SETI: We need to search for planetary intelligence, not intelligent life.

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It is said that Mahatma Gandhi, when asked about Western civilization, remarked, “I think it would be a good idea.” That’s how I feel about intelligent life on Earth, especially when I think about the question of what truly intelligent life might look like elsewhere in the universe.

What do we mean by intelligence? Like life, it’s hard to define, but we need to if we want to search for it. Among the radio astronomers of SETI—the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence—it’s only sort-of a joke that the true hallmark of intelligent life is the creation of radio astronomy.

Modern SETI was born as the Cold War simmered. In late 1959 Giuseppe Cocconi and Philip Morrison published, in Nature, calculations showing that radio telescopes could transmit signals across interstellar distances. In 1960 Frank Drake decided to search, using the Green Bank Radio Observatory in West Virginia. He also led a workshop there, which produced the famous “Drake equation” for determining the number of broadcasting civilizations by taking into account the number of stars, the number of stars likely to have planets, etc. It was never meant to calculate a specific answer so much as to frame the discussion about how development of planets, life, and civilizations could affect the likelihood of finding anyone out there to talk to.

When you do the math, the answer depends most crucially on the factor Drake called L—the average longevity of a civilization. If L is small—say, less than 1,000 years—then the distance between civilizations is vast, and the chances of SETI succeeding are nil. But if L is large—say, millions of years—then the galaxy should be full of chattering sentience, some quite near.

Wondering whether other geek civilizations could survive for long periods is an excellent way for us to think, from a slightly different perspective, about our current problems. Given those precarious times, it made sense that SETI pioneers like Drake, Morrison, and Carl Sagan imagined that if L were short, it was because most civilizations might “blow themselves up” in a nuclear holocaust. Given our current anthropocene anxieties, present-day discussions about L often focus on the existential threat of climate change or resource exhaustion and the challenges of sustainability. But the linking, overarching question is: Can an advanced technological species develop a long-term stable relationship with world-changing technology?

In fact, I would argue that this makes a better operational definition of intelligence than the “radio intelligence” characterization given above. If you look at how we define intelligence here on Earth, it has to do with abilities like abstract thought, symbolic language, and problem-solving. Such a definition certainly qualifies individual humans (with honorable mentions going to several other terrestrial species). But what good is all this so-called intelligence if we can’t insure our civilization’s survival against the problems we’re creating with all of our technical cleverness—if we don’t have our act together as a global entity? We’re at least momentarily stuck in this weird stage we might call proto-intelligence.

Written By: David H. Grinspoon
continue to source article at slate.com

23 COMMENTS

  1. But what good is all this so-called intelligence if we can’t insure our civilization’s survival against the problems we’re creating with all of our technical cleverness—if we don’t have our act together as a global entity? We’re at least momentarily stuck in this weird stage we might call proto-intelligence.

    Unfortunately with the present crop of politicians, company bonus seeking executives, and ambitious military commanders, our technological civilisation is a bit like high-powered motor verhicles -

    Designed by first-class scientists and engineers, built by sophisticated robots – driven by overgrown boy-racers (of various ages and sexes) who think they are the greatest!

    • In reply to #1 by Alan4discussion:

      ….driven by overgrown boy-racers (of various ages and sexes) who think they are the greatest!

      And who will do anything to get ahead. Even if that risks causing a major traffic accident involving death and injury. Loud and clear my friend. A far cry from Mr. Spock’s “the need of the many…”, our civilization operates mainly on the principle of “the tail wagging the dog”. We actually live according to the opposite credo: the need of the few seem to outweigh the need of the many.

    • In reply to #3 by headswapboy:

      I look forward to the day when alien intelligences will be able to contribute to rdf.

      Have you not spotted the YECs and IDiots – although I’ll grant you their claim to intelligence is marginal!

      Maybe the Capuchins, Chimps or computers, will be the next to make that step.

  2. Reply to NearlyNakedApe # 4.

    “Tail wagging the dog” indeed.

    Nissan has just announced that if we in the UK vote to leave the EU they won’t locate here any more. Figure it out!

    • In reply to #6 by Stafford Gordon:

      Reply to NearlyNakedApe # 4.

      “Tail wagging the dog” indeed.

      Nissan has just announced that if we in the UK vote to leave the EU they won’t locate here any more. Figure it out!

      Would you rather they hadn’t told us?

