplanetary-security perspective.)

It’s like the LHC doomsday scenarios, but for real — the sensible prior on “murderous aliens” is much higher than on “microscopic black hole eats the Earth.” Happily, a face-to-face chat seems unlikely anyway. Nothing wrong with listening in, on the unlikely chance that the aliens are broadcasting their communications randomly throughout the galaxy. Besides, a little advance warning wouldn’t hurt.

Update: I had forgotten that we had already discussed this a couple of years ago. Old bloggers tend to repeat themselves.

  1. This seems like a perfectly good solution to Fermi’s paradox!

    If most civilizations have noticed that cultural interactions tend to wipe out the people that are less technologically advanced, then it would be natural to hide, and thus nobody would see anybody, explaining away Fermi’s troublesome question: Where Is Everybody? (paraphrased).

    Answer: hiding from everyone else out of fear for their own longevity!

  2. I disagree with Hawking. If the aliens have the capacity to come over here from thousands of lightyears- they probably don’t have a resource problem, and even if they did, the earth is metals and water to them, which are in abundance at the edges of the solar system and therefore presumably closer to any alien- or am I talking moonshine? Why expend all the extra energy to destroy us? Especially if we offer some (even if only weak) resistance? [spock]It would seem most illogical[/spock].

    I also disagree that more powerful groups tend to wipe out weaker groups. It’s a self-selecting characterization. We define more powerful groups as those that demonstrate their power by subjugating others. However history has shown that these interactions do not always end that way. The Japanese first-contact with Americans actually strengthened the Japanese technologically and made them a world power to be reckoned with. They got a little too big for their britches, so to speak- but they’ve hardly been wiped out. I think it’s a trite (and utterly baseless assertion) when it comes to how cultures and groups ultimately interact.

    In resource rich environments (and the solar system, if not the galaxy, if not the universe is resource rich no matter how you cut it) groups tend to fuse rather than fight when encountering each other, as long as they’re small enough (for humans, below ~150 people.) Who’s to say it’s any different when encountering other species?

  3. Re #2:
    Despite the literary prominence of spanish gold, the main commodity traded during the age of exploration was spice. Given how different alien life is likely to be, the chances of them having all the molecules found in our present biosphere is pretty low. So aliens coming here to harvest bit of various life forms is not entirely unreasonable.

    Of course, the breakdown products of many of those molecules are also found in petroleum, so they could just ignore us and steal all of our oil.

  4. @#4

    The chances that they would be masters of chemical synthesis is high. Even if it wasn’t, we’ve gotten good enough at it that energy considerations are our major concern (if they can manage galactic travel then they have that problem licked). So if they can’t manage synthesis, why destroy intelligent beings who you can clearly set up a knowledge exchange with?

    If they need hydrocarbons, methane off of Titan (where is rains the stuff) is a much more abundant source than what comparatively meager (and difficult to extract) organic offerings we could provide. If the aliens were interested in unique biological molecules, then it would be in their best interests to preserve the ecosystem as much as possible so they could collect and study them and their roles for future synthesis. Humans would be more than happy (presumably) to help them with their biological surveys. If nothing else, an economic relationship could be achieved.

    I’m telling you, for Hawking to be right there’d have to be some very irrational aliens who are somehow also capable of advanced spaceflight. It’s possible but it just doesn’t seem likely. Almost any situation where the aliens have an interest in destroying us, is one where they cannot be more advanced than us, at least not by much.

  5. Visiting antropomorphic aliens (worthwhile extrasolar life in our imagination) with bad intentions aren’t the most likely threat from space to man’s existence. Not in my branch of the wavefunction anyway.

    Foreseeable trouble from space isn’t going to be biological in nature. I don’t think you have to be reckless or even a hero to support and participate in Seti, just curious will do. I am not expecting any positive signal to be found within my lifetime and I do plan on lingering around a while.

  6. Given the immense difficulties of inter-stellar travel, I would have thought that any extra-terrestrial civilisation so advanced as to be capable of visiting us would be able to detect our presence, whether we actively try to communicate or not.

    Or looking at it another way: failing to advertise their presence didn’t help the native americans.

