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    Where Are All The Aliens?
    By Dan Gillick | May 13th 2010 12:17 PM | 40 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Dan

    Wesleyan University -> UC Berkeley -> Research at Google I'm not sure where this walk will take me, but that's part of the point of walks....

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    Richard Dawkins suggested that the first measure of an intelligent species, should two chance to meet, would be whether they understood how they came to be. I imagine such a remarkable exchange of cosmic existentialism set on a hovering space dongle, lit only by the faint glow of distant ringed planets:

    “Hey, you know about evolution?”
    “Yep”

    And with these words, the warmth of science would triumph over the cold curve of the ever widening Universe, at least for a moment.

    The SETI at Home project distributes the search for intelligent communication across persoonal computers

    Will such an exchange ever take place? Why haven’t we met an aliens yet? Are we likely to? I did some reading, and found these three perspectives interesting:

    (1) Nick Bostrom

    If conditions are right, intelligent life will develop eventually. So why haven’t we encountered any aliens? Bostrom describes the Great Filter (attributed to Robin Hanson, who is really responsible for most of these ideas): Either the right conditions are so extraordinarily rare that we are basically alone, or plenty of intelligent life has evolved but it destroyed itself before it had a chance to contact us.

    There seems like a lot of room in between these two extremes--extraterrestrials that are hiding, undetected in a distant galaxy--but Bostrom argues that a vast time scale makes this intermediate possibility much less likely. That is, once you have intelligent life, time is short before it begins broadcasting its presence, colonizing via self-replicating robots. Does this seem far off for our own civilization? Well what about in a million years?

    Perhaps the Great Filter is behind us: the conditions required for the evolution of intelligent life are so rare that of 125 billion galaxies and 6x1018 stars with orbiting planets, none besides us managed it in the last 13 billion years. There is considerable speculation about how this could be, but less focus on the other possibility: the Filter is ahead of us. Somehow, all intelligent life finds its way down one dramatically destructive dead end. Nuclear annihilation? Induced black hole? Destructive artificial intelligence?

    Bostrom avoids taking sides. Rather, he points out that the longer we go without bumping into any aliens, the more reason to be optimistic that the Filter is behind us. So while most people would be excited about the discovery of life on Mars, Bostrom would be upset: life is not so rare after all; it just destroys itself quickly, and there’s no reason to think we will avoid this fate.

    (2) Francis Crick

    Francis Crick suggested that life may have originated on Earth through “Directed Panspermia”. That is, seeds of life were spread to various planets by an advanced civilization that faced catastrophic destruction, or perhaps as part of a farming experiment. The seeds--particularly robust microbes, for example--might be attached to meteors or set afloat on solar sails aimed at newly forming stars. Directed Panspermia bypasses the Great Filter: we don’t need to explain the probability of life evolving on Earth relative to other planets because it didn’t happen organically.

    Geoffrey Miller

    Recent data suggests that the Great Filter is not behind us. Many scientists think there’s a good chance the Universe has plenty of intelligent life. And exponential colonization seems reasonable given enough time. So where is everybody? This perspective is known as Fermi’s Paradox (after Enrico Fermi). Miller suggests that the radio silence is not the result of anything so dramatic as nuclear annihilation. Rather, the culprit is a gradual but inexorable addiction to video games as engineering of artificial stimuli surpasses natural pleasures. In deference to religious fundamentalists the world over, Miller calls this the Great Temptation.

    -----

    I’ve summarized these three perspectives very succinctly. The original articles are excellent (see references below) What am I missing?

    Sources:
    Bostrom: Where Are They? Why I hope that the search for extraterrestrial life finds nothing
    Hanson: The Great Filter: Are We Almost Past It?
    Miller: Why We Haven't Met Any Aliens
    Wikipedia on Panspermia

    Comments

    Gerhard Adam
    I think the argument is invariably flawed if we don't make a specific explicit distinction between "life" and "intelligent life". 