  3. Human civilisation will be very brief. Consider no radio for 4 billion years, then a period of perhaps 300 years of it before it goes out again. We will be gone before anyone notices our broadcasts. The very speed with which we developed our technology is our downfall. Watson, in his book DNA, said that his big mistake was pausing to check if genetic research required special precautions. He believes he should have just barged ahead without checking. We are not nearly cautious enough for a sustainable civilisation. A sustainable civilisation would have checked before releasing the automobile what effect the emissions would have. Instead leaders ignore imminent doom of climate change. Our approach always is to presume harmlessness, then think about fixing the problem only after it has become untenable. But by then the economics of fixing it becomes unthinkable. For sustainability, we would need to be much more cautious, much more concerned about the future, much less greedy and much more concerned about the well-being of the entire planet.
    Those are not qualities you would expect to find in a band of carnivorous apes. Whales are slowed down by the lack of manipulator limbs. Octopodes have an extreme concern for their young. That might be a good starting point. Their shorter lives might also slow down cultural progress.

    • In reply to #7 by Roedy:

      Human civilisation will be very brief. Consider no radio for 4 billion years, then a period of perhaps 300 years of it before it goes out again. We will be gone before anyone notices our broadcasts. The very speed with which we developed our technology is our downfall. Watson, in his book DNA, said…

      Greed and carelessness are the main problems.
      As long as “I” make a lot of money “now”, and/or as long as “I” have more “power” now, the rest (fellow humans, the future, etc…) is of no interest to me.

      That’s how too many humans behave…

  4. Goodness, this is all unimaginative. What we need here is to get the Science Fiction writers in on it.

    We may lose human civilisations to catastrophes natural and self inflicted, but so what? So long as we give a damn about our human and non human off-spring civilisations and their off-spring by planting decent seeds for them (Clarke Monoliths) we should manage “our” allotted 1.75 billion years to get it right.

    Maybe 9 billion people is a good number, especially if they are more or less educated. 9 billion are a lot smarter and more problem finding and solving than 9 million. They put more wealth and energy at our disposal for our galactic ventures and huge amounts of energy may be required especially when we get to move stuff to extend our stay. Whatever, they may give us the wealth to be able to afford Planetary Catastrophe Insurance. (Nine million tasked with providing Chicxulub II Defence, would be stuffed. Currently, it seems, we get a whole new unit of space capability per billion people. Welcome India!)

    To this end we have to accept that heavy water is the ultimate, heavy-lifting, fossil fuel and its premature use could set us (someone) back a couple of million years until the comet catchers get their act together and The Plumbers can set up the Water Canon on Enceladus to pipe/project top up supplies of Fuel Ice. Until then roll-on all varieties of solar energy. Solar-PV, solar-wind, solar-bio. (Tapping planetary angular momentum is a bit short term too.)

    What we lose sight of is the exceptional event we are witness to, an exploding animal culture, quite unlike anything before. A more rapid accumulation of knowledge and capability by many many orders of magnitude. We have no idea, not the faintest, if this can be snuffed out in the same way as the Dodo. As I said there may be many prodigious snuffings out to come, but half a billion years has us going in a steadily more interesting direction.

    • In reply to #11 by phil rimmer:

      Goodness, this is all unimaginative. What we need here is to get the Science Fiction writers in on it.

      Or maybe the scientists who do serious future vision research, speculation, and sci-fi?

      The British Interplanetary Society – Motto – From imagination to reality.

      http://www.bis-space.com/what-we-do/projects/project-icarus

      The purpose of Project Icarus is as follows:

      1. To design a credible interstellar probe that is a concept design for a potential mission in the coming centuries
      2. To allow a direct technology comparison with Daedalus and provide an assessment of the maturity of fusion based space propulsion for future precursor missions
      3. To generate greater interest in the real term prospects for interstellar precursor missions that are based on credible science
      4. To motivate a new generation of scientists to be interested in designing space missions that go beyond our solar system.

      There are several Terms of Reference for the Project Icarus study which essentially represent the engineering requirements. These are as follows:

      1. To design an unmanned probe that is capable of delivering useful scientific data about the target star, associated planetary bodies, solar environment and the interstellar medium
      2. The spacecraft must use current or near future technology and be designed to be launched as soon as is credibly determined
      3. The spacecraft must reach its stellar destination within as fast a time as possible, not exceeding a century and ideally much sooner
      4. The spacecraft must be designed to allow for a variety of target stars
      5. The spacecraft propulsion must be mainly fusion based (e.g. Daedalus)
      6. The spacecraft mission must be designed so as to allow some deceleration for increased encounter time at the destination.