  7. I would have to expect that given the massive technical difficulties of interstellar travel, any alien species that actually came here could really have only one goal in mind: colonization. And that wouldn’t be particularly good for us.

    Now, if we were only talking about information-gathering probes, or contact through observations of far-off EM waves, that’s a different story. But face-to-face? Don’t see why they’d go anywhere without being intent on staying.

  8. I suppose the outcome of the meeting could depend on whom among us they talk to first.

  9. Species that can travel between solar systems would probably be type 2 or 3 civilizations. They’d be very aware of the limitations on detecting other species, how to do it, and how often other species appeared due to natural chance. They would probably not be interested in us, and in all likelihood would have even less trouble dealing with us. A huge percentage of Native Americans died just due to foreign germs from Europeans. Nevermind the lack of military strength and infrastructure. That’s a comparison between fairly similar civilizations. Comparison between life on Earth and aliens capable of traveling here (or influencing the local area in some other way) would not be.

    It could be there are some fundamental physical limits (reasonably reached within a couple million years) on how advanced a civilization can become. These could be due to resources, computational power, or other constraints. But ignorance isn’t something to bet on.

    As per the previous blog post, there are probably robust ways of finding inhabited planets, just due to entropy considerations, or something we’ll need another million years to think of. In other words, another blink of the eye in galactic timescales.

    It probably wouldn’t hurt to become a little more advanced (at least type 2 or 3) before discovering or meeting alien civilizations. On the other hand, maybe science funding would go through the roof with some competition.

  10. There is no inorganic matter on Earth that isn’t just as available elsewhere in the Solar System. Organic material is obviously Earth’s greatest asset, but if they are gathering samples then collecting vials of DNA would give them pretty much what they need, and would be far more portable and manageable than dealing with whole specimens. No need to rape and pillage to get them.

    The only other unique asset we have that could be valuable is information — not our sciences, but culture and history, something that they can study that is likely unique in the cosmos, especially if they have figured out all the major puzzles of the Universe (hey, they could have had a million years or more to do it).

    So I’d be willing to be that they will be more interested in our libraries and archives rather than anything else, and the most efficient way to collect all that would be with our willing help, and thus a friendly encounter is what would be required.

    As for hiding ourselves away—well, when you’re living on a bright blue ball with an oxygen rich atmosphere, you’re kind of broadcasting a “We are here!” beacon to anyone out there who is looking in our direction. It would be an indication that some kind of life is here, at the very least, and given that NASA’s Kepler mission is hoping to find several Earth-like planets that could be as far as several thousand light years away, then imagine what an extra few thousand years of technological advancement could accomplish.

    I don’t think we have anything to fear, be even if we did, there just isn’t any point in worrying about it since there is almost nothing that we can do to either hide or broadcast our presence anyway — unless we actually erect a colossal METI beacon which isn’t very likely.

    (P.S. I’ve already blogged this in more detail — just click on my name above to find the post.)

  11. I think Hawking’s point is fundamentally valid. If they exist, they may be trying everything to avoid contact as well. It has nothing to do with their intent, but everything to do with outcomes. This comes down to our own questions of morality, which we still have a poor understanding of, and our inability to deal with coincidences. How would our society deal with alignments and contradictions between two moral systems? We still want to think of an alien civilization in general terms, but we forget that unless they are a civilization with a single shared mind, they will inevitably have all the same variance of personality in its members as humans do. In any case, it is extremely likely that the forward elements of any alien civilization will be artificial intelligences of some sort, and any sense of moral judgement would be highly filtered. It is also a good point that our civilization would be just as dangerous to their civilization, which is why containment and avoidance are the two best options.
    Nature is very competitive and the stakes are always high, to think otherwise is just naive.

  12. Personally, if I was an alien admiral commanding a humongous starship containing the entirety of my population and looking for natural resources, I wouldn’t even look at Earth —I’d go straight to Jupiter or Saturn. It’s a bit like taking someone who is very hungry and offering him a choice between an all-you-can-eat buffet and a single tomato.

  13. For some reason, I can’t help worrying about what smallpox did to the native populations. Advanced aliens will no doubt come with their own beneficial-to-them, not-so-much-to-us microscopic stowaways.