    There is absolutely no basis for assuming that biological evolution necessarily leads to something that we would recognize as "intelligence".  There are numerous species on earth that are clearly "intelligent", but not of a degree that would warrant space exploration or communication.  Invariably people usually think in terms of human intelligence, but even here, one would have to consider what that actually means.  Human intelligence hasn't varied dramatically over centuries and even millenia.  While it can certainly be argued that we have acquired more knowledge over time, the fundamental notion of intelligence is not a condition that automatically leads to extraterrestrial communication.

    When this is coupled with the fact that our modern societies are primarily a product of a unique social distribution and division of labor, the argument can be further advanced that intelligence is meaningless without such a corresponding social evolution.  After all, it isn't our individual human abilities that will determine our ability to explore space or communicate, but rather our collective development as a society that will make that determination.

    In short, far too much is made of biology and intelligence alone as if these are simply singular attributes that are capable of such achievements.  There is much more involved than the simplistic notions of "human intelligence".
    Mundus vult decipi
    renier van rooyen
    Yes, I tend to agree with your saying: " I think the argument is invariably flawed if we don't make a distinction between "life" and "intelligent" life. "

    The dinosaurs lived well beyond 200 Million years and flourished but intelligence per se, they didn't aquire in all this time. Its not that simple to define intelligence. Homo sapien sapien have had intelligence from its inception of our species and it evolved into industrious intelligence and only in less then 100 years were we able to use the electromagnetic spectrum as a means of communication.

    Scientists from SETI are listening for signals from outer space without any result and this isn't surprising, because we simply assume, once again, that anything out there will also transmit.

    * The Dolphins, Whales et al are also intelligent and communicate efficiently over distances beyond our comprehension, albeit under water........
    There is another elephant in the room which is interstellar distance. If the most powerful nation on this planet cannot afford to make a second trip to our local moon then its not looking good that Humanity will ever make it out of the solar system. Physics tells us that travel even to the nearest stars would be a costly affair, I don't think that Human society will ever be able to afford the cost of getting out of the solar system. Also it seems unlikely that civilization will persist long enough to have the capability to do so given the likelihood that we will trigger an environmental tipping point like climate change on current evidence. I think that intelligent life is very common but I think that intelligent life that makes it out of its own solar system is impossible.

    there was more than the one moon landing - Appollo 11 to 17, with the exception of 13 landed people on the moon.

    You are absolutely correct about money being the giant elephant in the room. The U.S. along with most of the civilized world is bankrupt. Man flights to the Moon or Mars will range into the billions. You can forget about interstellar space travel we probably would be talking trillions of dollars. The only solution we have is to dramatically change how our society is governed. The Venus Project founded by Jacque Fresco advocates revamping society into a Resource Based Economy. We would do away with the monetary system, we would let super computers manage and share the worlds resourced intelligently. This new society you will see the end of war, crime, poverty, and hunger in the world. Everyone will have free access to education. Jobs would be a thing of the past. Humans would be free to pursue any creative endevour they wanted. The scientific method would be use to arrive at solutions. We will no longer need leaders, presidents, kings, dictators, politicians to solve our problems. We have the technology at this moment to achieve this. The human race must wake up and come together to make a better world for all Gods children. We would much more advanced civilization if everyone is educated and money is no longer a barrier to the needs of the human race.

    Gerhard Adam
    We will no longer need leaders, presidents, kings, dictators, politicians to solve our problems.


    That's where you've made your first mistake...

    Why would you believe that these "leaders" exist to solve problems?  Power exists as an objective by itself, and I would argue that our modern society is based on this as an explicit requirement.  It will not change, because it was this modification to our cultural beliefs that gave rise to the society we have today. 

    It would be like arguing a return to tribal society.  There is never a return, and there is never a state of equality as you're envisioning.  The only difference in your scenario is that you're envisioning turning the power over to supercomputers (although that makes no sense since there is no such independent system in existence).   I don't understand why you would believe that computers can share resources "intelligently" since that is one attribute they uniformly lack.

    Whatever problems exist will not go away by relinguishing our freedom to an external entity (computer or otherwise).  Humans created these problems and humans can choose to solve them.  While I don't personally believe we will make that choice, it's all we have to work with and either we do it intelligently or react to whatever consequences occur. 

