From the X Files Dept: ET Monoliths -Is the Technology Possible?


The 2001 monolith is a science-fiction icon. It can represent technology, God, alien influence or intense monkey violence, depending on what exactly you got out of Kubrick's masterpiece.  But will we ever see one?

Rather than go to all the bother of developing a hyperintelligent computer probe ourselves, the easiest route is the "Christmas" strategy: just wait for someone to give us what we want.  This assumes the existence of aliens, but let's be honest: nobody involved in the search doubts that for a second.  The fact it's always called a "search" is one clue – the unspoken belief that it's definitely out there and we just have to find it.  You can attribute this to hope, loneliness, or faith; but the most convincing reasons are a combination of the sheer size of the universe and the fact that, it seems highly unlikely it should only happen here.

But why build monoliths at all?  Because of the universe's speed limit: if you can't get to other stars (because you'd be inconveniently dead of old age before you made it one-hundredth of the way), the only other option is to build a robot to go for you.  Should we observe such a probe it would bring good news and bad .  The good – there's an incredibly advanced alien civilization saying "Hi there, we're here!" The bad is them saying  "Yeah, we can't beat the speed of light either.  You're pretty much stuck there."  Rather a mournful picture of the universe, islands of intelligence stranded by the ridiculous distances between them.  As we reported previously, such systems would likely be Bracewell probes – self-replicating systems able to cover as much universe as possible in search of intelligence.  Clarke's monolith never shows any replicative ability, but the sheer number of them in 3001 would be strong evidence that they can.

The thing is: if human scientists waited for other people to do things for them, we'd still be delaying investigations into fire and non-cave habitats.  Many of the onyx-object's capabilities are within sight of our own technology.  Let's look at a few functions, and how close we've got:

1) Computers
If you're sending a computer probe to represent yourself and your entire culture to anyone you meet, it's got to be pretty good – and since our current AIs can still be confused by handwriting, they probably aren't going to cut it.  But if there's one thing we've gotten really good at it's making our own hardware look embarrassingly simple within a couple of years.  One of the holy grails of computer research is an artificial mind capable of doing anything for us – once developed, the new goal will probably be convincing it to keep doing so.  Able to exist indefinitely in hardware and even turn themselves off over extended periods, AIs would be the ideal interplanetary ambassadors – though whether they're representing us or the "Computer Empire 01" remains to be seen.

2) Communications
This one we've already got.  The movie monolith still uses radio emissions to communicate with homebase – albeit incredibly powerful ones.  These take a millennia per round trip, which is why the probe has to be smart enough to function by itself for the ten centuries or so between instructions.  That might seem like a forbiddingly long time to keep a project going, considering the average human can barely maintain a new year's resolution into February, but any species that's out to engineer other societies is probably better at long term goals than us.  Never mind communicating with distant probes – we've been broadcasting with the same level of technology since "I Love Lucy" (though anybody who receives those particular messages might not be too keen to meet us).

In fact, some believe we can do better.  Studies of quantum entanglement raise the possibility of instantaneous communication over unlimited distances – you still have to spend years transporting half of the entangled atoms to far flung locations, but by affecting one you can communicate with the other.  Anywhere.  To say this technology is in its infancy would be to understate how truly blastocystal it is – and many argue that it's still utterly impossible, with every chance of being right.  But as Mr Clarke himself said, claiming anything to be impossible is a very dangerous proposition – and even the attempt is evidence that we're moving beyond the imagination of one of the greatest visionaries of our time.  Go us!

3) Mental interfaces
The infamous final half hour of 2001, also known as "the psychedelingist cinema ever filmed", represents the monolith reading Dave's mind – and yes, we're already working on that.  We've been able to study individual neuron electrical activity for a while, but that's as far from reading thoughts as biting your fingernails is from open-heart surgery.  More sophisticated interfaces are on the way, however, and they aren't all from the cutting edge of neurological research.  They're coming from where the real money is – gaming. Emotiv Systems have already demonstrated a prototype brain scanning headset, and while the games are at the Space Invader level it may only be a matter of time before our fantasies of being totally immersed in cyber-violence are realised.  Though this may indicate we're some time from being ready to talk to aliens instead of shooting at them. Berkeley scientists have also developed a system that can decode what a human is looking at purely by examining brain activity, an impressive decryption of higher level functions.  Though should that person be watching the 2001 hotel room scene, it's likely that while the computer will know what he sees it won't know what the hell is going on either.

4) Stellar engineering

In 2061 the monoliths get together and turn Jupiter into a mini-star. We'll admit, that's just a tiny bit beyond us at the moment – but considering we still can't tell if we've destroyed our own planet with hairspray or not yet, that's probably for the best.

Even more interesting than the monolith hardware is the function, and what it would tell us about the creators.  It takes a pretty admirable culture to build the most advanced device they're capable of, then pretty much throw it away in the hopes of finding something – we can only hope we reach that stage instead of threatening to shoot our own satellites out of the sky.  We have one ability that might raise us to that level – curiosity.  It might kill cats, but it drives us to invent, to learn, to discover new things about ourselves and the world around us (which only rarely involves killing cats.  Rats are pretty buggered though).  It's the one base urge that can be embraced to conquer lust, hate and greed – and one that might just drive us into the grand futures that Arthur C. Clarke envisioned.

We'd probably only try to communicate with any cultures we find, but that's plenty.  The aliens in 2001 were set on steering the evolution of simpler cultures, but considering half our own planet still kill each other over the exact name of their imaginary friend, telling other worlds how to evolve would be scarier than an eight year old coming out of the Louvre with a packet of permanent markers telling people "I fixed the pictures!"

It'll be some time before we're ready to build our own monolith, a fact made obvious by even its basic design.  The enduring image of the monolith is a pure, unmarked blackness – and can you imagine us even launching something without a logo on it

Luke McKinney.


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