So, let's say in the near future we really can transmit petabytes of data by laser into space in a timely fashion. Then what?
Well, one problem we have relates to why we may not have heard from aliens in the first place. Lasers move at, or actually very near, the speed of light. We know of nothing that can move faster than the speed of light, and it is a generally accepted rule that nothing can go faster without some pretty fancy physics we don't even know for sure are real.
The closest star to us is Proxima Centauri, 4.24 light years away.
Let's say just for a moment that a civilization just like us lived there. If we sent a message by laser it would take 4.24 years to get there. It would then take 4.24 years to get a message back from them. So we say "Hi. We're called Earthlings. Wanna be friends? Check out our cat videos."
They look at the entire contents of the Internet, and thereby learn English, Russian, Chinese, or all of the above. They use their version of Watson or some other super computer to parse natural language. It takes a couple of years. Then they're ready to respond with, "Oh, hi. We'd love to be friends. Here's a video of our fuzzy friend called a blarf playing the drums, and our entire Internet, so you can learn our languages." Or else they send back, "We hate cat videos. We're coming to destroy you now.
The message takes 4.24 years to get back to us.
That's a decade-long text conversation that makes snail mail seem like instant messaging.
Tack on a few decades to this transaction if you want to point it at the closest habitable exoplanet we've found so far -- and hundreds of years for most planets.
[Two bad we can't just teleport there. Read Facebook's Teleportation Station: 10 Things We Wanted Instead.]
Despite all of this, there are a lot of people who are afraid to send a message out to other planets. They think there is the scary potential that waving a flag and saying, "Yoo-hoo, we're here," is just asking to be enslaved by our new alien masters. And they've got a point.
Many people have pointed out that if you look at Earth's history, it never turns out well when a technologically developed culture runs into a less technologically developed one. That less developed one always ends up dying of disease, falling victim to war, or being enslaved. Heck, we're not all that nice to cultures on the same technological level, considering the amount of war, hunger, and poverty we've still got.
If we do reach out to a society with the ability to hear us, and they actually hear us, and have the ability to come visit, maybe that visit isn't going to be so friendly. If we have to worry about whether this civilization is friendly or not, maybe we ought to err on the side of caution and not do it.
Shostak points out that we haven't exactly been keeping a low profile in space. We've sent spaceships out of our solar system with plaques showing how to identify us and where to find us. All the TV and radio we're sending out on earth also radiates into space at the speed of light. A species advanced enough to find that signal is potentially advanced enough to come crush us. We've been listening for signals like this for decades with no definitive success. Either they aren’t out there or we don't know how to identify them.
Why couldn't we identify such messages? Here's Neil deGrasse Tyson with a sobering answer to that question:
For those without the patience, he's basically saying perhaps we're too dumb to know what real intelligent alien life looks like. He compares us to worms in the ground not knowing what people think of them.
So what Shostak is saying is that there is no inherent danger in asking to be recognized. Either we will be and we'll start the world's slowest conversation, or we'll be ignored, or maybe a significantly more intelligent race will come take pity on us. But it is unlikely that anyone who can answer the call cares enough to come all of these light years just to snuff us out for bothering to transmit. We're already doing it.
So there's a lot of benefit to the plan. We can increase our terrestrial communication skills by improving our laser communications. We can improve our ability to talk with our own near-earth spacecraft. If we're lucky, we'll find that we're not alone, and that the chances of being enslaved by our new alien masters is smaller than we think.
What do you think? Should we place a call to the universe? Or is it just not safe? If we do find alien life, what would it think of us? Comment below.
Attend Interop Las Vegas, the leading independent technology conference and expo series designed to inspire, inform, and connect the world's IT community. In 2015, look for all new programs, networking opportunities, and classes that will help you set your organization’s IT action plan. It happens April 27 to May 1. Register with Discount Code MPOIWK for $200 off Total Access & Conference Passes.