    Mundus vult decipi
    We have a supercomputer (CRAY XT6) that exsist today that can perform around 1 million billion calculations in a second, which is dedicted to climate control. We can duplicate a computer like this and dedicate it to intelligently manage the Earths resources. Never doubt human ingenuity, this can be done easily, we have the technology. Most science fiction is now fiction, check out Roboticnation.blogspot.com. Our capabilities our endless.
    You are correct when it comes to our leaders, it is more of a power thing, but that power struggle will be the demise of the human race. The problem with our society is that we don't solve problems. We put band aids on them. A couple of examples of this would be the war on drugs and terrorism, which we been fighting for over 40 years. If we follow the basic foundations that the Venus Project has layed out we would be a much civilized and much more technologically advanced world. We have been conditioned to think a certain way for thousands of years, we can't think outside the box any more. Change is hard, change is scary, change is radical, but change, real change is necessary.

    Gerhard Adam
    ... can perform around 1 million billion calculations in a second, which is dedicted to climate control. We can duplicate a computer like this and dedicate it to intelligently manage the Earths resources.

    That is meaningless.  One million billion "calculations" or instructions is still simply following a program.  There is no intelligence and I most certainly wouldn't trust anything a human has written/programmed to be unbiased (especially within the context you're describing).
    Never doubt human ingenuity, this can be done easily, we have the technology.
    We have neither the technology nor the ingenuity to solve such a problem in the manner described.  I'm certainly not convinced that your proposal is even if a good idea if we had the means.  It is interesting that you indicate that I shouldn't doubt human ingenuity to build an intelligent machine to manage our resources, but you suggest such a solution because we apparently lack the ingenuity to actually do it ourselves.  In effect, you're arguing that we NEED an outside "master" to impose the rules on us.  In that one statement you've effectively argued that humans will never voluntarily do any of the things you're suggesting.  Instead by using a computer, you're simply exchanging a human leader for a machine in the hopes that a machine will use logic and reason to make the necessary decisions.  However, I would argue that such a situation would be far worse than we currently have to deal with.  Logic and reason rarely work effectively in making "life" decisions and to have a machine "overlord" would simply enslave us all if such a thing were possible.

    If we follow the basic foundations that the Venus Project has layed out we would be a much civilized and much more technologically advanced world.
    No offense, but if pigs had wings, they could fly.  Humans never have and never will follow a set of "instructions" that are intended to determine how they should live.  The church has tried for centuries to get humans to follow only ten of them, with little success.
    Change is hard, change is scary, change is radical, but change, real change is necessary.

    However there is a difference between evolutionary change versus directed change.  There is little doubt that human society and culture will change in the future, however it is highly unlikely that anyone will direct that change, or that anyone has any idea of how it will manifest.
    Mundus vult decipi
    renier van rooyen
    I take liberty in fully endorsing your above comment / posting.
    antunes
    Apparently you haven't kept up the with news-- aliens exist, and as proof, they hacked Voyager 2.  I'm not making this up (someone else is making this up, apparently)
    http://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/news/wacky/have-aliens-hijacked-voyager...

    Enjoy,
    Alex
    Well, even if an intelligent society were to start, get into space, and start broadcasting, it would take incredible technology to notice their radio waves out of the huge waves of the accompanying galaxy. We can hardly see Cepheids in a galaxy 100m light years away, how do we expect to see "Gilligan's Island" coming from their TVs? Heck, I can't even keep my DirecTV going in a thunder storm.

    Nothing similar to a central nervous system exists in life forms on this planet outside the Bilateria.

    Although complex animals exist in great abundance and variety anyone who has given the matter sufficient thought would probably agree with my view that all Bilaterians had a common ancestor, that they came into existence once.

    The likelihood of plants or cnidarians or other cell colonies producing a civilization in the future --- given as much time as anyone can imagine --- is, in my opinion, extremely remote.

    I once read Ernst Mayr's views on the subject. He said that people who are confident that there must be other intelligent life elsewhere in the universe are simply demonstrating their unfamiliarity with the history of life on earth.

    rholley
    The beginning of this article gives me an opportunity to (temporarily) take pole position for childish humour on this site:
    ******************
    ** Time Machine **
    
    A group in the UK invent a Time Machine à la H.G.Wells. They decide to
    get together a group of eminent British scientists to try it out.
    
