Jaron Lanier's crazy idea for signaling/searching for ETs

Originally published at: Jaron Lanier's crazy idea for signaling/searching for ETs | Boing Boing


If you could gain the ability to upload consciousness into simulated realities that are functionally indistinguishable from physical reality, why would you bother to climb into a physical spaceship to outwardly explore? I’ve always found this idea a compelling possibility and wouldn’t laugh it off so easily.

Maybe. But that’s basically like saying “why do research when you can just play a video game instead?” While there are times when I’m burned out and tend to agree with it, at the end of the day as enjoyable as the video game may be, you haven’t accomplished anything by playing it.


It is a plot device used in the first season of Picard.


Re that Dark Forest theory … how do you stop radio emissions escaping into space? How likely is a society that has discovered how to use such emissions locally going to FIRST decide that it would be a bad thing (having concluded the rest of the universe’s intelligent life, if there is any, is out to get you) before actually using them?

It’s like the world immediately agreeing in the late 1800s that Marconi’s work should stop in case it let aliens detect us.

Mind you, a society/civilisation that could achieve such a state might have many attributes I’d kind of like to see in play here on earth.


Alternate hypothesis: the evolutionary constraints under which intelligence evolves defines that intelligence, and thus we end up with a Wittgenstein’s Lion problem: if a lion could talk, we could not understand them, because our basis of shared experience means that even if we’re using the same symbols to play a language game, our understanding of the game is wildly different.

I’m of the mind that we’re not even the only intelligent species on our own planet, and that our definition of “intelligence” has biased itself into “human-like”. And I mean, fair, it’s a nice fantasy, the idea that there are intelligences like humans, not just intelligent.

But I also think it’s unlikely. The evolutionary conditions which lead to humans are very specific, and unlikely to replicate themselves elsewhere. And that’s even when we limit ourselves to biospheres that are earth-like, which I think sells complex chemistry short- I suspect that there are many other ways to be “alive”, and I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that some of them don’t even involve chemistry, like self-replicating stable patterns of plasma in solar magnetic fields. The state space of life is, I suspect, much larger than we can imagine, and no matter how big the universe is, we’re one tiny, improbable branch in that tree.


Similarly, really good books and really good movies can be very immersive, but some people will always choose to go out on adventures.

It’s in our nature, curious bipedal monkeys that we are…


The Dark Forest theory doesn’t rule out the idea that most civilizations don’t figure out that radio broadcasts are dangerous, and that most civilizations subsequently get wiped out as soon as they’re detected.

(I certainly hope that theory is wrong.)


Practically speaking you wouldn’t need to prevent radio emissions, just make them indistinguishable from natural radio sources. Heavy use of good encryption should result in the contents of radio emissions looking the same as random noise, but the pattern of those transmissions would still look structured. Maybe a civilization could fill in gaps with noise. But then we need to consider how the radio sources would move. We currently detect exo-planets by the slight changes in their parent starts light. Would we or others be able to detect exo-civilizations by the slight changes in disguised radio emissions? Would we need to add an array of essentially radio jammers in the same orbit as the Earth to mask the impact the Earth’s orbit has on our radio emissions?

I think the idea of a civilization hiding radio emissions is possible, but is not at all plausible.

It might not be a hard requirement, but a risk factor based on how long it takes to come to that conclusion.

We have probably only been emitting a detectable amount of radio emissions for about a century. Assuming that we as a global society did decide to go dark in a galactic sense it might take another century to get there. That would leave us with an expanding spherical shell about 200 lightyears thick that would be a zone of risk, an hostile civilization looking in our direction at a time when they are inside the shell has a chance to find us. Once the shell passes we would be safe(r).
And the farther away the signal gets the weaker it gets, requiring larger radio telescope arrays to detect, and also making it less likely that anyone detecting it would care enough to come wipe us out.

With all of that said, this feels to me like futurist navel gazing. We are emitting radio waves, we likely won’t stop or reach a point where we can mask them, so we will be detectable. If there really are hostile aliens that would cross the vastness of space just to wipe us out it probably will happen. Because we can’t reasonably know if there are or are not advanced hostile civilizations, and if there are there is nothing we can reasonably do to stop them from finding us, we are better of behaving as if they don’t exist.


If the aliens show up with a trump sticker on their spaceship we’re totally fucked

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Or possibly a Kempler Rosette. Or a Ringworld, if the civilization is advanced enough to posit the creation of scrith or some other material that can stop a notable percentage of neutrinos… (A Dyson’s Sphere would be much harder to detect, really.)

