This has been one of the most vexing questions for me. We are inundated with science fiction programs, books and entertainment that show extraterrestrials as common.
Articles come out frequently on this topic and so it vexes others. Recently a new way to look at it has brought another view on the question. Here is the article. are-we-alone-a-new-twist-on-the-famous-drake-equation-ups-the-odds-that-we-arent/
This article above takes the Drake equation and with new data and inverting the question comes to the conclusion that in order for humans to be the the only intelligent species ever in the universe the probability is i in 10 ^ 22. So, if we are the only intelligent species ever in the universe then the probability of human level intelligence is incredibly small.
I don’t believe this is that interesting a question to answer. The universe has existed for 13.8 billion years and the thousands of years we are around over even millions already means our chances of overlap is miniscule. On top of that the universe is unbelievably vast. We will never be able to explore even 1 millionth of the universe and maybe 1 millionth of our galaxy so knowing that the chance of life like ours is extremely high in the universe is boring.
This blog answers a bunch of much more interesting questions than that article.
We know that scientifically there is no evidence of any life of any kind intelligent or not on any asteroid, planet or any evidence seen in our various telescopes. There have been no landings and I doubt seriously that any government has been covering up any such meeting.
The possible exception to this is the Viking lander on Mars may have detected evidence of microbial life on Mars.
The fact that virtually every science fiction and fantasy as well as even a large number of run of the mill mysteries and other genre include in their storylines “aliens” of one sort or another points to the extreme feeling of loneliness that we feel at being the only sentient creatures in existence. So, there are a large number of us who are petrified by the concept that we are alone or at least uncomfortable with our isolation.
The scientists answer to this question is the 50 year old Drake equation. The Drake equation lists 7 pre-conditions for us to meet extraterrestrials or communicate with them. The basic problem has been determining what the values of the Drake equation parameters are to figure out what the probability of the event I have described.
There are some reasons to revisit this equation and think about this again.
- Lots of new data from Kepler and other science has made the values for some much clearer
- Recent advances in SETI technology presages new abilities to detect such civilizations
- The soon to be delivered James Webb Telescope will provide new tools
- General advancement in all sciences and understanding of life, genome, physics, etc…
It has been noted that recently a number of advances have constrained and improved the odds of discovering the answer to this question. The use of much better astronomy devices has resulted in finding other planets and finding which ones are potentially life-viable. So, we may be on the cusp of some advancements on this topic.
What are we trying to do?
First, let’s look at our goal in asking these questions and what tools we might have to get answers or do any of them.
NASA suffers from a lack of direction. Why are we spending $25 billion / year and what are we getting from it? Elon Musk believes we should colonize Mars. That’s another goal we could have. Recently Stephen Hawking and some other extremely noteworthy people have invested $100 Million in a program called Starshot which will send gram level size spacecraft to other Alpha Centauri.
Alpha Centauri is 4.3 light years away and they believe using powerful lasers they can propel hundreds / thousands of micro spacecraft in 15 years. As you will read in this blog we don’t actually know if there are planets around Alpha Centauri at this point. There are 3 suns within 5 light years but at least one of these is extremely unlikely to harbor life. The fact that some prominent people are willing to spend 100 million dollars on a high Risk project shows how humans are motivated. The question is what are we hoping to achieve and can we work on this more in a goal directed manner.
It’s embarassing frankly that a bunch of scientists and billionaires are spending and doing all these things and NASA and the defense department is sitting back spending $25 billion on things that nobody knows what the purpose is.
Goal 1 Find if there are any other intelligent species
This has been the primary purpose and goal that SETI has been directed at and is premised on the idea that knowing there is another intelligent species changes a lot and may even teach us something. This goal assumes we aren’t going to have a conversation with these aliens nor that we would travel there so to achieve this goal we only need to peer to see any signal no matter how distant that could give us this even if it was on the other side of the galaxy or even farther away. Not doing this would seem stupid. What if the universe were teeming with life and intelligence and we just didn’t bother to look? That would be just plain stupid, but now that it looks like few and far between or maybe even none maybe we should stop trying to do this. There are some reasons why intelligent species would not be broadcasting in any way we could find them simply as a normal course. I believe they would send a signal that would be clear and unmistakable if they wanted and otherwise we would have nearly zero chance of this working.
Goal 2 Learn more about life and the universe
I will talk about Drakes equation and similar equations including equations I have developed. If we achieve goal 1 then goal 2 may be unnecessary but knowing the parameters we will learn a lot about ourselves, life, evolution, cosmology and the universe we live in. To determine the answers for the values we have to understand what goes into making a living planet, what is needed to get to intelligence, what are the conditions under which life may flourish on a planet. Obviously having some examples other than our own would be very helpful as we don’t know what the range of life forms that are viable other than our own. If we assume that it has to be like human then we may be constraining our search far too much.
Goal 3 Find a place to Colonize
We could simply be looking for a planet to send some humans eventually as a home and second homeland for humankind. This is a goal that has been talked about endlessly in sci-fi. It is something many yearn for. Others could care less. It would obviously be good for the species if we had a second home in case something happened to this home.
