New Project to Message Aliens is Both Useless and Potentially Reckless

A group of scientists and entrepreneurs has created the world’s first continuous message beacon to communicate with extraterrestrial civilizations. And for a fee, people can use it to transmit their own messages into space. But not everyone thinks this project is a good idea.

The idea of messaging ETs has been around for a while now, and typically goes by the name METI (Messaging to Extraterrestrial Intelligence) or Active SETI. The basic idea is that, instead of just listening passively for an alien radio signal, we should deliberately try to send messages into space in hopes of attracting the attention of alien civilizations.

To that end, Dr. Jacob Haqq-Misra and a group of entrepreneurs recently took over the Jamesburg Earth Station radio dish in Carmel, California. They’ll use the facility to send a continuous hailing message into outer space. It’ll all get started later this month.

Initially, Lone Signal will target the Gliese 526 star system, which has been identified as a potentially habitable solar system.

“Our scientific goals are to discover sentient beings outside of our solar system,” said Lone Star co-founder Pierre Fabre at a recent event. “But an important part of this project is to get people to look beyond themselves and their differences by thinking about what they would say to a different civilization. Lone Signal will allow people to do that.”

Universe Today reports:

Lone Signal will be sending two signals: one is a continuous wave (CW) signal, a hailing message that sends a slow binary broadcast to provide basic information about Earth and our Solar System using an encoding system created by astrophysicist and planetary scientist Michael W. Busch. The binary code is based on mathematical “first principles” which reflect established laws that, theoretically, are relatively constant throughout the universe; things like gravity and the structure of the hydrogen atom, etc.

“This hailing message is a language we think could be used to instigate communication,” said Haqq-Misra, “and is the most advanced binary coding currently in use.”

The second signal, embedded in the first signal, will be messages from the people of Earth.

After the first free message, customers can purchase paid credit packages that will allow them to transmit and share longer messages, including images. The price structure looks like this:

  • $0.99 buys 4 credits
  • $4.99 buys 40 credits
  • $19.99 buys 400 credits
  • $99.99 buys 4000 credits

This is the perfect opportunity for people who don’t like their money.

But more to the point, a number of thinkers have expressed concerns about METI and the potential risks of attracting unwanted alien attention. I’m one of them.

But Haqq-Misra doesn’t buy it, saying that the benefits outweigh the potential hazards. And conveniently, he and his team recently published a paper saying as much. I recently reported on this paper here at io9 and gave it a less than flattering review.

In an email to me, David Brin had this to say about Haqq-Misra’s “risk analysis”:

[Haqq-Misra et al] then dive into the worst part of the paper, a razzle-dazzle arm-waving of "risk factors" that bear no relationship to the way the science of risk analysis operates, conjuring inputs out of thin air and then declaring or "positing" that the likely good outweighs any calculation of possible bad outcomes. This exercise was too grimly awful to even be amusing, especially since the "dissidents" in the SETI community, including John Billingham, Michael Michaud and myself, have not asked for a ban on transmissions from Earth, only widespread and eclectic collegial discussion of this issue, with inputs by experts who actually know about the many and varied risk factors involved.

Reiterating, the thing we have asked for is a wider discussion, beyond the insular community of SETI fans and a few dozen radio astronomers, of a matter that could have great bearing on the success — and even survival — of our descendants. We seek a vast and fascinating exchange, bringing together the planet's best minds to enthrall the public with open deliberation of all factors. Those who refuse such discussion — shrugging aside any need or moral obligation to consult the rest of us — are the ones practicing censorship. They are the ones engaging in reckless assumptions, willing to wager our posterity on a few "posits" on the back of an envelope.

And indeed, as Brin aptly points out, the larger issue here is that Haqq-Misra and his colleagues are acting completely unilaterally. No one has given them permission to do this, nor have they consulted the larger community.

In all likelihood, our messages will never reach the ears of an alien civilization. The Fermi Paradox suggests that no one’s out there, and no one cares. Indeed, if an advanced ETI really wanted to make contact, they would have done so by now using such schemes as self-replicating Bracewell communication probes.

But it’s the shouting out in the cosmos aspect that’s the real issue here. We simply do not know the risks. Consequently, we should take great care when embarking upon projects such as this. Like Brin has suggested, this should be the part of a much broader conversation, and not some silly exercise intended to make a bit of money.

For the time being, we should probably exercise the precautionary principle. As I wrote back in 2007:

Since no one is listening, there is no harm in not sending messages out into the cosmos. Again, if a friendly ETI wanted to do a meet-and-greet, they should have no trouble finding us. But because there is the slim chance that we may alert a local berserker (or something unknown), we should probably refrain from the METI approach for the time being.


Then again, why would aliens come all this way just to invade Earth?

Image: Zerogees.