      Some serious research is needed on the development of a large-scale VASIMR Fusion Drive.

      VX-200 VASIMR® PROTOTYPE INCREASES HIGH-POWER PERFORMANCE, DEMONSTRATES EFFICIENT CONSTANT POWER THROTTLING – http://www.adastrarocket.com/AdAstra-Release-July-27-2012-English.pdf

      Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket – From Wikipedia
      The Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMR) is an electro-magnetic thruster for spacecraft propulsion. It uses radio waves to ionize and heat a propellant, and magnetic fields to accelerate the resulting plasma to generate thrust. It is one of several types of spacecraft electric propulsion systems.

      A small prototype VASIMR rocket engine is currently being tested boosting the International Space Station’s orbit.

      http://www.engadget.com/2011/03/11/nasa-and-ad-astra-team-up-to-test-vasimr-plasma-rocket-in-space/

      To this end we have to accept that heavy water is the ultimate, heavy-lifting, fossil fuel and its premature use could set us (someone) back a couple of million years until the comet catchers get their act together

      See: http://www.richarddawkins.net/news-articles/2013/11/6/far-off-planets-like-the-earth-dot-the-galaxy#comment-box-11, for “comet catchers”!

      • In reply to #12 by Alan4discussion:

        In reply to #11 by phil rimmer:

        Goodness, this is all unimaginative. What we need here is to get the Science Fiction writers in on it.

        Or maybe the scientists who do serious future vision research, speculation, and sci-fi?

        Indeed. Though it was less the technology that was lacking but rather an alternative to THIS civilisation being the necessary survivor. It is the accumulation of knowledge and speculative thought that is deserving of some longevity and possibly be part of an intellectual panspermia, hence the Clarke Monolith seeds. The rest, I suspect is not going to happen in some coherent and useful way without some under-girding vision of the sort.

        • In reply to #13 by phil rimmer:
          >

          The rest, I suspect is not going to happen in some coherent and useful way without some under-girding vision of the sort.

          Hi Phil.

          There are people working on these objectives.

          The 100 year starship project plans a cultural change to not only create starships, but to bring about the cultural changes to facilitate the development of these.
          http://100yearstarshipstudy.com/

          The 100 Year Starship™ study was created by DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) in partnership with NASA Ames Research Center to explore the next generation technologies needed for long distance manned space travel.

          The goal of this study was to lay the foundation for designing a business model that would encourage private co-investment of the intellectual and financial capital required to achieve the necessary advancements in various fields of study over the next century.

          It was also an opportunity to spark the imaginations of students, academia, industry, researchers and the general population to ignite enthusiasm for continued research and advancements in technology and the exploration of space.

          http://100yss.org/

  5. Until the vast majority of our “intelligent” civilization on this planet stops believing in irrational deities and stops behaving irrationally, we cannot truly consider ourselves as intelligent life, despite our wishful thinking to the contrary.
    Unfortunately we still have a long way to go and the “L” factor in Drake’s equation, in my opinion still has a zero in front of it. jcw

  6. Given those precarious times, it made sense that SETI pioneers like Drake, Morrison, and Carl Sagan imagined that if L were short, it was because most civilizations might “blow themselves up” in a nuclear holocaust. Given our current anthropocene anxieties, present-day discussions about L often focus on the existential threat of climate change or resource exhaustion and the challenges of sustainability. But the linking, overarching question is: Can an advanced technological species develop a long-term stable relationship with world-changing technology?

    Related to this is the development of energy efficient communications technology. You may have heard of energy efficient street-lighting which directs the low-energy-loss light downwards on to the street avoiding scattering it into space. You may also be aware of narrow beam communication systems between dishes at various locations on satellites etc. It seems an anathema to me, to expect advanced civilisations to be throwing high powered communication signals in all, or widely scattered directions as early radio and TV did.

    We have a huge volume of data transmission today through satellites, relay masts, routers, etc. A key feature of these is that energy use, targeting, and the range of the signal, are closely controlled and closely limited.

    …Which raises the question, “Would such a mixture of directed signals be identified or even reach another civilisation?

    • In reply to #16 by Alan4discussion:

      “Would such a mixture of directed signals be identified or even reach another civilisation?

      Yes, the Drake Equation needs another term, the (probably brief) time a civilization spends loudly broadcasting its existence. About 100 years, I expect. Either the signals stop because of more efficient direct routing as Alan suggests, or because the civilization in question realizes it’s a bad idea to draw attention to itself, and goes into stealth mode.