    They go forward 200 years, and discover that humanity has wiped itself out
    in a high-tech war, along with all the larger animals. Some want to go
    back, but Richard Dawkins suggests going forward millions of years to find
    out if anything has evolved to take our place.
    
    They fast forward in time, and after 50 million years suddenly cities
    appear, followed by aeroplanes. A group of the more young and energetic
    scientists form an expeditionary team and set off to explore.
    
    A few days later they return. As they enter, the leader of the team says
    to Dawkins:
    
    "Richard, you were right! Rats have evolved to make the new people, just
    as you suggested they might in "The Ancestor's Tale".
    
    Dawkins beams, but then the expedition leader continues:
    
    "You won't like this so much (Dawkins frowns): they all believe in God!"
    
    "Oh Rats!" says Dawkins

    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    I don't think that I am the only one who takes the non-contact as proof of intelligent life out there - after all - what do we have to offer any space faring civilization when we're still bogged down in wars and massive pollution of our planet?

    renier van rooyen
    and because that will destroy homo sapiens rather sooner than later and there is nothing worthwhile to offer from our spezies to anyone and never mind about something of extraterrestrial origin.
    - but once we acomplished out extinction / eradication - and maybe what evolves after us, intelligent Lizards, Cockroaches and/or Termites may make a better job of it then we did.
    kerrjac
    I agree with Jeremy on the barrier of distance - environmental manipulations aside, natural mass extinctions may also be enough to prevent species from become advanced enough to travel far enough in space.
    I'm fascinated by the possibility of ET life, but what always frustrates me is the difficulty of making falsifiable hypotheses about it. 
    Amateur Astronomer
    Remembering the fate of Native Americans at the hands of European Explorers, I don't approve of sending notice of our location to any Alien race that is more advanced than us.

    On the other hand I do approve of listening for signals from Alien races.

    I greatly support the concept of sending expeditions to near by stars. For one thing it develops the machinery. Another benefit is the chance to develop better technology of energy supplies for Earth. More important, the nations that explore get a chance to decide what type of revelations they have with Alien races.

    Where are the Aliens? They switched off their transmitters the first time they got one of our radio signals, most likely from the Tesla tower on Long Island. Then they started sending exploration teams to find out what type of creatures Teslas are and why they build such towers.
    Hank
    I always chuckle at the implication that pollution would only happen on our planet and we are intellectually immature to aliens if we have some.    Science and technology advancements often happen by necessity.

    So aliens aren't going to not talk to us because of pollution, they may not know how to talk or have any idea what pollution is.   We may be as exotic to them as they are to us.

    More likely, there are none around and never have been.
    renier van rooyen
    your lines of thought are interesting and make sense to me too. Our society takes iitself far to important for we are not even important and / or useful to our own planet
    Planet Gaia will survive and we are not if we continue on the same path of destruction and ignore harmony with a nature given to us.

    However, I wouldn't go as far as postulating that in our own galaxy are none, and if there are some they are not on our line of thought, technolgy and reasoning.
    It's a sure sign we're guessing when the only two conclusions we can come up with are: a) It's inevitable and b) It's impossible. Truth undoubtedly lies somewhere in between, so let's think some more about the issues. We've learned many things since the 50's when the search for extraterrestrial life began. Most of them, unfortunately, have been negative.

    1) Chemistry.
    THE 50's: Stanley Miller's experiment which sent sparks through a container of methane and ammonia. It created some amino acids and a few other simple organic compounds, making it look like life on Earth-like planets is a piece of cake.
    NOW: The Earth's early atmosphere did NOT consist of methane and ammonia, rather it was nitrogen and carbon dioxide. Also, amino acids by themselves are quite unstable and short-lived, and would have difficulty accumulating to combine further.

    2) Geologic Boundaries.
    THE 50's: Puzzling "unconformities" between rock layers.
    NOW: The preserved record of major catastrophes. Collisions with meteors, comets and asteroids; wide-scale lava eruptions; climate changes caused by the evolution of Earth's atmosphere, and the changing positions of the continents. The biosphere has suffered many setbacks. If one of these had been a little more severe, life could have been wiped out entirely. We've dodged many bullets to get where we are.