I believe the main reason for colonizing however is NOT just creating a second home in case this one fails but simply that life is obviously not common. We may be the only life in the universe. So far we have only seen life on Earth. If we are the sole example or not we are obligated to go as far as we can, to be as much as we can. To me attaining multi-world occupation would be proof humanity, life, our species whatever was more than if we did not. We have to do this or be pathetic. We don’t have to do it this moment but we don’t know how long we will have to do it. I think investing something in attaining this is a logical investment.
Goal 4 Find a place to spread our seed of life
Even if we cannot find a suitable place for us to colonize we may help the future of life in the universe by distributing the basic building blocks of life. Panspermia has been considered a very possible, maybe likely origin for life on earth. We would simply be returning the favor by sending robotic spaceship on a one way mission to find other planets that are friendly to life and seeding them with as many different types of starter soil as we can create. There are many tricks nature had to learn to get to the human species. Can we find a way to provide the building blocks to help other planets teem with life, so that even if the story of humanity or the earth ends up dying life itself may continue somewhere else. Possibly those folks will have a better “go” at it or spread their seed farther.
As I mentioned in Goal 3 life is precious and rare. If we don’t spread it then undoubtedly it will die out eventually here. I would be willing to spend a considerable amount of effort to spread the life elements to other planets to try and help life so that when we are gone eventually someplace life will continue and possibly on some planet exceed what we did. Otherwise the universe is nothing but dead rock and that just seems pointless to me.
Goal 5 Have a conversation
Travel to almost any other solar system even the very closest is a long long way off and may be impossible. What is the possibility we could have a conversation with another species? If this is our goal then we have to first find them as in Goal 1.
The problem with this goal is that changing technology is making what we think of as communication change. When we first starting pumping radio frequency waves into the sky we started to assume this is the way we would always communicate. However, since then we have discovered digital communication and fiber optics and now something called quantum communications and signatures. We also have learned to optimize information flow by compressing data.
What all these things mean is that discovering something that somebody on another planet is putting out is going to be ridiculously hard and possibly even impossible. Using quantum communication methods we can communicate without any possibility of being decoded. Compression means that any signal we see will look as much like noise as is possible. Other technologies don’t even use anything close to what we call radio frequencies.
In order for us to see someone else’s communication they have to be in the 50-100 year time span before they figured out how to communicate more efficiently or they must WANT TO communicate with us and are specifically putting out a signal for us to hear. If they were doing that and were sufficiently intelligent then they would do that very well.
If we expect others to do that then we should do the same. So, possibly the best thing we could do besides listening and trying to hear someone is to broadcast ourselves in as loud a way as we can using our technology to beam strong unmistakable signals out into the cosmos. Someone should fund such a project possibly but there is the concerns:
- That the time it would take to reach any likely civilization is huge and so we could not expect an answer
- That there may never be an answer
- That we may invite unwanted interest
This is a big part of the question. Do we really want to find other species or would we inevitably find ourselves in a struggle with any species we discovered or who discovered us?
Before we engage with another species out there maybe we should do goal 6) below and first practice living with other sentient species on this planet either artificial or man-made to be sure we are capable of this and get accustomed to the idea that we are not the most superior or that we won’t destroy or abuse any intelligence less than us. It is not clear humanity is mature enough to have such a conversation.
Goal 6 Create our own intelligent life here
If all these turn out to be not interesting or doable then there is still the possibility that we can create alternative life on this planet. Either through enhancing existing species genetically or by creating artificial intelligence.
This is really the crux of the problem.
If we consider the course of technology we are on it becomes apparent that the human race will not be the human race in a few centuries.
We will understand and be able to manipulate our genetic information better and better and there is no way that humans can resist improving ourselves. The competitive nature of humans, our desire to do well for our offspring, the need to eliminate “diseases” and deficiencies as much as possible to make things fair or to beat the next person etc will drive us to keep improving ourselves. Even if some countries outlaw it other countries will take advantage. It is hard to imagine how this will be stopped. At some point we will have to say that we aren’t homo sapien anymore.
Combine this with AI and the likely ability at some point to merge biological and computer technology in one along with quantum computers and we are probably talking about a different kind of intelligence in 100 years. Will people resist the ability to bring back extinct species ala Jurrasic Park or to engineer new species from existing creatures?
We will see a growing diversity of what we call sentience on Earth itself.
All the goals above have a positive purpose to extend our knowledge, to enhance the survival of humanity or just life itself. There is a dark side.
The fact that humans always try to elevate ourselves over everything else and dominate each other trying to kill or crush anyone who would threaten our sense of superiority and control.
History is filled with our constant pathetic need to dominate everything that competes with us. We are extremely brutal, competitive species by nature undoubtedly because of evolution.
So, if we did ever find another species that had intelligence would we do what some scientists say we did to Neanderthal and wipe them out because we can’t stand the very idea of somebody being our equal or better? Maybe it is better we are alone.
I will table that point and presume our goal is not subconsciously to find competitors to fight and kill and move on to talk about and analyze the other goals into their likelihood of success and what we can achieve in what time frames. I will also address my own assessment of the likelihood of life we will find. I think you will find my answer surprising. In fact, I wonder why more scientists don’t state what I think is fairly obvious.