Decoding Alien Intelligence 2018: Reflection on the SETI Institute Workshop

Depending on how you count it, this is either my first conference attendance or my fourth. Either way, it’s the first one at which I had a place as a speaker, allotted the same amount of time as some of the biggest names in the field (Jill Tarter, Frank Drake, Seth Shostak, etc.).

This post will be scattershot, because I have too many thoughts to get down without this becoming a novel. Overall impressions, though: I learned so much, my talk went well, and I met many important and interesting people. The atmosphere of the conference suggested that it went better than the organizers and participants dreamed that it would. Some of the discussions that arose naturally (about, for example, post-biological life or the role of science fiction in SETI) were fascinating and complex. The interdisciplinary angle was really rewarding and I saw firsthand the value of including all of these disparate fields in SETI. With the exception of ~4 talks that I just didn’t buy the premise of, I thought that the ideas brought forward were valuable and I very much enjoyed the experience of attending an event where so many of the talks were outside of my own area of expertise.

I Heard a Lot of Terms That Are Not In Our Terminology (aka. Why Defining a Standard Terminology Is Desirable)

  1. I became more convinced of the necessity of my own talk by going to this conference. Everyone uses different words! Just look at the list below for a small sample. It’s honestly a mess.
  2. Some assorted interesting terms I heard at the conference… SETT, SETB, Multi-Dimensional Haystack, Techno-signatures, Spiritual, Interstellar Archaeology, Artificial, CETI…
  3. Modifications
    1. “Artificial” is a word we will have to define – turns out it’s ubiquitous, contentious, and tough to pin down
    2. Jill Tarter suggested that CETI be given a place in the taxonomy – I think this is a fair point, as it is functionally distinct from METI
    3. The word “civilization” was in virtually every talk, in the way that we wanted to use “ETI” – that one might be a losing battle. I even found myself falling prey to that usage! It might be too ingrained at this point to change.
    4. Michael Garrett suggested that perhaps “Schelling Points” is too unfamiliar to the field, and too Western, and an alternative might be better

Random Factoids I Learned

  • Exoplanets are part of the Mormon doctrine, and Jake Garn, a Mormon senator from Utah, defended the existence of SETI to Congress back in 1993
  • Menzerath’s Linguistic Law: Many applications and a mathematical formula (!), but essentially, the longer your sentence, the smaller the individual words that comprise it
  • There’s a Rosetta Disk on comet 67P! Talk about artifacts…
  • You can see the results of the Columbian Exchange in the Earth’s climate history: the rapid, large-scale death of so many people caused fields all over the Americas to fall fallow, causing a detectable CO2 signature
  • Paul Davies first heard of the term “technosignature” from Sara Walker

Ideas I’m Mulling Over

  • Ephraim Fischbach’s idea that neutrinos may drive decay rates in radioactive isotopes and thus these isotopes can be used as directional neutrino detectors. Would be very cool if it works, seems contentious. Potential applications include a study of interior solar activity, solar flare detection (the neutrinos seem to precede solar activity by about forty hours), a neutrino survey of the night sky, or maybe a communication SETI search for direct “prime number”y messages, or even a biosignature search for species that get their energy via fusion/fission
  • Terrence Deacon’s statement that natural languages come about via a process subject to several overlapping constraints. Many of these constraints could vary immensely in an extraterrestrial intelligence (environmental factors that shape language, for example), but semiotic constraints (having to do with syntax and grammar) are universal, and will not vary across languages
  • Mary Lee Jenswold’s argument that chimpanzees are very intelligent, based on their facility with sign language. At a few years of age, their vocabularies, grammar, number of utterances, and responses to questions are comparable to human children of the same age. They continue to sign into adulthood, teach their children the language, and talk among themselves. In addition, they understand more tacit rhythms of human conversation: they imitate, take turns speaking, shift eye gaze when they are the speaker, adjust their statements when misunderstood, and speak differently to various speakers.

Media I Heard Referenced That I Want to Consume

  • Edmondson and Stevens (2003) – The Utilization of Pulsars as SETI Beacons – paper
  • “One Strange Rock” – documentary, comes out March 26th [Update: Have seen the first episode, and it’s awesome!]
  • Turchin et al. (2017) – Quantitative historical analysis uncovers a single dimension of complexity that structures global variation in human social organization – paper
  • Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life – Peter Godfrey-Smith – book
  • Zipf (1949) – Human Behaviour and the Principle of Least Effort – paper
  • Our Final Hour – Martin Rees – book
  • The Future of Life – EO Wilson – book
  • Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion – Stuart Kauffman – book

Things I Think the SETI Community Should Do

  • Have a central place (website?) determined by a group of people (committee?) for terminology – I was asked about this a lot
  • Get the literature in order! Have a central place, with tags and searchability, for all explicitly SETI papers (Alan is being awesome and working on this as we speak)
  • Create a searchable list of previous “candidate” signals, a thorough but public-level description of them, and their Rio Scale 2.0 assignments
  • Get a major article out to the public (NYT, The Atlantic?) about how dire the funding situation is for SETI, and stress that the search for extraterrestrial intelligence has not gotten a single cent from the government since 1993 (I would suspect that most people assume that SETI gets government funding). A large enough public uproar (#FundSETI ?) could maybe force NASA’s hand
  • Have a central mailing list or address book or organization (the Federation?) for SETI scientists all over the world, regardless of field or affiliation with SI, BL, etc.

People I’d Like to Follow Up With

  • David Raggozine – wants to submit proposal to look for weird transit signatures (residuals a la Arnold 2005, laser modified transits, megastructures, etc.) to test the NASA Astrobiology call wording. Jill Tarter was in favour of a submission in order to force them to take a stand. I want to get in touch with him, as Jason and I were thinking the same thing
  • Michael Oman-Reagan – I owe him an interview about my own experiences in the field, probably over Skype/phone sometime in the next few weeks
  • Graham Mcintosh – Talk was about using AI/machine learning to look for anomalies in astronomical datasets and challenging the scientific community with them. I’m interested in both his proposed search for these anomalies (already existing datasets! outside the box! hasn’t already been done! cheap-ish!), and creating a list of exotica – idea came up multiple times already. Maybe contact him about proposing and trying this with a single dataset as a proof of concept, (could even tie in with suggestion to David Raggozine?) then, if successful, pitching to SI?
  • Frank Drake – as a question after my talk, he suggested putting together a committee to codify and modify the taxonomy – something to follow up on!