    3) Location, location, location.
    THE 50's: Life requires a planet in a stable orbit about a long-lived star within the "habitable zone".
    NOW: A further need for the star to be in a quiet neighborhood, with a reasonably low stellar density and free from meteoroids and nearby novas.

    4) A large Moon. (an extremely rare occurrence)
    THE 50's: Good, because lunar tides help produce local environments conducive to life.
    NOW: Even better, because the collision with a Mars-sized planet that created the Moon also brought with it the necessary large quantities of volatile material such as water.

    5) Aliens.
    THE 50's: Resemble ourselves, since we are an optimal design. Oxygen-breathing, bipedal, communication through sound and light waves. Equipped with flying saucers and ray guns.
    NOW: Non-organic, possibly radically different size. Technology difficult to imagine.

    6) Communication.
    THE 50's: Broadcast radio waves, just right for Arecibo.
    NOW: Optical frequency or higher. Tight beams, point-to-point, almost impossible to detect.

    7) Motivation.
    THE 50's: They come to a) Save the human race or b) Exterminate!
    NOW: Complete indifference

    I think these points may help to explain why intelligent life (or any life) is quite a rare thing, and why we cannot see what little there is of it!

    The aliens are all just living in virtual Matrix type worlds. Would you ever want to get up and go wandering the universe when instead you could be the master of your own? It would be a literal heaven where you could do evreything you've always wanted. I would find the real world a whole lot boring if I stopped living in a virtual world after spending most of my life in one.

    Gerhard Adam
    I would find the real world a whole lot boring if I stopped living in a virtual world after spending most of my life in one.

    That makes no sense in any form.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Once again I can only indorse Gerhard Adams post and comment.
    - and because we know nothing and engage in a purely guessing game - its futile at best!
    * anyone can postulate, wishful thinking mechanisms etc.
    P.S.
    as far as we know we are alone in our Galaxy and if there is something but thousands of LY away from our solar system then this amounts to the same: we do not know!

    What is this page even talking about? Look at our position in the galaxy relative to the center of it. We aren't even an old star system compared to most. Think a little closer to home..... UFOs. The fact that they don't make contact in the way you see it in Hollywood is because this isn't Hollywood. They don't care about your job. Your family. The foods you eat. TV. Politics. No. They are here to assimilate us. That is why they abduct people, to merge our dna. This is how you gain entrance to the "United Federation of Planets." The interesting thing is while I believe UFOs to be Type 2 civlizations, I suspect they work for a Type 3 civilization. There is only one logical place for the Type 3's to reside....supermassive blackhole. Nothing is magic in the universe. Radical physics is possible given sufficident mathematics and power source. It is the Type 3's who use the Type 2's to harvest intelligence from celestrial bodies. This is why they are slowly conditioning us to their existence through many documented encounters.
    It is our fear, ego, arrogance which keep us from seriously investigating the UFO/alien phenomenon.

    renier van rooyen
    According to scientific credibility and reasoning there is to date no scientific proof that UFO'S exist and have been verified except in pseudo science.
    Our elrctromagnetic postings and searches resulted in blancs and not surprising. We simply assume that they, if they are somewhere out there exist then they must/should perform and reasoning as homo sapien sapien. Surely, this assumption is flawed to say the least.
    Bible may have been history of advanced aliens landing on earth many thousnds of years ago from afar off planet. ancient man saw the gods an angels.As where we have much more knowlaqge and understanding today I think they will come again when they think we are ready to recieve him. Come in ufos many will wnat to destroy them.

    So we have two options, 1= aliens died out before being able to make contact and 2=life is so rare that we are alone,
    well how about option 3= goverment coverup, this option is as plausible as the first two options and would open to the idea that our galaxy is teaming with life and if you play the numbers game with the amount of stars in our galaxy then it is almost inevitable that many alien races in our galaxy are advanced enough to travel the galaxy and a few have found earth and come here to observe us, much the same as we do with our satellites, a goverment coverup as a mathematical equation actually has better odds than the first two options.