  14. If we somehow discovered a previously overlooked primitive tribe, we’d do everything we could to observe them without letting them know we exist (that is, if we could keep the missionaries out – I hope space traveling aliens have outgrown THAt nonsense!).

    If these aliens found us, I firmly believe that’s what they’d be doing: studying, watching, not interfereing, not making their presence known.

    That’s why I wrote this 🙂

    http://aplawrence.com/Lighter/ufo.html

  15. All living species can potentially grow exponentially by nature, while they can only use resources that grow as a quadratic (on the surface of a planet) or as a cubic (if they colonize space, even at light speed). I call this the “cubic saturation principle” (http://drgoulu.com/1999/10/24/psc/ )

    So aliens HAVE TO be aggressive. They will be under the pressure of their population. And if, for any reason, they are not conquering space to gain resources, they cannot take the risk of letting us grow exponentially.

    By the way, METI signals are a sign of our stupidity, not intelligence. Intelligent beings would never answer. But they’ll know where to head when they’ll be strong enough.

  16. Hawking made that Columbus comment many, many years ago during an interview with Carl Sagan and Arthur C. Clarke. Why is this news considered new?

  17. I take the opposite position to Hawking.

    The surest sign that there’s intelligent life in the universe is that its made no attempt to contact us. 🙂

  18. But joking a part, I’d guess it’ll be more like Rendezvous with Rama.

    The aliens and their artifacts arrive, completely ignore us and go their own way.

    Its our usual conceit to think that they’d be interested in fighting us or colonizing our planet.

  19. You forget the option where the aliens are basically peaceful, but once alerted to out presence they aim their giant telescopes our way, find out enough about us to realize how dangerous we may become once we learn interstellar travel and send a packet of anti-matter our way to be on the safe side.

    Other options are that they may feel a duty to “liberate” us or preach their religion, which requires that they first take control of Earth, or some alien entrepreneur may simply see a huge market for intelligent pets.

  20. We are constantly emitting broadcasts of all kinds across the entire spectrum. Unless we were able to turn it all off, we are constantly announcing our presence to the universe. If somebody or some thing has solved the travel problem, it is only a matter of time (maybe a very long time) before we are stumbled upon. An advanced civilization probably would not set out to harm us but may do so by accident or may simply not really notice us as they go about their business. I guess there is a chance they might come and teach us how to stop having wars, cure disease, and make crime a thing of the past. It is more likely they simply won’t care all that much.

  21. Dr. Goulu’s the “cubic saturation principle” is an interesting idea, but it’s problematic because it doesn’t take into account (at least) the possibility of the many different kinds of scaling. If we can increasingly use smaller scale resources, the effectively available resources within a finite distance can increase faster than cubic. Think of Moore’s law, as a crude specific example (and bear in mind that all examples may be crude). The transition from quadratic to cubic that Dr. Goulu mentions is itself an example of a technology transition (that we’re having lots of trouble with). Physics is full of situations in which the relevant power law is nontrivial, and the transition of thermodynamic behavior from exponential to power law and back again is more-or-less universal. Growth (of population, for example) can even be superexponential during periods when changes of behavior allow increases of reproduction rates and/or offspring survival rates, but exponential and superexponential growth are constrained by the happenstance of whether we find new behaviors that work better (“better” in the sense that they contribute towards growth).

    Ultimately, dz/dt=kz is not the only differential equation in the playbook of evolution.

    How an alien culture might react to us is a curious question, if we make it through our next ten/hundred/thousand/…/million years of growth and restraint.

    Dave24@18: This is news now because Sean thought he might get a rise from a proportion of the people who have Cosmic Variance in their RSS feeds. How wrong is he?

  22. The Fermi’s paradox calculations seem indisputable. If there were any dangerous aliens out there, they would have long ago conquered and utilized anything in the galaxy they desired.

  23. There’s another issue. We are very far away from the closest star–4 light years if I remember correctly. No one here on Earth has figured a way around the rule that we can’t go anywhere close to the speed of light (aka C. I think that’s Warp 1 for the Trekkers out there).

    Even if there’s life near Alpha Centauri, it will probably be a long time before those Centaurians will be able to get here.