Stephen Hawking: A brief examination of the recent warning over alien civilizations

Stephen Hawking asserts that while aliens almost certainly exist, humans should avoid making contact.

The original story published by BBC News can be found here.

He claims: “We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet.”

Stephen Hawking recent assertion looks like an interesting time to bring up the question of intelligent life, meaning and purpose.

Let’s examine what Hawking’s argument implies, assuming that intelligent life, other than human, exists elsewhere in the universe:

1. Aliens come from an Earth-like planet.
2. The Earth has something the aliens do not.
3. The Earth has something aliens need or want.

Each point may be not necessarily independent of each other, each may be chained or added to the other. Point 2 may imply Point 1. However, Earth-like planets are likely to be quite common, as the current research on exoplanets seems to suggest. While Point 1 is chauvinistic, Point 3–the notion that Earth possesses something special– is egocentric. Concerning Point 2 again: as a sort of example, many cities on Earth are in need of potable water. Does that mean they can just go looking for it in another city?

If we think that aliens are looking for a planet with an atmosphere like ours, we are already making a very strong assumption that requires further support. To assume that their planet has the same atmosphere as ours and that they would consequently need a planet exactly like it, is to make a strong claim–and a highly implausible one at that. We may think that water is the most precious element in the universe, but it might just be lethal to an alien civilization. If it is true that we can only imagine them in the basis of the kind of life and it diversity on Earth, it is also true that we know nothing about them, if they really do exist.

If humans find life elsewhere, and if it is not related to Earth’s life, it is likely to be unrecognizable. After all we have experience of a very large range of life forms here on Earth, and we find some of them already alien enough. “Extremophiles” is the name we give to Earth species that can survive in places that would quickly kill humans and other “normal” life-forms.

As for needing a work force, it doesn’t make sense that aliens would seek it here. Humans are highly unproductive. And aliens with the technological capabilities to travel to Earth are likely to have had long experience building the kinds of machines that humans have only recently got around to building and improving. Advanced intelligent aliens most likely make extensive use of robots, if they are not some kind of cybernetic beings themselves.

Though assuming that aliens and humans are alike in their biochemical constitution may be chauvinistic and misguided, the supposition that our intelligences are similar has a more solid basis, especially since we also assume that the alien civilization in question has built spaceships, travels in space and is looking for other civilizations. According to Stephen Wolfram’s Principle of Computational Equivalence (PCE), there is a good chance that if non-trivial life forms exist they will have or develop the same degree of sophistication (e.g. intelligence) than ours. Wolfram’s PCE would also suggest that once primitive life has developed it will eventually achieve its maximal degree of sophistication, which would be the maximal possible degree of sophistication. In other words, if life is around, intelligent life is as likely as life.

We used to say that aliens are likely to be much more advanced than humans. Why so? Because the universe has a 15 billion year history. Characterizing a civilization that has been around for about 2 million years and has only begun developing technology in the last few hundred as ‘advanced’ is beyond naive, it is statistically implausible. As Carl Sagan pointed out, every intelligent civilization seems to reach a period when its own technological power is capable of destroying itself. This is the stage which human civilization reached about 70 years ago (and still is), with the invention of atomic bombs. The longevity of said aliens’ civilization means that they have managed to make good use of the resources of their host planet. Even assuming they have reached the point where they have exhausted their resources, we have to concede that they have probably been good, ecologically responsible stewards of their planet. Of course it is still possible, despite all this, that these aliens may wish to colonize a new planet in order to exploit its resources rather than simply seizing what they find and taking it away with them.

Water is one of the most common elements in the universe, or it is quiet easy to synthesize it (see the chemical recipe here). If they just need a rock revolving around a star at a distance such that life can be sustained, there are certainly many more possibilities than coming to Earth. Think about it. The human civilization is much closer to achieving the terraformation of Mars (reengineering Mars soil and atmosphere to make it Earth-life friendly), given its current and near future capabilities than traveling abroad to conquer, if not cohabit with another civilization.