  7. Another question to ask is: “Do we and do they really want to reveal themselves.” Hawking fears the prospect based on how advanced Western explorers brutalized people in the new world. So given that we might have neighbors, does it make more sense to keep the lights off and pretend we are not at home?

  8. I believe it would be acceptable to imagine that more evolved forms of intelligence could contact us, if they wished to, out of ‘charity’. But as F. Nietsche put forth, that is the utmost denial of life, and wouldn’t make any evolutionary sense.

  9. In reply to #20 by fpbarbi:

    I believe it would be acceptable to imagine that more evolved forms of intelligence could contact us, if they wished to, out of ‘charity’. But as F. Nietsche put forth, that is the utmost denial of life, and wouldn’t make any evolutionary sense.

    Are you talking about Friedrich Nietzsche? What quote are you talking about? Nietzsche is quite widely misquoted and even more so misunderstood.

    • In reply to #21 by Red Dog:

      In reply to #20 by fpbarbi:

      I believe it would be acceptable to imagine that more evolved forms of intelligence could contact us, if they wished to, out of ‘charity’. But as F. Nietsche put forth, that is the utmost denial of life, and wouldn’t make any evolutionary sense.

      I´m sorry it took too long. I wasn’t online: Maybe I’m misquotingm as you suggested, but it goes like this>

      “Pity preserves things that are ripe for decline, it defends things that have been disowned and condemned by life, and it gives a depressive and questionable character to life itself by keeping alive an abundance of failures of every type. People have dared to call pity a virtue… people have gone even further, making it into the virtue, the foundation and source of all virtues, – but of course you always have to keep in mind that this was the perspective of a nihilistic philosophy that inscribed the negation of life on its shield. Schopenhauer was right here: pity negates life, it makes life worthy of negation, – pity is the practice of nihilism. Once more: this depressive and contagious instinct runs counter to the instincts that preserve and enhance the value of life: by multiplying misery just as much as by conserving everything miserable, pity is one of the main tools used to increase decadence – pity wins people over to nothingness! … You do not say ‘nothingness’ : instead you say ‘the beyond’; or ‘God’; or ‘the true life’; or nirvana, salvation, blessedness … This innocent rhetoric from the realm of religious-moral idiosyncrasy suddenly appears much less innocent when you see precisely which tendencies are wrapped up inside these sublime words: tendencies hostile to life.”
      ― Friedrich Nietzsche, The Anti-Christ

      Are you talking about Fr…

      • In reply to #22 by fpbarbi:

        In reply to #21 by Red Dog:

        In reply to #20 by fpbarbi:

        I believe it would be acceptable to imagine that more evolved forms of intelligence could contact us, if they wished to, out of ‘charity’. But as F. Nietsche put forth, that is the utmost denial of life, and wouldn’t make any evolutionary sen…

        Good reply. In spite of that quote though, I don’t think Nietzsche was really against the idea that people should treat each other with kindness. Here are some things to keep in mind in regard to that quote. First, the Anti-Christ was one of his last works when he was ill and the illness was having an impact on his mind. He always wrote in a very dramatic style, for him it was as much about the way you said it as what you said and it’s why many of his quotes can be taken out of context and seem to imply he was antisemitic (if anything he was the opposite, he thought the old testament was superior to the new) and promoting idea of racially superior men dominating the world.

        Second, IMO what he was really complaining about in that quote and in other passages was not the idea of love or compassion in general but the overly simplistic views of them that were being promoted at the time especially as part of Christianity. It was Christianity that he hated not charity or love. Also, for him I think unconditional love was meaningless and even something to be loathed, not because love per se was bad but because just loving someone unconditionally is what a non-human animal does. What makes humans different is that we alone (this is my interpretation of Nietzsche not necessarily what I think) have the ability to make value judgements and one of the most important ones we can make is to love someone because of who they are.

        Finally, he was very unhappy in the later parts of his life and I think he felt resentment that people didn’t really understand what he was trying to say (which is ironic given that he almost went out of his way to be enigmatic at times) and also that he was getting pity from his friends which was the last thing he wanted.

        But I admit that quote supports your point of view better than it does mine. One of these days I’m going to go back and re-read some of his earlier works. I think he actually came up with a lot of ideas, about how science shouldn’t be limited to just the natural sciences for example, that were way ahead of his time and that even to this day he isn’t appreciated for the genius he was.

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