    Gerhard Adam
    Which government?  Such a simplistic view requires a worldwide conspiracy.  More importantly, governmental secrecy is always a convenient excuse to explain the lack of any evidence.
    Mundus vult decipi
    renier van rooyen
    Yes, which government?
    It is neigh impossible to have a global governmental conspiracy on such a large scale.
    Mr. Adam you have hit the nail on its head and I agree with you.
    Recent UFO sightings by large groups of people.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RjGYSGbAEUM

    Gerhard Adam
    OK ... so why the excitement over what is (by definition) "unidentified"?  Unless, of course, you're alleging something else?
    Mundus vult decipi
    Hank
    He is, indeed.  The actual video he linked has fake aliens (delightfully anthropomorphic, of course - you might recall Michael Shermer's article here on what aliens can teach us about evolution) and a conspiracy to place ET in the highest echelons of the military-industrial complex.
    renier van rooyen
    OK. another sighting of something unidentified and that word means just that and nothing else.
    Often our human conclusions astound me and we make conclusions.
    But were is a scientific proof that this is ET??
    Sorry, this UFO talk makes me smile and nothing more.
    I'm talking to an alien

    Its a lonely business.

    Aliens are pretty scary creatures,

    Where is everyone?

    i think in my own perspective that we are going to have contact with them in person for sure in 143years for now because i made calculations of something that you people are not allow to know from area 51 but i can tell u that you people are going to see and find out yourself soon 3/13/12....

    how can contect

    Where are they? It's all guesses. Oh, and some fantasies.

    I don't have a lot of fancy skills, but one thing I have always been good at is guessing. Thus I am practically an expert on this subject. (Joke.)

    I would guess that the galaxy (and universe) is fairly teeming with the equivalent of bacterial life. That guess corresponds nicely with the history of life on Earth - billions of years of lonely bacteria. I've filled in the blanks on the Drake equation many times, and found what it mainly tests is one's optimism.

    But let's take it for granted there are plenty of technologically sophisticated ET's. Why should they attempt interstellar travel? Maybe guessing's what I'm good at, but blind guessing about xeno-psychology is out of even MY league.

    But I would guess we can probably discard ideas like: They're living in a Matrix. There's a Prime Directive. They're all hiding. They're already here. To me, this is like expecting ETs to be little green men with ray-guns and tesla coil-themed decor. It says something about our culture but nothing about theirs.

    So why aren't they here? Xeno-psychology aside, I'd guess: Distance. Time. Energy. Risk. Same as us. They're probably very far away, getting here would take forever, getting back home would also take forever, it would require enormous amounts of energy, and for all their trouble they might get a flat and fail.

    The one example we have - human colonization of Earth - is probably a bad example. Humans spread mostly because it was easy to walk to the edge of the then-known world and pitch a tent. The closest examples - Columbus or Magellan maybe - are also no good. Human explorers sought resources, but surely no one would travel to another star for gold.

    Forget aliens for a moment. What would motivate HUMANS to attempt interstellar travel? Not just to want to, but to organize it and really do it. I can think of a few. In ascending order by likelihood:
    Curiosity
    Survival of the species
    Vanity
    Survival of a sub-culture
    Instinct

    I put instinct at the top of the list because I suspect that's what might really motivate humans to do it, regardless of what story we told ourselves at the time. I put survival of the species low on the list for several good reasons. Notice I didn't include profit. There's no money in it.

    Here's one more:
    To exchange science, technologies and unique cultural-type information (Vogon poetry maybe) with ET.

    There might be profit in that one - especially for the sedentary trading partner! But good luck gathering venture capital (or political capital) to explore the galaxy hoping to discover a market. And why should ET investors (or stewards of resources) be any less risk-averse?

    So my best guess is:

    They're waiting to be contacted by ET, just like we are! And my best guess is, if they do show up, it will look more like Voyager (the probe) than the Enterprise. Then, even after first contact with a mercantile ET, it will still always be easier to exchange information long distance than to ship it. We might trade with them for a hundred million years without ever meeting each other - without either of us ever expanding beyond our home systems.