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This, many times over. SETI is not looking for truly “alien” intelligence - it’s looking for some version of us, existing during a tiny window of technological and societal development compared to our evolutionary history. The chances of finding that somewhere other than Earth are vanishingly small.


The Earth has already stopped sending easily detectable radio emissions into space. We have switched over from sending highly structured analog TV transmissions to digital TV, which is nearly indistinguishable from white noise on a spectrum analyzer or radio.
And all those cell phone towers send similar noise-appearing signals, and they’re all aimed down at the Earth so that little of their energy makes it to space.
Basically, our capitalist civilization has no economic incentive to waste our power transmitting signals to the universe, so we’ve stopped doing so.


The Great Silence, a short story by Ted Chiang, hits some similar points, via parrots.

Full story in the link.


That really doesn’t feel likely at all to me, especially if light speed is a hard limit, as it seems to be.

Getting all space tech destroyed by Kessler Effect seems a lot more likely.

I think this is partly true but any species that has a similar evolutionary history (carbon based, liquid water medium, oxygen based respiration, etc) would likely be similar enough for us to see their artifacts. Like here’s a big object that looks almost like a telescope or here’s something that clearly couldn’t be made through erosion or random chance.

As for understanding them, I think if they’re visually inclined we’d likely figure each other out. For example, my Betta fish isn’t writing on a big sign to tell me when he’s hungry. He sees me and starts doing his food waggle/dance in front of the tank. He even knows that I put his frozen blood worms in a box of a certain shape despite the color being different and then he waggles even more when I have it with me. So if a Betta fish can figure out intention at least in terms of basic conditioning then I’m sure an intelligent alien species can figure us out, and us them, well enough.

Also, I think there’s a better explanation for why there hasn’t been any other intelligent technological species: we’re likely among the first. The fact that around 5 billion years ago that we know that our own galaxy started to quiet down in terms of supernovas means that prior to that time that most planets that could’ve been candidates for life were likely sterilized by the radiation from those supernovas going off near them. This means life started late in the history of our galaxy which means there might be other intelligent species but they might either be about as advanced as we are or more or even less. In any case, they’re likely in the same boat as us, not able to scan the entirety of the sky and not likely able to signal us within reason any time soon. Thus, we’re not likely be playing in the graveyard of the ancients but rather the people who become the ancients in that future graveyard.


The thing about Happiness Box and similar explanations for Fermi Paradox is that you just need one advanced civilization that doesn’t go for it, but spreads out instead. I remember someone calculating that an expansion- (or exploration-) minded advanced civilization could spread across a galaxy in a million years, without any (almost certainly impossible) FTL travel.

I don’t think the idea is that a prudent civilization would prevent all their radio emissions from escaping into space, just that they’d take steps to minimize the easily detectable ones.

Kind of like how a naval submarine in silent running mode can’t prevent any and all sounds from carrying through the surrounding water but can take steps to make themselves harder for an enemy to locate.


Side note: Alex the parrot nibbled on my nose once. One of my closest celebrity encounters.


No offense, but I don’t think its like that at all.
Its more like saying “why do research in meatspace when you can just do that same research in a simulated reality?” And there are lots of good reasons to prefer the virtual one. Perhaps I’m doing research on advanced viral diseases, or explosives, or deep sea exploration. Clearly the answer to all of these is to do them in a simulated reality for the ability to not die (one presumes).

There’s a lot of psychological / metaphysical considerations to ponder about a world without risks, but nothing says we would choose to leave it. See Jon Bois’ “17776” for an examination of this idea that’s also just a really fun multi-media “read”.

Counterpoint: there are species with a similar evolutionary history which we have no basis of communication with. And telescopes- a hyperintelligent sphagnum moss could do interferometry across its entire surface. Imagine a continent sized telescope with no visible technological footprint. And the potential brainpower of such a thing- while it probably wouldn’t use neurons, it could do complex analog computing through chemical gradients.

I’m suggesting that if we met an alien intelligence, we might not even think it’s intelligent. Your betta fish doesn’t think you’re intelligent. You don’t think your betta fish is intelligent. You’ve established a very simple rapport that isn’t based on mutual understanding, but instead on operant conditioning. Would a sphagnum mat that takes a thousand years to think a thought more complicated than anything you could possibly imagine think you’re intelligent? Would you think it’s intelligent?