Now, from a practical standpoint, the notion that we could hide away in a corner of the universe is nonsense, to say the least, if we are not somehow already hidden due to the size of the universe itself. The Earth has been broadcasting to space since radio signals were invented. Messages have been kept symbolical on purpose. So in the worst case scenario, assuming Hawking is right and our signals are likely to be picked up by an alien civilization willing to take us on, hiding is just rubbish because we can’t. As Seth Shostak says, the first thing to do would be to shut down the BBC, NBC, CBS and the radars at all airports. Not unless we install a kind of Dyson sphere around the Earth or stop broadcasting altogether. Now, the only way to make sense out of Hawking particular comment in this regard, is taking into consideration time scales. If it is true that Earth has been broadcasting to the space during the last 50 or more years, it is also true that someday in the future it may reach a technological state that allows it to avoid, purposely or not, doing so. So it may be the case that civilizations decide to hide themselves after a short period of broadcasting history.

The advice to hide from aliens implies of course that they are destructive, or that the contact between our civilizations may be destructive, and this brings us back to the question of their longevity. If they were indeed destructive they would have annihilated themselves. As Hawking does right, consider the human case.

But if Hawking is right, we would probably have nothing to be scared of. If an alien civilization wants us dead we will either barely notice it when that happens or that won’t ever happen if it hasn’t happened already. The chances of a destructive civilization to exist seem lower than the chances of a pacific civilization to extend their existence time period in the universe history. The former would have likely already destroyed itself while the latter may have better chances. Caution would not hurt though. We ought to keep an eye on ourselves and how we develop, and that means using our resources more intelligently and not necessarily manufacturing more bombs. But being scared definitely says much more about us than anyone else because we simply know nothing about them, nor we can pretend to know what are their intentions, if any.

But of course in the matter of encounters between civilizations in space, every possibility is time-scale dependent. Imagine for an instant that two alien civilizations are at war. We would certainly be well advised to keep away from the conflict. We may be justified in thinking that if we were in the way when either of the parties ran short of resources to prosecute their war, they would most likely help themselves to anything we had that could be of use. But think a little further. The odds of encountering two civilizations actually engaged in warfare are rather small.

Civilizations making war would either annihilate each other, or if they don’t, then one party would end up achieving hegemonic status. It would seem logical that periods of peace are much longer than periods of war. In the first place civilizations that contemplate war must be both smart enough and hostile enough, and reaching these thresholds of achievement and antagonism takes time–peacetime.

As Hawking claims, many of the life forms in the universe are probably just microbes, but unlike Hawking I believe that if civilizations do exist they’d have little time to make war, even assuming they wanted to. Once again, one has only to think of the Earth to reach this conclusion. If the Cold War had not remained cold, we either wouldn’t be here or else we’d all now be ruled by a single country–as has been pretty much the case (despite there being no actual war) over the last few decades, with the emergence of a current single superpower (with a partial sharing of the global power, and other powers emerging). But when superpowers emerge these days, they are more interested in keeping the peace because they have reached a stage where they depend on each other, chiefly because trade and commerce have become globalized. It turns out that the human world has become much more cooperative than we might have expected. But this is not by chance; it seems to be a common path. Not that one can be absolutely certain, though. Only by witnessing other civilizations could we safely make generalizations. And yet logic dictates that the opposite path–the path of belligerence–would be unlikely.

What I think is that if civilizations were to find each other they are more likely to be interested in each other’s culture and knowledge, than in each other’s natural resources–either because natural resources can be found in many places, or even created by civilizations that are sufficiently advanced, or else because they are simply not needed, curiosity about the universe being the sole motive behind exploration. Which would mean that civilizations would preserve ‘alien’ civilizations to enrich themselves, just as anthropologists and ethnologists do on Earth. To make my point in terms of Hawking, aliens are more likely to be like modern scientists than like the barbaric Europeans who colonized the Americas.

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