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Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Dubious effort to contact aliens, only 99 cents

This caught my eye today:
It links to a story at my long-ago employer Space.com: "New Project Will Send Your Messages to Aliens in Deep Space." Excerpt:
A group of scientists, businessmen and entrepreneurs are tired of waiting around for E.T. to get in touch.
Instead of passively listening for signs of intelligent life in the universe, the Lone Signal project is asking everyone with an Internet connection to help beam messages into outer space in an attempt to make our presence in the universe known.
When Lone Signal goes live late in the day on June 17, it will mark humanity's first-ever attempt to send continuous messaging to extraterrestrial intelligence, officials said.
 And there's a business angle. Excerpt:
The initial text-only message is free, but you can buy an unlimited number of text and photo messages that will be queued up and sent into space, officials said. After the first free communication, a text message costs one credit and a photo message costs three. Four credits can be purchased for $0.99.
CNN also has some coverage.

Me: There's long been a debate about efforts to contact aliens, or "active SETI." Here's what I wrote about it six years ago, reviewing Michael Michaud's book Contact With Alien Civilizations. Note the libertarian strain in my thinking then.
Should humans be sending our own signals to possible listeners out there? To a degree, this already occurs routinely, as radio and television broadcasts, plus military and civilian radar pulses, leak into space; such signals, though, may be too weak to detect at astronomical distances (depending on how sensitive their receivers are). There also have been a few efforts to send more detectable transmissions, as in 1974 when astronomers used the huge Arecibo radio telescope to beam toward a distant star cluster a pictogram showing our solar system, the DNA molecule, a human stick figure, and more.
Michaud is wary of such “active SETI,” noting that its goal is to elicit a reaction from aliens whose capabilities and intentions are unknown. Similar to many in the SETI community, he prefers listening to transmitting; the latter is costlier as well as riskier. Michaud also raises the possibility of requiring international consultations for any transmission above the signal strength of ordinary radio, television, and radar. The need for such regulation is dubious, however, given that active SETI is rare, its recipients may or may not exist, and they might already be getting American Idol and other programs.
Me: Not so confident now that I was right to take a laissez-faire approach to "shouting into the cosmos," as David Brin calls it. But I am confident that worrying about it is beside the point. Whether it's Lone Signal or somebody else, relatively detectable signals are going to get sent, sooner or later. The risks are unknown. The benefits are unknown. I was a bit surprised to find the SETI Institute tweeting about this project with seeming enthusiasm, but it turns out they've long been congenial to active SETI, even without engaging in it themselves. As Brin puts it:
"...the SETI Institute, based in California -- the field's acknowledged lead institution and operator of a dedicated SETI instrument, the Paul Allen Array -- has officially declared that it has no intention of engaging in "Active Seti." However, its leadership has expressed friendly support for these endeavors and -- more importantly -- has acted vigorously to block even mild efforts, through the International Academy of Astronautics, to ask that these groups meet international bodies first, presenting their plans and discussing repercussions, before acting unilaterally to make the Earth vastly more visible across the cosmos.
Me: Won't be participating in Lone Signal. A few more decades of listening and some better thought-out protocols for transmitting are the path I'd prefer. But who knows? Maybe we can help these R'ha aliens get away from the robots that are pursuing them (unless it turns out the robots are the good guys).

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