Humans have invented a rogue gallery of nightmarish fictional aliens over the decades: acid-blooded xenomorphs who want to eat us and lay their eggs in our chest cavities; blurred area Kanamits who want to fatten us up like cows and eat us; those lizard creatures in the 1980s miniseries V who want to harvest us for food. (You may be sensing a theme here.)
But the scariest sight 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 using a radio telescope receives a signal from the Andromeda Nebula in space. They realize the message contains plans for the development of a highly advanced computer that generates a living organism called Andromeda.
Andromeda is quickly co-opted by the military for its technological skills, but scientists discover that its true purpose – and that of the computer and the original signal from space – is to subjugate humanity and prepare the way for alien colonization.
Nobody gets eaten A for Andromeda, but it’s chilling precisely because it describes a scenario that some scientists believe could pose a real existential threat from outer space, one that benefits from the very curiosity that drives us to gaze at the stars. If highly advanced aliens really wanted to conquer Earth, the most effective way would probably not be through fleets of warships traversing the stellar vastness. 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 uncharted sea of hypothesis. Personally, I fall on the Agent Scully side of the alien believer spectrum. The revelation of intelligent extraterrestrials would be an extraordinary event, and as SETI pioneer Carl Sagan himself once said, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”
Intelligent extraterrestrials who would also like to hack our planet would be even more extraordinary. But that scenario got a little easier to contemplate this week.
On Wednesday, an article published in China’s 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 article, which quotes the leader of an extraterrestrial civilization research team launched in China in 2020, the narrowband electromagnetic signals detected by the telescope differed from previous signals and were under investigation.
The story was apparently deleted from the internet for unknown reasons, but not before being picked up by other outlets. At this point, it’s hard to know what, if anything, to make of the story or its disappearance. It wouldn’t be the first time an alien research team found a signal that seemed notable, only to discard it after further research. But the news is a reminder that there is little clear agreement on how the world should handle an authenticated message from an apparent extraterrestrial civilization, or if it can even be done safely.
Despite all the recent interest in UFO sightings – including NASA’s startling announcement last week that it would be launching a survey team to investigate what it calls “unidentified aerial phenomena” – the likelihood of extraterrestrials physically visiting Earth is extremely low. The reason is simple: the space is big. Like, really, really, really big. And the idea that after decades of unsuccessful ET research, there might be extraterrestrial civilizations capable of traversing interstellar distances and appearing on our planetary doorstep defies belief.
But transmitting gigabytes of data over these vast interstellar distances would be relatively easy. After all, human beings have been doing a variation of it for decades through something called active messaging.
In 1974, astronomer Frank Drake used the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico to send 168 seconds of two-tone sound to the M13 star system. It sounded like noise, but any listening alien might have noticed a clear, repeating pattern indicating its unnatural origin – precisely the kind of signal that radio telescopes like China’s Sky Eye listen for here on Earth.
These active messaging efforts were controversial from the start. Beyond the debate over who exactly should decide on Earth’s behalf when we try to say “hello” to aliens and what that message should be, conveying our existence and location to unknown inhabitants of the cosmos could be inherently dangerous.
“As far as we know,” wrote then-Astronomer Royal Martin Ryle shortly after Arecibo’s message, “every creature out there might be malevolent – and hungry.”
These concerns have not stopped efforts to actively point out extraterrestrial civilizations that are “very likely to be older and more technologically advanced than us,” as Sigal Samuel wrote in a 2019 post about a competition. participatory to update Arecibo’s message. . But we shouldn’t be so sure that simply listening silently to messages from space is a safer method of extraterrestrial discovery.
In a 2012 article, Russian transhumanist Alexey Turchin described what he called “the global catastrophic risks of finding an alien AI message” when searching for intelligent life. The storyline unfolds similarly to the plot of A for Andromeda. An alien civilization creates a signal beacon in space of clearly unnatural origin that catches our attention. A nearby radio transmitter sends a message with instructions on how to build an incredibly advanced computer that could create alien AI.
The result is a cosmic-scale phishing attempt. Much like a malware attack that takes over a user’s computer, advanced alien AI could quickly take over Earth’s infrastructure – and us with it. (Other members of the wider existential risk community have raised similar concerns that hostile extraterrestrials may be targeting us with malicious information.)
What can we do to protect ourselves? Well we could just choose not to build the alien computer. But Turchin speculates that the message would also contain “bait” in the form of promises that the computer could, for example, solve our greatest existential challenges or provide unlimited power to those who control it.
Geopolitics would also play a role. Just as international competition has driven nations in the past to embrace dangerous technologies – like nuclear weapons – lest their adversaries do so first, the same could happen again if there is a message from space. How confident would policymakers in Washington be that China would safely process such a signal if it received one first – or vice versa?
When it comes to existential risks, cosmic malware doesn’t compare to runaway climate change or man-made pandemics. Someone or something should be out there to send this malicious message, and the more exoplanets we discover that could conceivably support life, the weirder it is that we haven’t seen concrete evidence of that life yet.
One day in 1950, at Los Alamos National Laboratory, physicist Enrico Fermi posed a question to his lunch companions. Considering the size and age of the universe, which should have left plenty of room and time for extraterrestrial life, why haven’t we seen them? In other words: “Where is everyone?”
Scientists have come up with dozens of answers to his question, 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 originally appeared in the Future Perfect newsletter. Sign up here to subscribe!