Over the decades, humans have invented a rogue gallery of nightmarish fictional aliens: acid-blooded xenomorphs that want to eat us and lay their eggs in our chest cavities; twilight zone Kanamits who want to fatten and eat us like cows; those lizard creatures in the 80s miniseries V who want to harvest us for food. (You may feel a theme here.)
But the most terrifying vision isn’t an alien at all – it’s a computer program.
In the 1961 science fiction drama A for Andromeda, written by British cosmologist Fred Hoyle, a group of scientists running a radio telescope receives a signal from the Andromeda Galaxy in space. They realize that the message contains blueprints for the development of a highly advanced computer that generates a living organism called Andromeda.
Andromeda is quickly co-opted by the military for his technological prowess, but the scientists discover that its true purpose – and that of the computer and the original signal from space – is to subdue humanity and clear the way for alien colonization.
No one gets eaten A for Andromeda, but it’s actually chilling because it paints a scenario that some scientists believe could be a real existential threat from space, one that takes advantage of the curiosity that leads us to look at the stars. If highly advanced aliens really wanted to conquer Earth, the most effective way probably wouldn’t be through fleets of warships crossing the stellar expanse. It would be through information that could be sent much faster. Call it ‘cosmic malware’.
To seriously discuss the possibility of extraterrestrial life is to embark on an unprecedented sea of hypotheses. Personally, I fall on the Agent Scully end of the spectrum of extraterrestrial believers. The revelation of intelligent aliens would be an extraordinary event, and as SETI pioneer Carl Sagan himself once said, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”
Intelligent aliens who also want to hack into our planet would be even more special. But this scenario got a little easier to imagine this week.
On Wednesday, an article in the Chinese state-backed Science and Technology Daily reported that the country’s giant Sky Eye radio telescope had picked up unusual signals from space. According to the piece, which quoted the head of an alien civilizations search team launched in China in 2020, the narrow-band electromagnetic signals detected by the telescope differed from previous signals and were being examined.
The story was apparently taken off the internet for unknown reasons, but not before it was picked up by other outlets. At the moment it is difficult to know what to make of the story or its disappearance. It wouldn’t be the first time an alien search team found a signal that seemed remarkable, only to reject it after further investigation. But the news reminds us that there’s little clear agreement on how the world should handle a verified message from an apparently alien civilization, or if it can even be done safely.
Despite all the recent interest in UFO sightings — including NASA’s surprising announcement last week that it would launch a study team to investigate what it calls “unidentified aerial phenomena” — the chances of aliens physically visiting Earth are vanishingly slim. The reason is simple: the space is large. Like, really, really, really big. And the idea that after decades of unsuccessful searches for aliens, there could be alien civilizations that can span interstellar distances and appear on our planetary doorstep is unbelievable.
But transmitting gigabytes of data over those vast interstellar distances would be relatively easy. After all, people have been doing a variation on that for decades through what’s known as active messaging.
In 1974, astronomer Frank Drake used the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico to blast 168 seconds of two-tone sound toward the star system M13. It sounded like noise, but any aliens listening may have noticed a distinct, repetitive structure that indicates the origin was unnatural — exactly the kind of signal radio telescopes like China’s Sky Eye are listening for here on Earth.
Such active messaging efforts were controversial from the start. Aside from the debate over who exactly should decide on behalf of Earth when we try to say “hello” to aliens and what that message should be, relaying our existence and location to unknown inhabitants of the cosmos would be inherently dangerous. can be.
“As far as we know,” wrote then-astronomer Royal Martin Ryle shortly after the Arecibo message, “all creatures can be evil — and hungry.”
Those concerns have not put an end to efforts to actively signal alien civilizations that are “very likely older and more technologically advanced than us,” as Sigal Samuel wrote in a 2019 story about a crowdsourced competition to support the Arecibo message. to work . But we shouldn’t be so sure that just quietly listening to messages from space is a safer method of making extraterrestrial discoveries.
In a 2012 paper, Russian transhumanist Alexey Turchin described what he called “global catastrophic risks of finding an alien AI message” during the search for intelligent life. The scenario unfolds in the same way as A’s plot for Andromeda. An alien civilization creates a signal beacon in space of clearly unnatural origin that draws our attention. A nearby radio station sends a message with instructions on how to build an impossibly advanced computer that could create an alien AI.
The result is a phishing attempt on a cosmic scale. Like a malware attack that takes over a user’s computer, the advanced alien AI can quickly take over Earth’s infrastructure – and us with it. (Others in the wider existential risk community have expressed similar concerns that hostile aliens could attack us with malicious information.)
What can we do to protect ourselves? Well, we could just choose not to build the alien computer. But Turchin reckons the message would also contain “bait” in the form of promises that the computer could, for example, solve our greatest existential challenges or give unlimited power to those who control it.
Geopolitics would also play a role. Just as international competition has led countries to embrace dangerous technologies in the past – such as nuclear weapons – for fear that their adversaries would be the first to do so, the same could happen again in the case of a message from space. How confident would policymakers in Washington be that China would safely handle such a signal if it received one first — or vice versa?
In terms of existential risks, cosmic malware cannot be compared to uncontrolled climate change or manipulated pandemics. There should be someone or something to send that evil message, and the more exoplanets we discover that could potentially support life, the weirder it is that we haven’t seen any concrete evidence of that life yet.
One day in 1950, at Los Alamos National Laboratory, physicist Enrico Fermi asked his lunchmates a question. Given the sheer size and age of the universe, which should have provided enough space and time for extraterrestrial life to emerge, why haven’t we seen them? In other words, “Where is everyone?”
Scientists have provided dozens of answers to his question, which became known as the “Fermi paradox.” But perhaps the correct answer is the simplest: no one is home. It would be a lonely answer, but at least it would be a safe answer.
A version of this story initially appeared in the Future Perfect newsletter. Sign up here to subscribe!