Sending messages to aliens is not dangerous as any aliens advanced enough to visit Earth already know we are here, the president of Meti (Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence) has said. Douglas Vakoch and Meti recently announced their plans to take a more active role in the search for intelligent extraterrestrial life by sending out messages in the hope of a response.
In January, what was Seti International was rebranded as Meti International to reflect this shift. And plans to send messages into the cosmos are steaming ahead. Over the next three years, members plan to work out how to create messages suitable for beaming into space. They are looking at creating a design project – how to explain life on Earth in a way an alien civilisation could understand. "At this stage we don't have plans to transmit but our hope is in the next two to three years we will be," he told IBTimes UK.
While Meti International will continue to carry out optical work (listening out for potential alien signals), it wants to place greater emphasis and resources on sending messages. The main objection from this in the past had been the amount of time it could take to get a reply back – it will likely be decades, hundreds if not thousands of years, so what's the point? This, Vakoch says, is where Meti differs from Seti – they want to create a project that will be passed down through generations.
"It's not a matter of waiting for the technology to catch up, it's a matter of waiting for society to catch up. We have the technology to communicate across the galaxy right now, but we're not very good at having the patience to wait for a reply back," he said.
"Built into our organisation is the recognition that we need to be able to think beyond the present moment. I think the typical mentality is thinking about what we need to do, how we succeed over next one, five or 10 years. But to have a project that involves a two-way conversation with another civilisation is one which is really a multigenerational project."
Another big concern cited by many over actively sending messages into space is the potential danger it poses. Could we be alerting our presence to a civilisation that wants to exterminate us? Or one that has the technology to visit Earth and become our alien overlords? Hollywood depictions of alien invasions compound this idea, Vakoch added.
"No less person than Stephen Hawking warned that we should not be transmitting evidence of our existence because aliens might come and strip mine our planet for its resources," he said. "And one of our objectives at Meti International is to unpack that concern, because I think fear is one of the big obstacles to mounting a sustained Meti project - and it's unjustified.
"The reality is that if there is a tremendously advanced civilisation they may have the capacity to come to Earth but if that's the case they also have the capacity to pick up our accidental leakage radiation, our radio transmissions. If they have the ability to travel between the stars they already know we are here. So there's no increased risk of revealing ourselves to a civilisation that has the capacity to do us harm."
Indeed, the ones Meti could potentially target are civilisations similar to our own – ones that do not know about us. We cannot yet travel to other solar systems, so pose no real threat to any alien civilisations out there. Vakoch said: "So the argument is that it's actually to our best advantage if they know us, if they know we're here already, to take the message into our hands and portray ourselves as we wish rather than accidentally portraying ourselves [in a bad light]."
So Meti is looking at how alien communication might have evolved, and what messages could convey life on Earth. At a meeting in Puerto Rico in May, Meti will present a number of papers addressing this idea – entitled The Intelligence Of SETI: Cognition And Communication In Extraterrestrial Intelligence.
Speakers from a host of fields will present ideas about communication, looking at different methods of presenting messages (art and dance, for example), to different types of intelligence – what if intelligence in aliens is more like that seen in an octopus than a human? What traits would be promoted if sexual selection takes place? What happens if we find alien machines, which have evolved away from their original creators and have nothing in common with organic life forms?
"I think at a biological level it's difficult to imagine complex life arising outside of a Darwinian evolution. But I think it's quite easy to imagine ... if we shift to the idea of cultural evolution or artificial intelligence," he said.
"If we're communicating with a civilisation that has been around for thousands if not millions of years maybe intelligence on that world has followed the course that some people are projecting for the course of intelligence on earth in the next century or two, in that it might be silicon based, it could be super smart computers. That doesn't require Darwinian evolution so I think the challenge is always to try to imaging a mechanism outside of what we know here on Earth."
Because we do not know how extraterrestrial intelligence might communicate, Vakoch believes we should send out lots of messages. He said: "I think it could be unproductive to focus on a single best message – our best alternative is to keep on looking for alternative sorts of messages. I sure hope they're going to beam us a load of prime numbers and we can say 'a-ha, we know maths'. But maybe that's not it. I think a more productive strategy is to think about the various divergent forms of messages we might transmit.
"We don't want to send something that we think will be interpreted as threatening. My goal would to be say as many things as we can in the hope that one of them would be understandable."
Armed with a plethora of messages and ever-advancing technology, Vakoch believes we could make contact in the next two decades – being able to analyse more data from increasingly powerful telescopes will make it far easier to find planets that could be habitable, and then messages can be directed at them.
He said: "It's realistic to make contact in the next 20 years, say. The key is the increase in technology. Much of the search is constrained by how much data we can analyse and computing power is getting cheaper every passing year. When you keep multiplying that over the course of decades – we've looked at tens of thousands of stars pretty closely. That could turn into millions in 20 years. Those are the sorts of numbers where it becomes reasonable to find intelligence if it's out there and it's signalling.
"Maybe they're out there and maybe everyone is doing what we are, which is not transmitting. So Meti is the audacious act of saying if we want to benefit by detecting another civilisation, we should do our part to let them know we are here. If you're in a party and you just keep hanging over by the wall and not introducing yourself, you're not going to strike up any conversations. Meti is joining the cosmic party."