Monday, February 17, 2014

"Alien signals will be discovered by 2040"

Seth Shostak has made a bold and concrete prediction:

"Astronomers will have scanned enough star systems by 2040 that we'll have discovered alien-produced electromagnetic signals."

I know that I have had my obvious issues with Shostak in the past, but I find myself falling in line with his thinking as described at the link.  Maybe not as far as the prediction itself but I am very intrigued with the logic that led him to say it.

Up until now, the search for extraterrestrial signals has been confined to reaches of space that contain Earth-like planets.  These exoplanets inhabit the cheekily-termed "Goldilocks zone" where conditions are thought to be "just right" for the rise of life.  This is, of course, based on our own understanding of biology.

But what if, as Shostak and many others argue, the natural evolution of intelligent life is to shuck biology in favor of technology?  We could be living in a "transhuman universe" where the petty needs of carbon-based life and the requirement of "Goldilocks zones" no longer apply.  Intelligent computers would be immortal and would contain the cumulative knowledge of all of its predecessors.  "It's life, Jim, but not as we know it."

It may therefore be more likely that we will detect signals or artifacts from sentient AIs as opposed to the purely biological variety of aliens.  As Shostak points out, most interestingly as a matter of fact, this shifts the search from comparatively narrow "Golidlocks zones" to young stars or the dense center of the galaxy.  Why?  Because sentient machines would likely only have an interest in matter and energy.  In those locations, such things could be found in ample supply.

"Machines have different needs," Shostak says.  "They have no obvious limits to the length of their existence, and consequently could dominate the intelligence of the cosmos."

He also acknowledges the admittedly short span of time in which a civilization would utilize electromagnetic transmissions.  Even us humans have had only a few decades of radio signals before switching over towards digital transmissions.  So going back to the initial prediction, I'm still not certain why SETI is stuck on electromagnetic signals with the exception that there could still be a few waves bouncing about in space from a civilization's technological infancy.

It has potential.  More than anything, I can appreciate this shift in thinking.  Our merging with technology is almost a foregone conclusion at this point.  It is not at all illogical to suppose that an older and more advanced civilization would have passed this node of development long ago and achieved the august state described previously.  

When I first saw the headline, I confess that I believed it was Shostak fighting to financially justify SETI.  That might still be the case, but I can't fight his logic.  If anything, I hope we find that signal far prior to 2040.

Then again, would "they" tell us if we did?

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